We say yoga is for everyone. If that was the case everyone would do it right? Why do some people seemingly "struggle" with poses that others "get" easily? Can you do the splits? (Me neither, anymore.)
The reason I bring this up is because yoga appears to be after specific shapes. In the case of the splits, getting your hips to the floor and your legs straight. I worked my body for over a year to make this happen, and it was extremely fleeting (read: I got my hips to the floor once that I can clearly remember.) The truth is, it is beyond the range of motion that is good for most bodies. It is beyond the NORMAL range of motion for a regular body, and in order to achieve splits, you need to exploit your tissues and joints (and over-ride your nervous system) to make it happen.
So, what is normal range?
An easy way to identify this is by what is beyond normal range (also called hypermobility). And there is an easy test for it. Say hello to the Beighton Score. Go ahead try it! It's a 9 point scale. Ready? Go!
Tally up your score. If it is more than or equal to 5/9 you are considered hyper-mobile. Let that sink in for a moment. These things are beyond normal range. Which also indicates that most yoga poses we aspire to are beyond normal range. Going beyond normal range leads to injuries. These injuries are either quick ones you are aware of immediately (like pulling or tearing a hamstring) or happen slowly over time, with repetitive movements (like joint deterioration).
I try to teach yoga so we don't take the body too far. My understanding of yoga goes beyond the shapes and into how your body feels in differing movement patterns. I attempt to bring proprioception to the practice. (How your body moves in relation to the space around it.) And interoception to the practice. (What going on inside your body as you move it.)
Your ability of your body's sensory feedback is more important in the practice of yoga than what it looks like to other people. This feedback mechanism is highly regulated by your nervous system. Which is why pranayama (breathing practice) plays a key role in yoga. Abdominal breathing is a quick way to gain access to and have more control over your nervous system. Stilling of the mind/meditation also contribute to your nervous system regulation and ability to perceive and move your body. This is important because if your nervous system is in check it will help the hyper mobile people from going too far, and help people with limited range of motion gain more range.
As I am always learning and evolving, so are my teaching methods. My teaching is governed by a strong sense of wanting people to feel good during, and after their yoga practice, and be able to continue their practice for life.
If you are of normal range of motion (ROM) in your body, want to increase ROM in your body, or are hyper mobile and want to maintain a safe ROM in your body, paying attention to what your body is doing and how it is moving is of utmost importance. Yoga can give you this awareness, if you know how to listen.
So really when we talk about flexibility in yoga, maybe we should discuss your openness and willingness (aka your flexibility) to learn something new. Like, where you are in space, or how to relax your nervous system to help your body function optimally, rather than getting your hips to the floor in splits.
Know your body.
Listen to your body.
Respect your body.
And be flexible.