Let’s apply this concept in the human body. Imagine a person entering into a forward bend (uttanasana). Imagine that the hips are very stiff, and the spine quite flexible. It should be no surprise that in this instance, just like the springs, the spine will move and stretch more than the stiffer hips. Now imagine another person who has a very stiff spine, and extremely flexible hips. This person’s forward bend would look quite different!
Although a well-rounded yoga practice includes contorting the body in all different directions, yogis are just as prone to imbalance in stiffness and flexibility as the rest of the population. Practicing unaware of those imbalances will lead to the relatively less stiff areas becoming even more flexible, with little if any change to the stiffer areas. The trick is figuring out where your individual body’s imbalances lie and staying mindful of them during your yoga practice. This is something that often necessitates a trained, outside observer to help you sort through. A physical therapist is a great choice for this. I will be completely honest that even though I am a physical therapist, I have a difficult time sorting through some of my own imbalances. Although I look at these things all day long with my patients and yoga clients, I cannot appropriately assess myself from an outside perspective. So, from time to time, I work with a trusted colleague to help me tease out those imbalances. That way I can bring more internal body awareness (proprioception, kinesthesia) to them in my daily life and yoga practice.
The example of the hips mentioned above is quite common in people with low back pain. Most often, the hips are stiff and don’t want to move into flexion (forward bending motion) as easily as the spine wants to flex. In this instance, a yogi with lower back pain can try a preparatory posture before yoga class and/or at home. This movement begins with a flat back on hands and knees (table top position), taking his/her bottom toward the heels – but only so far that the spine doesn’t curl up (like cat pose). This helps to teach the hips how to flex with the spine in neutral. We often use this as a therapeutic exercise. Be aware, as with any exercise, it is not for everybody. There are some folks whose hips are too flexible toward the back of the joint for which this exercise would be contraindicated.
Another common finding shows different areas of the spine to be relatively stiffer or more flexible. In yoga this is particularly important due to the amount of back bending (spinal extension) we do. In the clinic I often see people with very flexible joints at the base of the spine (L4-5, L5-S1) with quite a bit of stiffness further up in the spine. Visualize a yogi in bhujangasana (cobra), ustrasana (camel), or urdvha dhanurasana (full wheel pose). If, for instance, the mid thoracic spine (just below the shoulder blades) is much stiffer than the base of the spine, the majority of the back bending motion will happen as a hinge at the base. While for some people initially this can relieve pain (the McKenzie approach uses movements that look very similar to yogic back bends), over time, this leads to exploitation of those more flexible areas, and possibly increased pain down the road.
My number one recommendation for investigating relative flexibility in yourself is to get another set of eyes on you. At a minimum, make a private yoga lesson appointment with an experienced teacher. If you are injured or in pain, see a physical therapist. Some medical professionals are friendlier toward the practice of yoga than others. There’s a growing community of us who merge yoga and medicine. You can search for one of these combo PT yogis in your area at www.fizzyyoga.info – and if you don’t find one in the directory, likely one will be added soon! To work with me in person or remotely, send me a message on my contact form.