By Jennipher Walters
With all of the bends, twists and poses that work your body into a human pretzel, yoga is certainly a form of exercise that stretches you out. Yoga can improve flexibility, increase range of motion and just make you feel longer and leaner. But if you're someone who gets discouraged because you can barely touch your toes without bending your knees no matter how many sessions of yoga you do, take heed. Yoga is about much, much more than flexibility.
In fact, being super stretchy doesn't make you "better" at yoga at all.
"The biggest misconception is that one must be 'naturally' flexible to practice yoga," says Ingrid Yang a yoga expert located in Chicago and co-author of Hatha Yoga Asanas, which will be released this month. " But that is why there are so many different varieties of yoga. "
For example, Yang says that the style Iyengar is a great alignment-based practice for those that are seeking to gain flexibility. Ashtanga may be a practice for those students that already come to yoga with a more flexible body type. Kundalini works with energy and focuses less on the physical aspects of yoga and more on the spiritual philosophies. Restorative is another type of yoga that is gentle and is meant to relax and soothe.
"There are at least a dozen more styles of yoga I could mention, but the point is that the brilliance of yoga is that it is for everyone because each person can find a style of yoga that fits his/her body type and his/her individual needs," Yang says.
And many forms of yoga regularly use props like blocks, straps, bolsters, sandbags, wedges, yoga walls and even partners to help yoga students of all flexibility levels. While many people shy away from props because they think it says something about their inflexibility or inadequacy, Yang says that props are actually tools that are meant to be used.
"Your toothbrush is a tool; do you consider not using it because it makes you seem like a wimp? Like you're too good for gum disease? Same thing," she says. "Almost everyone needs a block under their hand to properly get into Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose). For those that can't touch their toes in Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold), they can use a strap. They will still be getting the benefits of the hamstring stretch while keeping their back safe."
Furthermore, yoga isn't always a sure-fire way to turn an inflexible person into a naturaly flexible one. While doing yoga regularly — two to three times a week for a few months — can result in increased flexibility, it doesn't always, Yang says.
"In terms of flexibility, it is indeed likely they will be able to stretch further, but it is not necessarily so," she says. "It depends on what type of yoga they have been practicing, their inherent anatomy and their past practices. If they had already been stretching to their limits in other exercises, there may not be much further for them to go."
However, yoga is a unique exercise because it stretches so many muscles in so many different ways that are not typical in everyday life or other activities, Yang says.
"And when we stretch muscles in new and interesting ways, they will adapt by becoming more flexible in those ways," she says. "As a result, a person will find more flexibility in ways that they never imagined, and likely feel more open in their bodies and strong in their musculature.
Not to mention that doing yoga regularly brings a sense of calm and well-being, focus, contentment and a boost of fitness. To that point, the best way to judge your progress in yoga is to ask how you feel about yourself and to look beyond the obvious outward levels of progression.
"Maybe you can't backbend perfectly in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), but does your heart feel more open and can you breath in more easily when you lift up into that backbend?" she asks. "That is the best way to track your progress. If you feel better practicing yoga and find more ease in each subsequent session, then you are likely understanding the significance and gaining the most out of your yoga practice."
And remember, yoga is not a destination. Rather, it's a journey. They don't call it a "yoga practice" for nothing.
"The beauty of yoga is that the aim is not to meet an end-goal, but to set the intention to simply show up, get on your mat, and be there — aware, awake and present," Yang says.
Jennipher Walters is the CEO and co-founder of the healthy living websites FitBottomedGirls.com and FitBottomedMamas.com. A certified personal trainer, lifestyle and weight management coach and group exercise instructor, she also holds an MA in health journalism and regularly writes about all things fitness and wellness for various online publications.