The Least Flexible Man in the World
An Ode to Yoga
“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” — Leo Tolstoy.
“Make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.” ― Jon Krakauer. Into the Wild.
“Let me through. My brother is a doctor.” — Dev Patel. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
The premise of our story is similar to those popular beer commercials, the ones in which a handsome bearded older gentleman is accompanied by a voice-over narrating his many incredible exploits. He’s simply done so much in his life that the sheer accumulation of experiences has made him, behold, the most interesting man in the world! And, of course, Dos Equis was there at every step along the way.
While it may be tempting for yours truly to opt for the opposite moniker, that of the least interesting man in the world, I claim for myself instead the title of this post, that of least flexible man in the world, bestowed upon me by friends and family during my early attempts at yoga.
The main difference is that ads featuring me would be for an anti-inflammatory sports cream: Come see the least flexible man in the world get into yet another incredible yoga position using the healing powers of our cream and nothing else!
I spent decades thoroughly damaging my body through extreme sports endeavors: at least a hundred half marathons over two decades followed, more recently, by ten thousand miles (and a million feet of elevation) of cycling per year. I did this while simultaneously ignoring the many aches and pains it brought on: a severe spine injury relieved only after lower back surgery, massive hip flexor problems, debilitating sciatica, and ankle tendonitis, to mention only a few side effects.
Compounded pain, just like compound interest, pays big dividends in the long run. They just don’t happen to be the kind of dividends most of us look forward to. If some body part was in agony, the answer was never to back off and rest but rather to push even harder, to push through the pain, by dint of sheer stubbornness. As a result, I now find myself in the unenviable position of, and chief contender to, the aforementioned title.
My body is wound so tightly that I can barely reach past my knees when I bend over. Getting into Pigeon pose or Sphinx or any of a dozen other simple yoga positions used to send me into spasms of agony accompanied by bouts of involuntary groaning, unable as I was to coax my body into positions so obviously available to everyone around me.
What was worse, I was wound up so tightly for so long that it had become the new normal, to the extent that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t supposed to feel like that all the time. I thought everyone felt like this: this wound up, this hyper alert, this tense, this much in pain. I didn’t know any better, having long since forgotten what normal was supposed to feel like.
For many of us, the response to a typical fight or flight situation is the third option, the one rarely mentioned: freeze. We don’t run away and we don’t fight back. Instead, we numb ourselves, our bodies, and our minds. We freeze into ever more rigid positions, both physically and mentally, constantly reducing our range of available motions and sensations. If this is the new normal and it’s not going away, I might as well train my mind to ignore it, to block it out altogether.
So I stopped going to yoga classes after a few half hearted attempts. It was too embarrassing. I don’t need to have people watch how rigid and inflexible I am, how broken my body is.
It was only about six months ago, long after I’d given up on yoga and resigned myself to a life of pain, that a friend introduced me to an amazing yoga instructor, Nicole Bartzak. Nicole lives in New Jersey and teaches yoga through Zoom sessions. But that’s like saying Roger Federer lives in Switzerland and plays tennis on TV.
I was skeptical at first about learning yoga over an iPad screen but she stayed with me patiently through our weekly sessions and the results are truly amazing. I can do extreme poses such as the famous “head up my butt” (plow pose) one pictured here and I can hold such positions for many minutes at a time with no pain whatsoever!
For the first few months, Nicole patiently instructed me in Yin yoga and then sat watching (and somehow managed to not laugh out loud) as I painfully contorted myself into pretzels. This is perhaps the simplest form of yoga, really not much more than stretches held for several minutes each and with no complicated movements.
What I realized during these sessions was that I’d increasingly limited my own range of motion over the years, both consciously and unconsciously, to compensate for the pounding I was subjecting my body to on a daily basis.
When the ankle pain becomes unbearable, I go to a specialist who orders expensive MRIs, injects me with cortisone shots to numb the pain, and sends me to physical therapy, but none of these help.
Meanwhile, my ankle continues to hurt when I run so I unconsciously tilt my hip a bit and pronate my left foot so the ankle lands in a different position and I suffer less pain. I don’t stop running, mind you; I simply must run! I just find a way to avoid or otherwise numb myself to the pain. I do this for years, for decades, and voila! My hip now hurts even more than my ankle and I can barely walk down the street.
I go to another doctor and then a third over the years. Stop running, they say. Learn to swim. Live with it. Here’s a $1200 laser-etched shoe insert you can wear that may help. Or we can do dangerous scary-sounding surgery on your ankle. No, thanks, I say, I’ve already been there and done that with my spine; and so I switch sports. To cycling. My ankle and hip feel better but now I start accumulating pain and trauma in my shoulders.
Not once did any of those ankle specialists, sports medicine practitioners, or physical therapists ask me: How does your hip feel? None of them seemed to be aware that the two body parts are connected and that stress on one may adversely impact the other. And when I started going to hip specialists, not a single one of them asked how my ankle was feeling. They each specialized in a single body part and no other parts seemed to interest them. The problem with most western medicine is that it does not view the human body holistically.
Everything is connected to everything else, you see. My ankle is connected to my knee which is connected to my IT band which is connected to my hamstrings and quads which is connected to my hip which is connected to my spine. And that’s not even mentioning the sciatic nerve that runs through the spine, the biggest nerve in the body, the one that controls all four limbs.
Needless to say, also, none of them ever asked what was causing so much stress in my life that I needed to punish my body in response, repeatedly, day after day, year after year.
