You are easily irritated when you see other people working out in such a way that is inefficient or potentially injurious. For example, that young girl at the gym whose idea of crunches was to lie on her back and flail every part of her body except her abs? Not cool. And the teenager who took up space in the stretching area to catch up on her texting and Facebook status surfing? Please take your social networking elsewhere.
But perhaps the most jarring image was that of the middle-aged woman who sat down on a mat, extended her legs straight out in front, and collapsed into a forward fold, bending somewhere between the thoracic and lumbar spine, forming the letter C with her back in an effort to touch her toes.
In yoga, the stretch is called paschimottanasana. It’s done in almost every class, and it’s a posture that nearly every beginning yogi is corrected on. Everyone wants to show off and touch their toes, and in doing so compromises the integrity of the stretch by bending from their back instead of their hips. The goal of the pose isn’t to see how curved you can make your spine; it’s to feel a stretch in the hamstrings, which for many can be felt waaay before the hands reach the feet.
As a once very naturally very flexible person, I understand how you may one day unintentionally creep into that curved spine position just so you can revisit the good ol’ days, your hands bound around your feet and your chin inching toward the shins.
But when that happens, Jen, please look at your profile in the mirror. When your back no longer looks like a see-saw–when instead of being a straight line from your head to your hips your back looks like that of a hunched-over mad scientist–back off. Return to dandasana, regroup, and then fold from the hip creases. Even if your hands only reach your ankles, your knees–maybe you’ll even have to use a strap!–keep the back flat and enjoy the stretch. It will probably feel just as good at 45 degrees as it did in your youth when your back was nearly parallel with your legs.
I know it’s hard not to yearn for the past, that desire to be a 20-year-old Gumby again, but the intensity of yoga postures can be experienced at any stage of the stretch, just as you felt last night in hot vinyasa class when you closed your eyes during your halfway-there paschimottanasana and sunk deep into a state of pseudo-bliss, your breaths expanding and contracting your belly and back like a slow-motion dance.
There is no need for grimacing and struggling and hunching in yoga. Stop where it feels right, breathe into the stretch, use all the props you need to feel openness, lightness, and expansion. Despite what everyone says about yoga, you know well enough that it’s not about “touching your toes.” Stay true to your form, and don’t cave in–figuratively (to an ideal) or literally (your back!).
Your 30-year-old self,