YS II.16

heyaṃ duḥkham-anāgatam

pain which has not yet come is avoidable

Flexibility is often sought after through yoga. Usually the first introduction to yoga is the flexibility in the body that arises through āsana practice but there is also flexibility gained in the mind. Flexibility is defined as the quality of bending easily without breaking, the ability to be easily modified or willingness to change or compromise. In the Yoga Sūtra, the author Patañjali spends very little time referring to flexibility in the body. The focus in the Yoga Sūtra is more on the flexibility in the mind – the ability to be easily modified.

Flexibility in both body and mind can be obtained through back bending. Physically when we look at back bending postures in yoga āsana there are many muscle groups and ranges of motion at work. The iliopsoas muscle is very important. It is a core and hip flexor muscle as well as providing internal support for organs and the diaphragm, but the psoas is also directly responsible for the flight or fight response. The psoas has the power to immobilize – to literally stop you in your tracks – contracting whenever the fear reflexes engage, closing the front of the body. So to overcome the fear response in the body is to familiarize the body with the movement of back bending, especially through the psoas area.

If we become flexible, both physically and mentally, it can prepare us for the future with a willingness to change or compromise given the circumstances we find ourselves in. As the body ages it loses its flexibility and strength, so how can your yoga practice prevent your body and mind from breaking in the future?

To live in fear is to be conditioned to the body’s response to fear – the fight or flight response – by closing off, physically and mentally. Society wants us to be conditioned into a fear response, to tell us that we will never have enough or be good enough and a way to overcome our own shortcomings is to take what others have so that we feel more empowered with ourselves and that others stay living in fear. It is a survival mechanism in the brain and the body. This is evident all over the world– in such things as racism, sexism, the animal agriculture industry and even online bullying – the list seems never ending. Wherever there is an injustice it has generally come from the fear or insecurity from a person or group of people reacting to and treating others in a negative way.

Luckily yogis are not normal people. They are radical, wild and interested to break free of conditioning, to become enlightened, liberated, to have the ultimate feeling of flexibility.

The greatest fear for most people is the fear of death. From this comes our fear of failure and falling. Both failure and falling come when there is no solid foundation. A yogi is practicing constantly to not let failure and falling keep them in a state of fear. A foundation in the Yoga Sūtra is yama – restraint. Not only in words and actions but also in thoughts. To practice non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-possessiveness is to be flexible in the mind. Some people think that they have to harm, lie, steal, abuse and hoard otherwise they will break down. As the yama in the Yoga Sūtra are our social restraints and how we interact with others the fear that comes from harming, lying, stealing, abusing and hoarding is very self-centered – the yogi is striving to go from being self-centered to other centered. To gain flexibility through back bending to change and modify their state of mind – seeing others as equal not less.

Back bending also relates to the subtle energetic center of the heart. When this space is free and open we move forward into the future with confidence. That confidence comes not from the ego but from the confidence of not living in fear, you have the confidence and willingness to approach change as it happens whether that change comes in the form of challenging yoga postures, social situations or the rhythm and cycle of life. Do your back bending now to avoid the pain of living in fear of the future.

– Doug Whittaker