Dear Aunt Yoga, I've recently started yoga after dancing (primarily ballet) for many years. As these things go, I was a casual dancer, but I do have a fair amount of flexibility (splits, backbends, etc.), and I don't want to lose it by not challenging myself in stretches. With that said, I'm definitely a beginner when it comes to yoga--for one thing, it's made me realize just how little upper body strength I have! What I'm wondering, then, is whether there are ways to modify beginner poses to accommodate a greater range of motion, in the same way that there are ways to modify them for people with, say, particularly tight hips? Lily
Dear Lily, You’re part of a neglected minority: the beginning yoga student who is very flexible. We give a lot of attention to all the modifications and props you can use to accommodate for very tight bodies but there is generally not a lot of light shone on people who have the opposite situation: so much flexibility that they don’t know what to do with it.
As you have described, this hyper-bendiness in a new yogi may often come with a lack of corresponding strength to act as a counter balance. Because, while flexibility gets all the acclaim, yoga asana is actually about combining the two. Most people build both at the same time but sometimes one or the other shows up in a more developed state.
So what should you do?
While you and yoga are getting acquainted, I’d suggest keeping things pretty much by the book, i.e. do what your teacher says. In yoga, stretching isn’t about challenging yourself, exactly. It’s about listening to your body. There should be plenty of opportunities to stretch your hamstrings as deeply as you want in seated and standing forward bends even if you’re not breaking out your splits.
Of course, you can always practice them at home if you feel like you’re not getting enough in class. As a dancer, you probably have a leg up (figuratively and literally) on your body awareness. In yoga, the hip alignment is a little different in poses like hanumanasana and standing splits. Instead of an open hip, which allows for greater extension, we often go for a closed hip to get into different areas of tightness. Keep this in mind as you practice on your own.
Any backbend or hamstring stretch that is taught in class usually has the possibility to take it as deep as you want. But yoga does have a different focus from dancing or gymnastics (another sport that makes people very flexible). It’s not about making a pretty shape. The person with their foot behind their head does not get a prize. Indeed, many people with natural (or hard-earned) flexibility find over time that they are better served by not going to their full maximum possible limit every time. Yoga is a life-long pursuit so you don’t want to do anything that is destabilizing or damaging to connective tissues that don’t easily heal. If you have flexibility in your pocket already, your challenge is to build strength and the mindful awareness to know how far to go. Deeper isn’t always better!