Undo the Damage

Posted by: Jenny Everett King


My two-year-old likes to fold in half, place the top of her head on the floor, and say, “Look, Mom, I’m doing yoga!” If she has an audience (other than her proud yoga teacher mama), her performance usually leads to a discussion of “Wouldn’t you love to have that kind of flexibility!” At that point, I usually point out that most of us could have something approaching that level of flexibility, if only we would work to develop it.

Granted, most of us will never be able to put our heads on the floor when practicing a forward bend. The abilities of small children have as much to do with their proportions as they do with flexibility. But our lack of flexibility as adults has more to do with a lifetime of bad, tension-inducing habits than it does with aging.

Years of teaching have shown me that close relationship between daily activities and physical tension. Most runners have tight hamstrings and pain in the lower back, while many weight-lifters have tight chests and difficulty taking a deep, full breath. I usually see tight calves and toes (and the resulting lower back pain) among professional women who frequently wear high heels; I see wrist pain and tight hips among the computer set. Breastfeeding mothers often have tight upper backs and rounded shoulders. The list goes on. To make matters worse, most of compensate for our tight areas by over-using other muscles and joints, which in turn leads to more tension – a vicious cycle.

So, can we help our bodies out of this mess?

The first and obvious solution is to change our habits. No, I am not suggesting you change your exercise routine or quit your job, and I certainly would never tell a woman to stop breastfeeding her baby. But we can change the way we do certain things. Consider a change in footwear, for running or for work. At the computer and while nursing, be conscious of using good posture and changing position frequently.

The second part of maintaining and eventually increasing flexibility is simple: Use it or lose it. In yoga classes, we focus on undoing the damage from daily life as well as promoting general flexibility. I often have runners and avid hikers focus on their hamstrings, while a nursing mom may concentrate on opening her shoulders and chest in the same pose. Likewise, a high-heel-wearing executive might focus on her calves in Downward-Facing Dog, while someone on a computer all day might concentrate on opening his hands to take pressure off the wrists. That’s the beauty of yoga: Each pose works so many areas, that people with very different lifestyles can practice together and reap the benefits.