When I turned my back on my professional career as a sprinter and truly dove into yoga, half of the asanas I was being taught by my teachers were beyond what I was able to accomplish at the time. Think of it: a former 400m runner whose body is all strength and tension in the right places for his muscles to be able to explode at a moment’s notice and thus move really fast, trying to bend and fold like Iyengar! Not the image of a yogi one has in mind, right?
Under normal circumstances, my train of thought would have gone somewhat along the lines of saying “well, that’s fine. It really is not about the perfect form.” But I was so far off from what perfect form looked and felt like that I couldn’t help but wonder if I was on the right track. I could neither maintain the natural flow of breath, nor shut my head off entirely to truly concentrate on the practice. So, to be honest, doing yoga at the beginning for me used to be both physically and mentally exhausting.
Over time, however, things changed. Thanks to consistent effort and regular yoga practice, I’ve managed to arrive at a point I would never have anticipated for someone as stiff as me –at least not until a good 10 years went by! In a short span of time, I have gone from being unable to simply flex the legs enough to put socks on my feet –oh yes, I used to have to do so with legs semi-extended! Imagine that!– to being able to bend my legs across and over each other to do things like Halasana or even Gomukhasana. I’ve come a long way!
This being said, however, I’m still far from the type of flexibility others, both men and women, profusely demonstrate on Instagram and other picture-friendly social media. I used to worry about that, about fitting the yogi stereotype. But you know what? I’m totally fine with not fitting in fully. At the end of the day, practice has shown me that, in order for you to grow and continue progressing you must learn to embrace your limitations, both in life and in yoga.
Love what you hate, there is power in that
I recently stumbled upon a video by Stuart McGill talking about the anatomy of the hip that made me think of the importance of limitations. You can have a look at it on our facebook page if you want. I wasn’t really expecting anything much from the video on first looking at it because the looks of it seemed a bit formal and old-fashioned. And yet, I was positively surprised to learn that we all have certain anatomical differences –and thus also limitations– whose effects on movement (and hence on yoga poses, for example) are, simply put, remarkable.
In the video, Mr. McGill goes on to discuss hip sockets or acetabuli. Yeah, I know, why am I talking about acetabu-what??? According to him, the most shallow acetabuli in the world can be found in Poland and Bulgaria and there are evolutionary reasons for this. Having shallow acetabuli, or shallow hip sockets, is largely connected with things like hip dysplasia –a condition that triggers things like hip pain or limping. And yet, shallow hip sockets also lead to a higher range of motion, allowing a person to produce more power in situations such as, for instance, a deep squat. This is the reason why the best deep-squatters and weight-lifters in the world come from, surprise-surprise, Poland and Bulgaria.
Mr. McGill’s video, in its own way, illustrates my point about the pros and cons of limitations. We all have them and they exist for a reason. In my case, my main limitation in yoga is the type of short and fast-twitching muscles I have; the same muscles that, on the other hand, got me to the Olympics. It really wouldn’t be fair of me to be proud about the nature of my muscles one day and then despise them for the same reasons the other. They have taken me places. If only for that, I’m thankful. Which goes on to show that limitations aren’t always necessarily detrimental.
Consider, for example, another relevant marker for endurance athletes: VO2max. For those of you who are not so familiar with endurance sports, VO2max is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption you can reach, measured during intense exercise. A higher VO2max is directly related to a person’s better aerobic endurance capacity. Numerous studies have shown that athletes can improve their default VO2max capacity by roughly 5-10% if training for it over a few months’ period, but this improvement does not amount to much. And so, the implications of something like this for endurance athletes are great.
Most of an athlete’s efforts are generally put on trying to measure up to competitors to be better than them. Still, faced with naturally given improvements such as, for example, a competitor’s higher VO2max capacity, it becomes essentially impossible for someone with a lower VO2max to ever ‘measure up’! And so, for an endurance athlete with a low VO2max to put constant effort into training to ‘beat an opponent’ with a higher one is just simply not smart.
What am I really driving at? I guess what I’m really trying to say is that you also have to learn to love what you hate and embrace those very limitations. Doing so really has the potential of freeing you up from the burden of trying to measure up to impossible standards so that, once free from that burden, although aware of your limitations, you may be able to move on to rediscover what are really the areas you want to be great at. This does not mean giving up altogether on trying to improve whatever isn´t working, that is not what I’m suggesting! Rather, it means giving up on unnecessary negative thinking and self-shaming because of not fitting predefined ideas about what you are like.
In my personal case, this means something as simple as realizing that a yoga teachers’ quality does not depend on his/her degree of flexibility. Fortunately for all of us both teaching and studying yoga, there are many other factors that are as important for a good yoga teacher as that! Realizing that my focus should not be trying to imitate or reach some unspoken standard of flexibility has given me the time and freedom to pursue flexibility in my own terms and put my strength and skills to better service in other areas where –perhaps thanks to my very limitations– I can really grow up to be great at.
It’s all like one of those ‘glass half-empty or half-full’ type of tests. What you choose to focus on, and how you do so, can have completely different outcomes to your world and your life. So the whole point is to learn to focus wiselyand realize that the glass is always full of something anyway you look at it!