Stop Saying ‘I’m Not Flexible’

And Why This Yoga Teacher Doesn't Do Headstands... Yet

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My shoulders betrayed me the first time I did yoga. I was a college student who stumbled into an off-campus-ish yoga studio in Philadelphia. I couldn’t hold myself up for long, even on all fours on my hands and knees. My mind raced: how were all these other people staying in downward dog pose for more than five breaths? Time seemed to slow as my heartbeat would quicken. My flight-or-fight functionality quietly screamed “get out!” of the heated rectangular room, yet something compelled me to stay, and I even subsequently sign up for a 10-class beginner card. For the rest of that semester, every Tuesday night after classes I’d punch in, ready for that sweet svasana (aka nap time) at the end.
My mom never enrolled me in gymnastics or ballet class. Our immigrant family invested in traditionally nonphysical piano and math tutor-focused lessons. So you could say I wasn’t very physical, but I was determined. When I was in middle school, I proudly went up in assembly to receive the National Presidential Fitness Award — the only person, much less the only pre-teen girl, to be able to measure a hands length beyond my toes and do one pull up. 
But fast-forward a decade while I grew a few inches taller, my hamstrings decided to crescendo into a taut group of widening muscles. At some point I enrolled myself into ballet classes paid with my work-study money at the Penn gym. After all, wasn’t this what liberal arts college was supposed to be like — a time to explore all my interests and live out my cut-too-short dreams? I felt excited in my American Apparel unitard. But I also distinctly remember feeling too broad in my shoulders and heavy in the legs. My butt clenched too quickly and I easily got charlie’s horse when I tried to point. 
Yoga remained at bay until a summer internship at National Public Radio in D.C. I found myself in another hot vinyasa class in the swamp of Georgetown — but instead of flowing, I passed out, likely from dehydration. But even that fall felt like some type of release of my type A. I kept going semi-regularly and over the years reached subtle but significant growth at more a cellular level. More importantly, I remembered to breath and slow down my brain. Although I try to preach compassion, I cringe inside a little when one of the first things people say when they find out I’m a yoga teacher is “I’m not flexible,” to be followed by “I’ve been meaning to go.” I aim to listen with a straight face and small, nonjudgmental smile. I really want to say “But are you flexible in the mind, and do you want transformation?” No one gets to flying pigeon in one day. Even with my aforementioned hamstrings, bird of paradise is not an easy one for me. But you can bend your knees as much as you need to touch the floor. You can keep inhaling and exhaling, which we seem to forget when we’re stressed. Yoga to me is not about the asana-contortionist poses. 

It’s about finding your way.

Our fears and our egos show up in different ways and one thing the practice offers is time, space and flexibility to explore that. My stuff comes up through the giant sensation in my hips and my mental obstacles to tackling handstands. My shoulders are probably strong enough now but I’m admittedly scared of flopping over, slapping my back on the floor and cracking my neck (well, when I describe it that way it doesn’t help). I would do these in the pool growing up, and now that I’m grown up, I’ll inch up a little at a time to get there one day to that feeling of weightlessness. The point is to just show up and see what happens. 

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