Students often express this concern. Feeling stiff is what brings many people to a yoga class. Yoga brings to mind a sense of being loose, flexible, “bendy,” and relaxed. So it can be challenging, or even depressing, to come to a class and realize just how stiff you are.
You may be surprised to learn that a very flexible person can have as many (or more) problems than a stiff person. A stiff person could have very tight hamstrings that make it difficult to bend forward and touch her toes. People who are very stiff can injure themselves by trying to stretch too much too fast. Stiff students can injure a hamstring by pushing or pulling too hard.
A student who is far more flexible, on the other hand, may have too much flexibility in his hips, which can create instability in the hip joints. A very flexible person can overstretch her ligaments and cause injury and inflammation to the joints. Being very flexible is not necessarily better; it has it own challenges.
A flexible body does not automatically mean a “healthy” body. A person can have a healthy stiffness in the body. Stiff bodies give more feedback to the yoga student. For example, when doing Gomukasana (cow-face pose), a person with stiff shoulders is not likely to over-rotate her shoulders; her stiffness will provide an internal brake, protecting her from injury.
Sometimes a person is flexible in one part of the body and very stiff in another. This is actually more of a concern than when you are stiff everywhere. A student who is very flexible in the lower back, but tight in the shoulders and upper back, will tend to overuse the lower back, causing too much strain and sometimes injury to the back. This student needs to learn how to do the poses in such a way that both areas are improved.
This is where our yoga practice comes in. Guruji says that the mind does not flow into the shoulders, so they are stiff. Or, the legs are too loose and by culturing the mind, we can bring more rigidity to the legs. By using the breath, the mind we can bring awareness into areas that are stiff.
When I first came to yoga, I was very very stiff and I didn’t know it! This still amazes me. Through the guidance of my teacher, I gradually became more aware of my own body. I learned to be stronger, more “rigid” in my legs in standing poses and to bring more space and movement in my upper back and shoulders.
I came to yoga because it felt so good to become more flexible and to feel stronger in my body. Over the twenty-five years I’ve been practicing yoga, I have definitely become more flexible, but that is no longer my main goal. It’s a by-product of my practice.
Yoga has helped me to know myself, to feel the closeness of my own body, to use my consciousness to bring awareness to different parts of my body. Stiffness is no longer my enemy; stiffness is my teacher.