Aoife McHugh is a freelance wellness writer and yoga teacher based in Abu Dhabi. Here, she explains why you don't need to be bendy to be zen.
When you picture a yoga teacher, you might envision someone with the pliability of a sea lion (they can rotate their hind flippers under their bodies and walk — who knew?) You may also assume a yogi requires the litheness of Simone Biles to guide someone’s practice. This could lead to self-doubt for a new yoga teacher like me, who struggles with flexibility.
But as the least flexible person in the yoga teacher training I attended, I quickly came to realise I don’t have to be bendy to be zen. Luckily for me - my hips and hamstrings are tighter than a clam with lockjaw - I've learned that yoga has a place for both the nimble and the not-so-much.
In every walk of life, there are age-old stereotypes. In yoga, the cross-legged instructor seated serenely on their mat is an image that instantly springs to mind. During the first module of teacher training, we simply learned how to sit. This might seem basic but allow me to go on.
The moment I mounted my mat, my yoga teacher instructed me to elevate my hips and they were only the first body part to resist. Cue throbbing in my mid-back and moaning Myrtle moving into my mind. Thankfully, the message etched on the yoga studio door had prepared me precisely for this moment: Yoga is not for the flexible, it is for the willing.
During yoga or meditation, I now sit in a comfortable seat where soft furnishings are always a feature. This brings me to...
Tip #1 Give yourself props
In life, we are encouraged to go for things before we are fully ready, while I fully support this line of thinking, jumping into a pose before you are ready is not the way to go. Insta Inversions are all around us, but are they being displayed in the right way? I have definitely been guilty of this in the past but I won't be anymore.
Integrity trumps Instagram every day. I would rather use a block and a strap to protect my back at all costs rather than pretend my body is somewhere it is definitely not. Your back must be aligned at all times, if this means grabbing your knee during a standing twist rather than your toes, do that. We are hunched enough in everyday life, give yourself the time to stay in line.
Tip #2 Give it Legs
Asana (body postures/poses) means nothing if your legs are not engaged. Always start your practice by planting the four corners of your feet on the mat, ground yourself and flex your toes like you're at the pedi bar. Follow this pattern the whole way up your body. Lift the kneecaps, turn the inner thighs towards each other.
Engage the core, straighten the spine and release the shoulders. Everything should be stacked, now you're free to move. When you're working on folds or seated stretches, always make sure the feet are engaged in order for the stretch to be effective. Bend your knees if needs be. If you're as rigid as me, a yoga strap and bolster will become your new best friends here.
Tip #3 Don’t try to channel Stretch Armstrong when you're really Wonder Woman
If you're flexible you will excel at poses like backbends, and if strength is your forte you will nail asanas like handstands. Yoga is akin to a five star resort for the mind and body and it is absolutely all inclusive. When it comes to asanas, always prioritize integrity over depth. It is better to bend your knees during down dog to ensure your spine is straight rather than compromise your alignment altogether. There is no shame in the gradual progression game.
Tip #4 Hips Don't Lie
Yoga illuminates the link between the brain and our muscles through the neuro-muscular pathways. As we activate muscles over and over through dynamic practice, new routes open. Synapses come closer together between cells and they eventually become more accessible. What does this mean for me? Someday I will be able to sit like a Yogi and not like a bear. This would involve my hips being on the ground and not in the air.
Tip #5 Bring your core to the fore
It is widely known that back pain is a common cause of sick leave. So how can we protect this precious and powerful part of our body and avoid bedridden days? This is where our core comes to the fore. As we move down the spine, our range of mobility declines. There is much more rotation in the upper back but the lumbar spine has a greater emphasis on sturdiness.
In essence, the lower back is kind of like a linebacker, taking the hit or weight of our entire upper body. You will often hear in any workout class that it is vital to protect the lower back, we can do this by engaging our inner thighs.
As we work on the mobility of our lower back, this heightens instability, so it is also essential to engage the core. When we have tight hamstrings and work our hip flexors a lot, this can lead to compression in the spine and a number of other problems.
To treat, try this trifecta: Work on your ab muscles, lift the pubic bone up and bring hips into alignment. The more we strengthen the front of the body, the greater chance we have of supporting the spine.
Like a short basketball player, I have simply learned to play to my strengths. As someone who cannot calmly or confidently stand on my head, I decided to focus on what I can do instead. Firstly, I can relate to newbies and those who struggle with flexibility. I know what it feels like to not be able to nail every pose. Consequently, I know how to alter asanas to make them more accessible.
Yoga, when translated from Sanskrit, quite literally means "union", and it can provide a holistic hug for every person who practices. Famous Yogi BKS Ayengar expressed this best when he said: "Yoga is when every cell of the body sings the song of the soul."
In need of an all-inclusive boost? Take out your mat, grab your props and get ready to roll.