Our popular contributor Kara-Leah did her first yoga class in 1996. She didn’t start a semi-regular practice until 2000, but for the last ten years has practiced almost every single day.
In this article she explores the frustrations and anguish that can come when the body doesn’t seem to respond to our dedicated practice.
by Kara-Leah Grant, Author of Forty Days of Yoga – Breaking down the barriers to a home yoga practice.
I’ve been practicing yoga for over a decade now, and I’m still tight and inflexible.
That’s not quite true of course, but when I compare my flexibility to that of the images of yoga we see in the media, or the popular teachers on DVDs… I fall short.
And I find it perplexing.
It doesn’t make me feel less than in anyway, and I’m well aware that the point of yoga is not flexibility, rather flexibility is a by-product of practice.
But how long does it take to lengthen the hamstrings enough to relax into a forward bend with ease?
I’m still struggling to straighten my legs when my palms are on the ground, let alone get my belly anywhere near my thighs.
So what’s going on? What’s wrong with me? Or is something wrong with my yoga practice?
‘Cos regular, on-going yoga practice leads to greater flexibility… right?
After all, all the other yoga teachers I see out and about seem to be effortlessly able to surrender into forward bends and blossom into backends.
Of course, I started my yoga practice way behind in the flexibility stakes to start with.
Like, in high school we had to do these standardised phsy ed tests once a year that included a flexibility test.
You sat on the ground with your legs straight out in front of you and leaned foward into a ruler, depending on how far your fingertips reached on the ruler, you got points from 1 to 7. I couldn’t even sit down with my legs straight, let alone lean forward or get anywhere near the ruler.
Nope, total failure on this. At 13 years of age, I was already extraordinarily tight.
At age 16 I had a spinal fusion after one of my discs collapsed, for no apparent physical reason. The surgeon used hip bone from my right hip to fuse L4 and L5 together.
By the time I started yoga seriously at age 25, I could barely lean forward to teach my knees, let alone my toes.
So maybe my expectations of ease of movement are just way too high for someone who was where I was.
I’m inflexible and I’ve had a spinal fusion.
Stop right there.
That may be true – in the past. But now it’s just a story. And holding on to that story may be one reason why I’ve continued to have issues with forward bends and backbends. Because I always have…
Over the last few months, I’ve focused on dropping this story.
I’ve decided that I am going to effortless melt into forward bends and blossom into backbends.
I’ve been applying the power of presence to my practice and getting curious about what’s actually going on when I bend forward or backwards.
Here’s what I noticed.
I’ve had a strong tendency to grip the front body, and I’ve had almost a total lack of connection through the back body…
Ever tried to do a forward bend while gripping the front of the body? It’s like your holding yourself up while forcing yourself forward.
How about a backbend while having no awareness of the back of the body? You automatically grip the front of the body to hold yourself up…
No wonder backbends and forward bends have been so tough for me!
I’ve been fighting against myself all those years in yoga practice – attempting to bend forward while gripping the front of the body. Trying to bend backwards, with no awareness of the back body and therefore nothing to support me.
It was time for a shift in focus.
Instead, while standing up tall, and going into a standing backbend, I’ve been focusing on strongly extending energy down the back of my body into my heels, all the while softening through the front of the body in an ascending breath.
This softening and strengthening is energetic, and is in addition to the usual physical methods of back bending.
It takes mindfulness to stay with this process, to feel my way into the breath as it softens and rises and then strengthens and descends. As I’ve playing with this… I got to wondering… working with the breath in this way feels like letting go and trusting that I will be supported.
That it’s safe to lean back, it’s safe to let go, it’s safe to soften and allow things in.
It feels like I want to do it over and over again.
So I do, and I notice more and more subtle variations – like the descending breath on the back of the body is stronger on the left side of the body. It’s almost non-existent on the right side of the body.
When it does start to fire on the right side of the body, it’s like a circuit being turned on and I feel like I come alive.
I feel stronger in an open kinda way, and I feel supported.
Outside of my practice, like when I’m chopping vegetables or doing the dishes or waiting for the toast to pop… I notice how often I lean into the front of my body.
So I connect again to that descending breath down the back, as I do, I feel the front of my body soften and release. My upper chest lifts towards the ceiling and my shoulders drop down.
I’ve even had a dream about this – I was practicing yoga and a friend was teaching me. I was in dancer’s pose, both hands clasped around a raised leg behind my head, and he suggested that I focus primarily on the grounding energy of the standing leg.
Doing this in the dream felt amazing and I felt like I was effortlessly… dancing.
So in my practice, I tried the dream suggestion out. And it played out just as it had in my dream. Instead of kicking into the raised leg and using that to open the front of the body into the backbend, I ground down through my standing leg and felt an effortless open of the chest.
It was like my heart blooming.
In doing this, my front hip released and the posture felt… like dancing.
Later in the practice, releasing into a wide legged forward bend, I could ‘feel’ further into my lower back than usual and it felt like it was letting go. I had to move my legs closer together so my head had further to go to reach the ground.
I can’t say for sure, and only time and practice will tell, but it feels like this awareness of the back body will allow both my backbends and forward bends to effortlessly open.
What a relief!
Applying the power of presence to my practice meant I was able to notice the story I was still telling myself about my body and about my yoga.
A story about being inflexible because ‘I always had been’ and because ‘I’ve had a spinal fusion’.
While both of these stories might have been true, they were also keeping me stuck in my practice.
Dropping my attachment to these stories meant I was able to be present to the lack of movement in my forward and backward bends without a story. With no story, I was able to bring a greater level of inquiry to my movement. This curiousity and inquiry into movement led me to discover the importance of connecting to the back body while softening and releasing the front body.
I still have a long way to go, but experimenting and playing with this over the last few months has already shown definite results.
Forward bends are softening. Backbends are blossoming.
Plus I notice effects of this physical and energetic shift in my life in other ways. Leaning into the back of the body makes me feel supported and strong. It makes me feel like I can handle anything in life that comes my way, with grace and support.
Softening and opening the front of the body makes me feel more womanly, sexier, more relaxed, more open and full of life.
It’s like I don’t have to hold myself up anymore.
Life will hold me up.
All I have to do is lean back and trust.
Kara-Leah is a writer and yoga teacher who has always been infinitely curious about the make-up of the human psyche and body. Regular yoga helped her heal and recover from chronic back issues, including a spinal fusion at age 16, and two episodes of psychosis at age 29.
Her daily home yoga practice began in earnest when people kept asking her to teach them yoga. She’s since trained as a teacher with Shiva Rea, and immersed herself in practicing, teaching yoga and writing about yoga. Kara-Leah lives just outside of Queenstown, New Zealand with her son Samuel.
She’s the publisher of The Yoga Lunchbox and has just published her first book, Forty Days of Yoga – Breaking down the barriers to a home yoga practice. She’s also a regular contributor to the Elephant Journal.