Could it be that the stressful work or home environment I found myself in was partly responsible for this self-destructive behavior? Well, duh! It wasn’t until after I retired and substantially reduced the stress in my life that I came to fully recognize the benefits of a healthy low stress lifestyle.
Most of our ailments are dramatically influenced and amplified by anxiety and the unnatural stress levels we’ve all grown so accustomed to. And yet, we go to a different specialist for our minds, one who never asks how our various other body parts are doing, how we may really be more than the sum of our parts.
So we walk around like zombies, work like robots, run at full tilt like banshees, and ignore our pains, both mental and physical, all while bemoaning our modern western lifestyle and begging to be let out of the rat race.
We learn to numb ourselves to the aches in our bodies, to turn off painful sensations, to avoid certain positions and activities. We reduce the number and quality of experiences available to us, consciously and unconsciously. And the quality of our lives suffers as a result.
So it was that I turned back to yoga and meditation as parts of a holistic approach to health. I’m blessed in that I retired early (at age 51), am extremely healthy, and lead an active lifestyle. Take away the stress, add a bit of self-control over diet, continue staying active and, pretty soon, the least flexible man in the world can twist himself into pretzels like the best of them.
I’ll be the first to admit that the yoga lessons were painful at the beginning. Thanks to my obsessive personality, though, failure was not an option so I kept at it. I found out, by trial and error, that I was in much less pain when aided by an anti-inflammatory, a muscle relaxant, or by Myofascial release therapy.
One day, recently, something finally clicked. My body talked to me and I actually heard it. To be clear, it had been sending me messages all along but I’d ignored it for so long that I’d forgotten the language. Now, for the first time in a long while, I actually listened to what it had to say.
I could get into a position and get direct feedback from every muscle, every joint, and every tendon attached to the particular body part under stress. The hip flexor, the shoulder, the quad each talked to me in turn, telling me how far they were willing to go, to come to the edge of pain, and yet walk away pain free and more flexible as a result.
Yoga is breath, a wise friend once told me. It’s not about getting into positions your body is not comfortable with. It’s about getting into positions it is comfortable with — at the edge of your endurance — and then pushing it gently forward one inch at a time, breathing purposefully all the while, such that your body gets used to it, remembers that this position, too, is available to it. It’s about time, it’s about patience, it’s about endurance.
After a minute or two, you feel your hip, your shoulder, your quad relaxing and accepting this new position. Yeah, I see what you’re trying to do. Okay, yeah, I can let you stretch your leg one more inch in that direction. Let me talk to the ankle, the IT band, the knee, and accommodate that for you. We’re all connected to each other, you know. All you need to do is ask.
Keep breathing. Keep holding the position, just push it one inch further. Rinse and repeat. That is yoga to me and that is what Nicole finally taught me. Listen to your body, I mean really really listen to what it’s saying to you. And don’t forget to breathe, breathe, breathe. Yoga is breath.
I realized early on in our sessions that there was a particular stretch that substantially reduced my hip pain. Once attempted, I could go about the rest of my day with no hip or ankle pain — a result that no amount of expensive western medicine had been able to achieve over the past two decades. All I had to do was lie down on my back, stretch my left leg straight up in the air, grab it with a yoga strap or a towel, and turn it in an arc until it reached the ground on my left side.
The first half dozen or so times I tried this move, my leg wouldn’t even come close to the ground, the hip flexor unwilling or unable to accommodate the position. A few attempts later and I could literally hear the joints in my hip and lower spine “pop”, much like most people pop the joints in their knuckles, as my hip realigned itself into its proper position.
Then, one night, a few weeks into our classes, something incredible happened. I woke up at three o’clock in the morning to significant pain and soreness in my left hip. I just had to get up and stretch it. I was compelled by my body to do so.
I got up, got into child’s pose for a moment, and then immediately attempted the left leg maneuver with a yoga strap. Half way through the motion, long before my leg even came close to the ground, I suddenly heard thirty or forty pops, one on top of another: pop pop, pop pop pop, pop pop, pop… just like popcorn popping in a microwave oven.
It was amazing. It was breathtaking. Suddenly, it felt like my hip was letting go of decades of stress and trauma, opening up for the first time in a long while. I got up off the floor, went back to sleep, a deep blissful sleep, and the stretch became substantially easier from then on.
Oh, I see! The body does keep the score, after all.
The increased flexibility (aided by serious attempts at daily meditation and mindfulness which I haven’t delved into here) have made a huge difference. For the first time in over a decade, all the ankle pain is gone. I could barely walk more than a block six months ago without experiencing severe ankle pain. Yesterday, I went on a strenuous four hour hike and felt no pain whatsoever.
All my shoulder pain is gone. It was so bad that people, upon first meeting me, would ask why I was hunched over. I feel two inches taller as my hip has come back into proper alignment, my spine has straightened, and my shoulders have regained their full range of motion.
There is still some hip pain (to be expected, after decades of long distance running abuse) but it’s substantially less than before — and I’m only just getting started. These days, I spend at least one to two hours a day doing yoga and love every minute of it. I’ve even given up my throne as the least flexible man in the world. Next stop: Yogi-master! 😀
Yoga is amazing. I feel like a graduating kindergartner who has just learned how to read words in a new alphabet, finally comprehending the gobbledygook that everyone else has been so excited about for so long. I have many years of education ahead of me but it feels liberating to be able to converse in a new language for the first time, even if I can only speak a few basic words so far.
Run, don’t walk, to sign up for Nicole’s classes… You can thank me later.
Author’s note: I’ve deleted all my social media accounts and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post on social media if you liked it. Thank you.