Lately, every student that comes to class wants to limber up. They feel that their physical flexibility will render their minds more spacious and nimble, open to creative problem solving. And they are absolutely right. As our joints open up and our tendons and ligaments “elastify” we feel at ease in our shell and we are able expand our consciousness. Neurologically, as the body loosens up, it secretes hormones in the mid brain and forges new neural pathways, and synapse connections. As a result, the mind expands beyond the linear frame of logical thinking and taps unlimited creativity and ingenuity. Conversely, a flexible mind is an attitude. Cultivating a flexible attitude and approach to living is more pertinent than ever. It resonates in the way we think, behave, and eat and influences our decision and choices.
A flexible mind indicates a state of curiosity that leads to clarity and inner knowing.
People who have a flexible mind are adaptable and resilient. They’re better equipped to go with the flow. They have a strengthened ability to solve problems, because they know there’s more than one way to succeed. They also see failure and mistakes as part of the life process, so they bounce back from adversity more quickly.
Mental flexibility means you’re able to see the opportunity in everything; what looks like a roadblock to one person, might seem like a growth opportunity to a flexible thinker.
How do we cultivate a flexible body and mind? It’s a two way process and it starts with discipline and acceptance. Setting your daily intention to stay positive and open, and carving time for a mental and physical exercise is essential. A person with a rigid, unyielding view of the world can become more flexible with persistence and practice.
Over the years of teaching and practicing yoga every day, I have developed a two-fold approach to honing a cognitive body and a flexible mind. Asana and breathing is the precursor to meditation, which becomes the best habit to foster flexibility. Habits, both good and bad, generate biochemical and physiological changes that perpetuate behavior. When you begin to meditate, you develop an awareness of patterns that might not serve you. Stepping out of this habituation of thought is the first step to changing a pattern.
Opening the mind to limitless possibilities is of paramount importance. Notice the places in conversation where you have strong emotional opinions. Rather than going with your initial gut reaction, pause, and open your mind to hear the other side. Think about where these opinions came from. Some of your beliefs might have taken root in your childhood. Now might be the time to question or examine them. I feel taking time to explore what shaped our beliefs helps us consider other opinions as a point of reference. I have learned to listen to hear, not to speak. Many times in conversation we’re just waiting for our turn to speak. Try listening more and planning less. This creates a more flexible mind and also boosts your connection to the others in the conversation.
Once you have cultivated an expanded and curious attitude it’s time to “elastify” the body. I always think of the child’s flexibility. The majority of children are naturally pliable. As we age, we fall less, and brace more. With these behaviors, we become less agile and supple. Flexibility leads to better blood flow, less frequent injuries, and a greater ability to increase muscle tone.
If you turn to Yoga for flexibility consider a composite approach. This is what worked for me. It simply means that you are not just aiming at assuming asanas that only stretch one muscle or ligament group, but you are committing to a circular flow that affords compound stretching. For example, if you take pyramid pose to stretch your hamstrings, try twisting through it in different directions, while contracting the belly and releasing it. Or take a meridian crossing bind that will facilitate myofascial release – so you won’t be working muscularly, but also getting a deep tissue and glandular massage.
And for those of you who do yoga for health purposes, keep in mind that you don’t need to sit in full splits or arch excessively. Your flexibility goals have to be appropriate for your personal needs and should fit your body’s anatomy. I have spinal lordosis, and knowing that I try not to push into extreme backbends. Having flexibility in the neck, in the back, and up the hamstring as well as through the shoulders and hips allows us to flourish rather than fade as we age.
The key to healthy flexibility is to avoid pushing as you stretch. I have discovered that sometimes pulsing and bouncing in the particular pose works better than just statically holding the pose. Make sure you explore how your body functions when stretched. If you have a desk job, make the time to stretch every hour, using the desk as a ledge and your chair as a prop. Get out and walk or exercise on your breaks.
If you are an avid runner, make sure you stretch at end of your job. Runners can be in top cardiovascular shape with tight hamstrings as tight as steel. So work on that group of ligaments, tendons and muscles that you need to improve.
And of curse, remember to breathe when you stretch. And know your edge – pushing to the point of pain means you’re stretching too deeply. Once your body starts to brace against the stretch, you’re losing much of the benefit. Make the right food choices because nutrition plays a big part in your body’s response to stretching.
Learning flexibility allows you to release attachment to outcome and stop feeling so driven by plans. This frees you up to embrace whatever plan the universe has for you. And when you begin to live this way, it suddenly feels like the universe has your back.
And here’s a curios fact for all of you stretch addicts – a whopping 50% of your flexibility gains come from your nervous system—not your muscles. Conversely, when you increase your flexibility, you turn your body into a superconductor for energy. This can improve proprioception everywhere, but the most profound benefits are often experienced in the hands, feet, wrists, and shoulders.
Enough preaching, now it’s time to move. Try this routine. No more stiff hamstrings, locked-up hips, and a painful lower back. You can regain your mobility range from when you were a child. Because you have cultivated a nimble mind and opened the pathways to a supple body. Are you ready to climb trees, swing from monkey bars, squat in the dirt, and move freely…like a child?
Yoga for Flexibility: Bendy Body Nimble Mind (open level)
This Yoga routine for flexibility introduces compound stretching and meridian crossing to “elastify” composite muscle groups, ligaments and tendons simultaneously. From a kneeling position the sequence bursts into bicycle lunges and cobra slithers to warm up the legs and spine. Binds, twists and spirals in low lunges open up multiple muscle groups and tendons – hamstrings, Achilles, hips, IT bands, gluteus, psoas and limber up the base. A series of standing poses coupled with shoulder binds and deltoid pulls strengthen the legs while opening up the upper arms, rotator cuffs and shoulder blades. A cascade of seated twists and forward bends stretch the longest ligaments and decompress the spine. Reclining hip openers and quad stretches sooth tight buttocks and thighs and a final cone sprawl trains practitioners to stretch the hamstrings from the hip flexors while elongating the lower back and the sides of the waist. A brief affirmation reminds you how physical flexibility leads to mental acuity.