People tell me all the time that they haven’t tried yoga because they’re so inflexible. I don’t blame those people for thinking that yoga is about tying yourself in knot or touching your toes to your head from all directions - those are the images that have made yoga famous.
There is nothing wrong with working towards goals of aesthetic success, and no doubt that extreme flexibility is impressive. But the distinction must be made between practicing for performance, and practicing for health. Elite athletes train their bodies to adapt to the specific needs of their sport, and yoga practitioners who treat yoga as a sport do exactly the same thing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that - I myself enjoy progressing towards advanced poses and relish in the empowerment of achieving performance goals. But yoga isn’t simply a sport; it is also a therapeutic system that can help the average person improve the quality of their lives by reducing chronic pain and stress, rehabilitating injuries, and promoting recovery and mental clarity.
Yes, stretching can be part of yoga practice, but not everyone needs to stretch - even if you feel tight. Tightness can be caused by weakness, tissue trauma, or even emotional stress, so continually prying open your hips and hamstrings (as so many yoga classes love to do) may be causing more damage.
The body actually needs tension. We need tone to negotiate with gravity and to be ready to react to what the world throws at us. If we continually stretch a certain part of the body, that tension will be sent to another part as compensation. In some cases, those same muscles that you’re tearing open may even seize up more than before as a defensive mechanism against the self-inflicted violence!
To improve mobility, we need to develop strength through range of motion. That means you need to be able to take yourself into and out of that end range. Yanking your toes to your head or dropping down into the splits is using external forces to lengthen that part of the body, and can end up de-sensitising the intelligent sensors that have been on-guard to protect you against these vulnerable positions. Not only that, but you may start stretching into your ligaments - the strong tissue that holds bones together at the joint.
That being said, some people do need a good old passive stretch - you just need to be mindful of your unique circumstances and goals.
Everyone’s imbalances are completely unique. They’ve been developing since we were in the womb, so there are a myriad of influences that affect the way our bodies have adapted, from past experience to our current workday demands. Group classes are therefore inherently inadequate in terms of addressing the root cause of our aches and pains, even though the shared experience of a group class certainly has its own benefits. If you’ve got a specific performance goal or issue, private coaching with a professional that has an understanding and genuine curiosity about how your body can heal is a far more effective way to address your goals and expect lasting results (yes, this has all been for a shameless plug for my services :)).