Ever feel like there are some areas of your body that are impervious to lengthening or getting stronger? Maybe it’s your hamstrings, your shoulders or your back. Maybe it’s several of these.
Perhaps you’ve been doing yoga for awhile, and the experience that you’ve accumulated only heightens your awareness that this or that body part seems unchangeable, simply tenacious in its resistance.
It’s understandable that a person in this situation might increase their focus on the problematic area in an attempt to undo the restriction. Yet this can backfire. Sometimes the energy put into solving the riddle just increases the resistance.
The Nature of the Struggle
If you ever feel that you’ve gotten into a struggle with the resistant parts of yourself (and especially if you feel that you are losing that struggle), it can help to shift perspective. Take in more. Recognize that your entire body is participating in what you are doing.
While you may feel specific tightness, pain or weakness in certain body parts, these sensations are communicating a message about your whole body and your whole self. The problem is not just where the resistance is felt. The problem is in larger patterns.
This is especially relevant to asana practice.
Asanas are whole-body patterns. Yet they are often understood in terms of their most easily identifiable actions, such as hamstring lengthening, hip opening or core strengthening. While this can be useful for classification, it can also lead to a partial comprehension of the entire pattern that a pose expresses.
A narrow focus on certain actions in an asana can coincide with a person’s tendency to over-focus on parts of the body: “When are these hamstrings ever gonna open? I guess I need to do lots of forward bends and work them out.”
Push and Push Back
Practicing lots of forward bends is not necessarily harmful, but the approach one takes toward doing them matters. If the hamstrings are perceived to be tight, it’s tempting to narrow the focus and get pushy, wanting that opening to happen now.
This sort of attitude generally causes the body to push back. If the practitioner persists, tendons will begin to strain and injury results, often (though not always) in the area that is seen as the problem.
On the other hand, the response of the body can be utilized as a wake-up. Awareness of strain may be understood as a message to take in more, to broaden perception to the whole experience of the asana.
Explore an Asana
If you’d like to investigate this, it can be helpful to start with a single asana. Any pose can work, but because I keep mentioning the hamstrings, I’m going to describe supta padangusthasana (reclining hand to big toe pose).
Because supta padangusthasana involves a very direct elongation of the back of one leg, you can use it to notice if your attention gets sucked into the hamstring stretch to the exclusion of the rest of the experience.
The other reason for choosing this asana is that resting supine on the floor provides ample support for the back, so it is quite safe. Just make sure to keep your awareness open to avoid overstretching the back of your leg.
Begin resting on your back. Straighten your left leg along the floor. Then lengthen your right leg into the air. If you have moderate to substantial resistance in your hamstrings, you will need to loop a strap around your right foot to bridge the gap between your right hand and the foot.
Even if you have the mobility to take your hand to your big toe, you will likely encounter some resistance in the back of your leg as you draw the foot in the direction of your right shoulder. Be attentive to this resistance and notice how it changes over time. Rather than feeling that you have to make your hamstrings lengthen, use awareness to notice when the back of your leg says yes to more space.
At the same time, broaden your attention to include the feeling of your back body, the lengthening of the opposite leg along the floor, your breath, and any feelings of tension or ease in your shoulders, head and neck.
Continue to take in the whole experience of the pose, letting the lengthening of your hamstrings be woven into that experience. If you are new to the pose, spend about 30-45 seconds initially. When you are done with the first side, proceed to the second and note any differences between the two.
Over time and with practice, you can increase your duration up to 3 or more minutes per side.
Notice if there are moments in practice where your perception narrows in a way that tightens and constricts the experience of what you are doing. Notice what happens when you can broaden your awareness, including your surroundings as well as your body. Consider how this might apply to other parts of life.
Although a whole-body, whole asana experience takes some time to cultivate, it can offer a reliable way to open and enliven those parts that feel immovable and unchangeable. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it can happen, slow and steady.