We’re the first people to evangelise about the wonders of stretch, and not only when it comes to clothing but for our bodies too. Stretching helps keep the body supple, encourages a better posture, maintains lubrication in the joints, and improves muscular coordination and blood and lymph flow. Whilst stretching of some sort (whether practiced as a part of yoga, martial arts, pilates, or in any other form) will undoubtedly improve energy levels and encourage detoxification, the mathematics of ‘more makes for more’ does not apply.
Yoga is often thought of as a stretching exercise and it would seem therefore that being flexible is where the health benefits of yoga lies. During my early years as a yoga student my practice was very much about becoming flexible, it seemed to me that once I could achieve the weird and wonderful yoga postures or asana I would become privy to the incredible health (and spiritual) benefits elucidated in the ancient texts.
I did eventually attain many of those postures but it wasn’t long however before I began to suffer from an increasing number of aches and pains in my joints and specifically in my knees and hips. Clearly something was not right, I was not feeling the bliss.
During that same time I met several yogis, both in India and from the States, who were well into their eighties and yet had a vibrancy and mobility about them that is rare in people of their age. They seemed to have been able to tap into the ancient yoga wisdom in ways that exceeded that of my flexible peers. We had something to learn from them.
The first was a yogi from Dharamsala in North India who was able to move from a seated posture called Dandasana to a handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana) and back again without touching the floor. Another was an inspiring Iyengar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iyengar_Yoga) yoga teacher who, at the age of eighty-five, demonstrated challenging arm balances with astounding ease and dexterity – it’s nice too to note that she was a regular school-run mom living in Texas, USA when she started practicing yoga – proof of the body’s ability to retain its suppleness.
What I found most interesting in meeting these inspiring practitioners is that they were not only flexible but they were also incredibly strong, much stronger than I was. I learned through them that with every stretch there needed to be an equal amount, or more, strength.
When I look for the ultimate yoga pants, I look for fabric that has a certain amount of stretch but also a snug strength so that they don’t sag permanently around the knees. Our bodies are in some respects very much the same. The body demands a certain amount of cohesion and firmness in the joints in order to function optimally.
It took me six months and consistent and very rewarding practice to heal my aches and pains but, through these older and more experienced teachers, I learned to slow my practice down and to move with much greater awareness and I learned that ultimately the real and long-term health benefits of yoga come not solely from the stretch or the strength but from the sense of awareness and stillness developed in working to simultaneously balance both.
So, as you fold forward into your next (or first ever) standing forward bend (Uttanasana), whether you can touch your toes or not is really not of the greatest importance, it’s the focus on keeping your legs strong and aligned, your abdomen firm and lifted and, in equal measure, your spine, head and neck gentle, long and relaxed that will allow you to find the greater sense of balance, health and vitality that yoga (and stretching) promises to provide.
Kate Towsey, a London-based yoga teacher, has spent the past twelve years studying and teaching yoga around the world. She is joining the Lovestretch blog to offer her insights into the importance of finding balance between flexibility and strength.