Yoga, the self, and the selfie (part 3): the beauty and peril of flexibility

Among the comments I mentioned in part 1a, a commenter noted that yoga (or yoga poses) on Instagram are overwhelmingly deep backbends and arm balances, poses that certainly require a great deal of discipline, but also (especially in the case of the backbends) an unusually broad range of motion, a level of mobility that is moving close to the extreme range of human flexibility.  Another poster pointed out that this is not an Instagram phenomenon, this is the norm in yoga culture at large. A little digging around would seem to bear this out.  I examined this month’s issues the two largest yoga magazines, Yoga Journal and Mantra Yoga and Health, and a disproportionate number of the photos were of yogis in deep backbends- dancer, king pigeon, a deep wheel variation, etc.  For instance, in a three page spread of “NJ Mantra Ambassadors” by renowned photographer Robert Sturman, almost half of the photos were of yoginis in a deep backbend.  By contrast, in a Baptiste power class, one of the most back-bendy of the mainline yoga systems in America, you would do at most five deep backbends, and they certainly wouldn’t take up 50% of a class.  (I’ll go into some detail on how I reached these conclusions in an accompanying post, along with some other thoughts on spending time with these yoga mags.)  At the two largest studios in Boston proper, if a teacher has an “action shot” on the studio’s webpage, there’s an almost 65% chance it will be in a deep backbend.

Aesthetically, this makes sense- backbends are dramatic, and expressive, and pretty to look at.  Tree pose, while a big accomplishment for many practitioners, doesn’t have the same wow factor.  And there is something to be said about the discipline that it takes to get something like scorpion pose consistently enough to photograph it comfortable.  I bow to these practitioners dedication. BUT, (you knew that was coming), this celebration of tremendous flexibility has its downsides, which we as a yoga community are only starting to come to grips with.  Specifically:

1. Not everyone has the bone structure to do those kinds of backbends.  Different bodies are built with different bone structures, which accommodate different backbends.  Paul Grilley, the noted Yin teacher, has done and documented substantial work in this area.  (please note, this is not an endorsement of Mr. Grilley’s teaching.  I am grateful for his documentation, but I- and I’m not alone- draw very different conclusions from this data than he does, especially about the risks and benefits of long hold, “Yin” style passive static stretching.  But that’s another post…)

I could work diligently through the Astanga system for years and years, the way Kino McGregor and other notable Astanga teachers do, and I would never, NEVER have their backbend.  I would have a deeper backbend almost certainly, but my spine will simply never do that; it’s not built that way.  In fact, I spent quite a bit of time earlier in my career trying to do those kinds of drop backs and camel to kapotasana sequences, and my reward was low back pain and a lot of loud noises during class*.  I had to rebuild my backbending practice pretty much from scratch, and learn to be okay with the fact that if I want to walk, never mind practice without pain into my 50s, or 80s perhaps pursuing full chakrasana is not the best use of my time on the mat.

2. As my teacher Jill Miller blogged about, and Matthew Remski emphasized in a recent “What are we Doing” post, for some bodies this tremendous emphasis on flexibility can have dire consequences.  An excess of mobility can negatively affect the body’s stability, which can lead to injury as surely as being stiff as a board can. Most bodies that can backbend don’t need that kind of practice- that flexibility is a given, and a well-rounded practice will emphasize work that stabilizes that natural flexibility.  (As a teacher, this was driven home for me when I started to see a handful of dancers from Boston Ballet come to my classes.  Deep backbends were so easy for them, but holding a plank, not so much.  I tried to emphasize the latter kind of work with them.)

So if we as a yoga community model present yoga as primarily a deep back bending practice, do we risk celebrating something that the bendy really don’t need, and that the less bendy- for whom claiming or reclaiming flexibility would be a huge positive- are put off because “I can’t do THAT!”  And is that really what we want?

3. Think about what flexibility means to someone who could give two hoots about yoga.  In a work environment, in a parenting situation, to be flexible is to try to do more in less time, or do multiple things at once.  To multitask.  Especially- not exclusively, but especially- if you are a woman. When I was lived in New York, I made much of my living as a secretary, the rare man in that job, and believe me I was most valuable to my employer when I was (seemingly) doing three things at once, well.  (I was bullshitting in most of these situations, but they rarely caught on. Or they didn’t say anything)  My worst sin at most of these jobs wasn’t doing something wrong, it was not looking busy.  I actually started to believe it was the norm, so I’d try to do three of their things, and then add my own shit- booking gigs, managing relationships, etc- on the job, which rarely worked out for me or my boss.  I do my damnedest not do that anymore.  (The joys of self-employment…)  And what research we have on multitasking suggests that if we try to do too many things at once, we end up doing all of our tasks badly.

Looking back, if I’d wanted to stay in that environment for the long term, I didn’t need to get more flexible, I needed the confidence and discernment to know when to hold my ground.  And my yoga practice HAS been a powerful tool in my life for building those qualities.  I’m just not sure the best visual expression of these qualities would be dropping back into wheel.

(Aside- I shudder to think about what a spin class means in this line of analysis…)

If we as a yoga community emphasize flexibility over strength and stability, and I believe we do, are we encouraging a practitioner who is just bendy enough to be walked all over, rather than standing their ground?  Is it a good thing to be a more flexible employee if it means doing 125% of the work you used to do because the company downsized?  Are you accommodating of others, especially superiors or relationship partners, at the expense of your own well-being?  (A theme coming up constantly in Remski’s “WAWADIA” project in yoga teacher/student relationships.)   Maybe I’m overthinking this, and we just show lots of backbends because they really are beautiful to look at.  But I know many, many yoga teachers who started to teach (and in many cases open studios and led teacher trainings), like myself did so partly because we do think that yoga can make the world a better place.  Not to help mold a better office tron.

*  Thankfully, through some careful anatomical study and a lot of solid teaching, I have learned to deepen my backbend without compromising my lumbar spine. (And I’m very lucky to study in Boston where many teachers, from Barbara Benagh to Todd Skogland to Ame Wren to Peter Crowley and several others I’m forgetting- and me- are trying to forge better ways for more bodies to enjoy and benefit from a safe, deep back bending practice.)

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