Only a small number of people are naturally flexible and being flexible is certainly not a prerequisite to practising yoga. Yoga can help improve flexibility if practised regularly; however this isn’t necessarily the goal – although it is certainly a reason people want to take up yoga. Flexibility is generally understood to mean having a full range of movement of joints and muscles, and is perceived to represent the opposite of feeling stiff or in pain – hence the idea that yoga can help us move away from aches and pains through becoming more flexible is certainly very appealing.
However, mobility, strength and balance are equally, if not more important than pure flexibility. Relying on intrinsic flexibility without having the strength and mobility to support this can result in injury. There is increasing evidence, even in athletes and dancers, which confirms that long static stretches pre and post exercise do not reduce the incidence of post-exercise muscle soreness and can actually increase the risk of injury. It is therefore essential in yoga that we use this knowledge to ensure that we are practising safely.
The strength, mobility and balance that are needed to accompany flexibility will develop with a regular and consistent asana practice. However, given that yoga is far more than a physical practice, it is possible to be a very experienced and dedicated student of yoga without being particularly physically flexible at all; awareness, acceptance and compassion are far more important qualities to cultivate than physical flexibility. It is the psychological flexibility to deal with change and life’s challenges in a calm and measured way that comes about with a regular yoga practice which offers us far greater benefits than being able to touch our toes.