Being more flexible means that we have more capacity for movement in the body. Stiff joints feel freer after a good yoga practice. And with regular practice we find that our joints do indeed have a wider range of movement, even if that only lasts for a short time.
Apart from feeling good, having a larger range of joint movement and more relaxed muscles protects us from injury. Relaxed muscles are much less likely to become damaged than tight ones. With regular mobilisation, capacity for movement remains way more than our actual day to day requirements which means we're not working close to our limit most of the time which allows the joints to have more resilience. This is particularly important as we age. Gradually increasing flexibility is also an important part of rehabilitation after illness or injury.
So what's the problem?
For some people, strong stretches may actually be very unhelpful. We need to know our individual body type to inform how we practice our yoga asana. If you know that you are hypermobile - that is you were born with long ligaments and are naturally very flexible - then increasing your flexibility still further is not going to help you. In fact it may increase your risk of injury. What you need most is to back off stretching to the limit and focus on developing strength to increase the stabilisation of your joints.
Another aspect to be aware of is that focusing on increasing flexibility can introduce 'end-gaining' into our practice. We can become competitive with ourselves - 'I did that last week so should be able to go a little further this week...' This can lead to us pushing too far and causing muscle injury, which actually sets us back and we have to begin again once the muscle has healed.
Patanjali in his Yoga Sutra describes the 10 yama and niyama which underpin a yoga practice. Included in this list is aparigraha, or non-grasping. One of the ways that yoga decreases stress is by drawing us into a state of mindfulness of the present experience. Pursuing a desire to become more flexible can take us away from the direct experience of the body in a pose in any moment. Grasping for what is perceived as improvement can actually become quite stressful. The Bhagavad Gita also talks about karma yoga - the importance of practising with focus and discipline but letting go of the fruits of our actions.
Advanced yoga is about being more mindful and more present. It is about releasing and opening and letting go. It isn't about stretching further or gaining something. It isn't about becoming 'better' but becoming more yourself. Pushing and pulling will only get us so far and is liable to bring tension into the system. An advanced yoga practice is about quality over quantity every time.
Becoming more flexible is a possible side-effect of asana practice. Wanting to be more flexible may help in the beginning to motivate practice, but in the end if we hold on to that desire it will become a distraction from the real aim which is to practise with focus and presence, whilst developing a deep acceptance and compassion towards ourselves.
Please click here for more information about my yoga classes.