Updated: Dec 13, 2020
Recently, a student told me they were embarrassed about how inflexible they were in their hips. It’s not the first time a student has shamed themselves to me about their lack of hip flexibility.
I have heard people say, “I’m bad at yoga, because my hamstrings are so tight” as if flexible and yoga were synonymous terms.
These brief conversations have made me curious about the emphasis the modern American yoga tradition places on flexibility, particularly in the hips. In discussing the emphasis on open hips with other yogis, the point was made that Indian yogis had practiced the extreme hip opening shapes found in yoga beginning in childhood, and that they continued to benefit from this fact as adults. These men set the standard for flexibility when it first came to the west.
Bones are shaped by genetics and muscular action
When we are children our bones are still forming at what is called, an epiphyseal plate. Basically, the epiphyseal plate is an area where a cartilage framework is being hardened into bone by tiny, miraculous cells called osteoblasts (they sure have a blast making bone!). Our bones are shaped by many factors. Their framework is determined by our genetics, and the muscles that are attached to the bones shape them every time we move or engage. Therefore, to some degree, our practices as children can lead to more open hips. If we begin yoga as adults, it is fair to expect our practice to meet us where we are at, instead of mimicking that of the ancient yogis.
Accepting our limits without judgement can be a challenge
Yoga is undoubtedly a physical practice. We work at the edges of our limitations in order to improve our posture, our flexibility and our strength. Finding a limitation within the body does not mean the goal becomes to blow past it. For the American mind, set on achievement and entrenched in comparison, the more challenging goal is to accept the limitation without judgement.
The koshas offer other avenues for personal growth
Yoga is also a breathing practice, a mindfulness practice and an energetic practice. In yogic thought, there are five koshas (or sheaths) that make up our experience. They are the physical sheath (Annamaya kosha), the energetic sheath (Pranamaya kosha), the mental sheath (Manomaya kosha), the intuitive sheath (Vijnanamaya kosha) and the sheath of innate wellbeing (Anandamaya kosha). In turning our attention to these other sheaths we find a lifetime of growth opportunities, none of which require open hips in order to be transformed. In other words, hurting yourself to be flexible is completely unnecessary in order to grow as a person.
Yoga is about transforming the whole person
It breaks my heart to hear people shaming themselves for their physical limitations. They see themselves as someone who “isn’t good at yoga,” and what I see is a committed and courageous person showing up on their mat week after week. I see their body awareness and felt sense of self growing. This is yoga. This is a transformation that has nothing to do with range of motion in a joint, and everything to do with empowerment and skill in relating to oneself and the world.
Yoga has a practice for every body
You don’t need open hips to have a strong practice that provides strength, ease, poise and skill in life. These things should not be predicated on open hips, or loose hamstrings or the perfect downward facing dog. These are the birthright of every person regardless of mobility, and the great thing about yoga is that there is a practice for every body.