I've never been able to fold in two like a dancer. My head won't touch my knees. The only bind I can get into is a financial, or a legal one. And full wheel pose? Forget about it.
As a kid in gymnastics class, I quickly realized that my backbends were never going to look like the graceful St. Louis Arches of my lithe companions; mine were flatter, more Brooklyn Bridge-like.
I dropped out of gymnastics and embraced my inner tomboy.
But even on the basketball court, I was a stiff among bendier girls. While my teammates lowered heads to knees in hurdler's stretch, my toes remained impossibly distant. "You must have spinal problems," said one gym teacher. A coach once glared at me as I reached hopelessly for my foot. "Some people really try," he told the group. "Others don't."
Believe me, I have tried.
Recently, I've ramped up a longtime, half-hearted yoga practice to a more committed regimen. For years, I'd go anywhere from once a month to twice weekly. But starting last winter, I'm on the mat now at least five times a week.
After eight months of committed practice, I have become slightly more flexible. My toes seem closer than ever. But I'm still usually the stiffest person in the studio. My hamstrings and spine remain stubbornly unbend-y. I'm never going to fold in half like fellow yogis who are built for it. That maneuver where you grab one toe and hold your leg straight out like an L? Never gonna happen.
Some days, it's still A Thing for me: Why can't I do this? I rage (internally), as everyone around me makes Paschimottanasana look effortless. But slowly, I am beginning to give fewer fucks.
Some yoga instructors are down with this philosophy. But sometimes, as I "fold forward" at a right angle (and no more), a yoga teacher will look at me with concern and say something well-meaning but essentially unhelpful: "You'll get there." Others try to "help"—most often when I'm in child's pose, my forehead stubbornly hanging inches above the floor—by pressing down on my back, past the point of comfort.
The thing is, I may never get to the "there" those instructors have in mind. The "you'll get there" comment assumes that flexibility can be attained by simply working harder. But comparing my Brooklyn Bridge back to all those St. Louis Arches does no one any good. My "there" isn't their "there," and pushing me into a pose my body isn't made for can actually be dangerous.
Besides, I don't show up to the mat because I want to achieve a beautiful, supple full-wheel pose. My goal is to "achieve" a healthy spine that will continue to function, with as little pain as possible, until I draw my last breath. I want to keep hiking and gardening until I'm dead, and I also find that a regular practice helps regulate my moods.
Achievement isn't about comparison. It's about improvement. So the flexibility I'm really looking for isn't in my hamstrings; it's in my head.