A misconception is people need to be flexible to do yoga—and any picture of a person twisted into a pose supports that idea. The physical practice of yoga is not about getting into the pose but rather about the process of getting into the pose. When people are flexible, they often shape themselves into poses and look great doing it but that doesn't mean the pose is done correctly. Often the muscles are not engaged and the person is folding, sitting on, and hanging from their joints. This looks pretty to the untrained eye, but can create some problems in the person’s body.
The inflexible student often knows they are stiff and can feel their limitations. They may not like them, but they are aware of them. And this is a great first step to yoga – self awareness. As a teacher I have noticed that students who are tight or inflexible are forced to move slower and are more likely to use props, initially building more muscular strength in the process.
Yoga requires strength. Not always physical but also the mental and emotional dexterity to remain present. And that is difficult for any person – flexible or stiff. I recently read yoga begins when things get hard. Yoga is when your partner is sick and you still have to smile at the world, yoga is finding a way to keep moving when you are alone on a dance floor, yoga is to say ‘sorry’ or ‘I love you’ to a co-worker, lover, or friend. Yoga is to get up each day and give your best. This takes adaptability but also courage to embrace who you are and the endurance to stay focused.
In yoga there is a process of engaging muscles that is sometimes so intricate and finite that as students we may not notice we are not doing it -- a rotation of a thigh, a lift of our belly -- subtle shifts that create full body alignment. When we align our bodies we create an energy flow that moves through our entire being allowing for an expression of peace and compassion that vibrates our entire Self. I think of muscle engagement as activating the energy lines throughout our entire body like a highway through the city. Energy lines move from our center out into our body and are inhibited by stiffness, lack of strength, and lack of endurance; smooth, unobstructed energy lines help to recharge and enliven each of us.
I am a flexible person but a 20-year old hamstring injury limits movement on my left side. This injury has been my yoga nemesis as well as one of my greatest teachers. Because of my injury I have to wait poses out, learn to modify, and check my ego at the door. When I first began yoga, I could not move into forward folds, I refused to use props, and spent many classes cursing my hamstring. To this day, on my left side, I cannot fully extend into Virabhadrasana III (warrior III) or hanumanasana (splits). But that’s okay. I have learned to take better care of myself.
I cannot force a pose, but I must wait and build strength with blocks and muscle engagement. I, like most of us, see things in opposites: good/bad, weak/strong, stiff/flexible. Yet, there are no opposites but different perspectives. I spent years cursing my left side as my weak side when, in reality, I gained valuable insight from it: patience, self-awareness, and self-compassion.
When we come onto the mat with self-awareness, we allow our energy lines to organically reconnect. Through the engagement of energy lines we find the strength to know where we are in our practice and in our bodies. Flexible or not, take time and engage yourself in the process of yoga and find the way each pose fits into your unique body.
 Schiffman, Erich. Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. Print.