repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency*
an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature*
In February, I taught at a Three Sisters yoga teacher training in Portland. One of the students asked a really simple but profound question: how much flexibility is too much? My default answer, "It depends," was immediately followed by one of those moments where you start out bullshitting and something really important comes out. I began to ask myself the question, "Is yoga a practice or a sport?"
Is yoga a sport or a practice?
I unapologetically do and teach both. Neither is wrong. I think the key is honestly acknowledging how you approach yoga and knowing the difference. When you step onto the mat, what is your goal? When asking oneself how much flexibility (or strength, or balance, etc.) is appropriate, it's essential to know WHY you're doing it in the first place.
Looking at yoga as a practice, it's about repeated, systematic action to develop a particular skill. The keys to this are: 1) a skill goal, and 2) repetition. Oftentimes, this shows up for me as learning to breathe deeply when my body is in a pretzel shape (the skill goal), and I've been working on it about 5 days/week consistently for the past 5 years (repetition).
The goal & repetition will vary person-to-person, but at the center of a yoga practice must be, well, yoga. According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (big-time yoga text), "The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga," so I'd naturally expect to incorporate that into the skill goal somehow. Thankfully, Patanjali outlines a system to restrain mind-stuff (woohoo...so glad we don't have to figure that one out on our own!), which has 8 steps, or "limbs." The skill goal for your practice just depends on where you're at on the continuum of the 8 limbs of yoga. I've been working at the intersection of asana and pranayama for a while now so that's where my regular practice is focused.
Asana, one of the 8 limbs of yoga, is the physical practice of postures. This is what we commonly see in classes, online and in magazines in the United States. If done within the context of restraining mind-stuff, these feats of physical prowess most certainly are yoga. Through an athletic pursuit of postures, we can potentially reduce pain, release our jitters, breathe better and act nicer to other humans, which prepares us to head a little deeper down the 8-limbed rabbit hole. How glorious!
This part of the yoga process is really fun. Yoga poses incite a curiosity in me that is hard, if not impossible, to shut off. Feeling the float of a handstand, or the groundedness of my third eye on the floor in child's pose, simply feels good. After moving through sun salutes, standing well and flipping my body upside-down, I'm far more likely to be able to sit still and practice pranayama (restraint of the breath) or pratyahara (withdraw of the senses). And if I'm honest with myself, I'm a far more compassionate person which sets me up to practice ahimsa (non-violence), the foundation of it all.
When asking oneself how much flexibility (or strength, or balance, etc.) is required in yoga, check in with your goal. How do YOU clear your mind-stuff? Is it a consistent practice of incremental change? Or does an athletic moment of physicality do the trick? How much flexibility does it take to do the thing you want to do?
What do you need right now?