I’m really stiff – does that mean that I can’t do yoga?
No, you don’t have to be flexible to attend a yoga class, as the quality of your practice is not gauged by the scope of your movement. The acid test of a good yoga session is the overall effect it has on your life.
The term ‘hatha’ can be understood as the synthesis of action (sun) and receptivity/reflectivity (moon). Hatha yoga, therefore, transforms the term to its more usual implications of spiritual and emotional harmony and union.
Yoga is primarily aimed at the mind, where we are encouraged to be mentally supple and fluid so that we don’t let our personal accumulated experiences become the basis for our views on life.
The physical practice of asana postures is merely one aspect of yoga: if practiced sensitively, tuning into the subtleties of the body is a means of letting go of external distractions and drawing in to explore the mind.
Approached with the understanding that a yoga session is merely a moment on a long physical and emotional journey, it certainly does improve flexibility, strength and calmness over time. If you are stiff, unfit and stressed, the yoga class is clearly made for you!
Yoga: flexibility of mind and body
Yoga itself is not centred on improving physical flexibility – it has the broader, more encompassing goal of minimising our suffering and increasing our joy. The name ‘yoga’ alludes to union and harmony on all levels. The knowledge is more like a mirror than a list of absolutes and the yogi comes to see directly some of the currents that underpin his or her life. So flexibility in yoga is primarily aimed at the mind. Yoga practices are aimed at refining, even purifying our minds, and the practices are often stripped down, accelerated microcosms of life, since it is considered all contain aspects of the whole.
Although yoga as a tradition is not centred on physical flexibility and strength, one form of yoga and specifically one branch of that does. Under the umbrella term hatha, we find asthanga yoga, meaning ‘eight limbed’ or ‘eight branched’ yoga. One of those eight branches is asana, the well-known form of yoga postures. One way to see asthanga is of a gradual development model where one progresses from one limb to the next in order, so asana can be seen as a development of strength and flexibility as well as a means of promoting calmness and longevity to support the later stages which include pranayama (breathing exercises) and meditation in the sense of formal seated practice.
In this respect, it is essential that the practitioner understands that the practices involve the nervous system and therefore employ the emotions and the imagination to help with movement in the asanas. Stiffness, resistance or lack of movement is very much a relative phenomenon – it only really exists within a limited framework. For example: a flower, when observed by the human eye, will seem static and unmoving, but when seen documentary-style from a camera’s viewpoint, over time, it can be seen to unfold.
In yoga asana then, the practitioner is encouraged to take the longer view and not view his or her class as starting at the beginning of any given session and ending at the end of that particular practice, but to think of their whole practice as a continuum. There is also a focus on refining awareness to tune in on the more subtle so that one can start to promote movement that originates from the body and to flow with and to develop from that. This makes sense of and incorporates so-called earlier stages on the ashtanga path such as non-violence (ahimsa), from the five yamas, and self-study (svadyaya) from the niyamas (these being the first and second stages respectively).
Of course, it soon becomes blatantly obvious that these limbs of the asthanga path all contain elements of each other and that it is a two-way street. So we have aspects of earlier stages as I’ve just mentioned being found in later stages but also it is plain that aspects of later stages such as those of sense withdrawal (pratyahara) and meditation (dhayana) and absorption (Samadhi) are clearly a part of preceding practices – notably pranayama and asana.