I’ve always been ashamed of my lack of physical flexibility. Even back in elementary school, I’d be so embarrassed that almost everyone in gym class was able to touch their toes with relative ease—while my wrists barely skimmed my knees. What is wrong with me, I wondered. Why can’t I do this?
The older I got, the more my self-consciousness grew. When my friends talked about taking a yoga class together, I’d gently bow out. The idea that all of my friends would notice that I couldn’t easily move from one position to another terrified me. I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t fit, or that I was lazy and out of touch with my body.
The rational, logical part of my brain knew that the first step was to simply show up: If I just tried, I told myself, I’d probably make some progress. But the fear of looking like the worst person in the class stopped me from moving forward.
Avoiding yoga because I lacked flexibility wasn’t the first time that I’d let fear get in the way of doing something because I was worried about my body’s limitations, though.
For most of my life, I wanted to be a runner. Runners were, in my mind, part of an exclusive group that I longed to join: They became antsy if they hadn’t been able to run outdoors for days at a time, they talked about split times, and they complained about their tight IT bands. I wanted to be a part of those conversations. Their efforts inspired me.
Many years ago, I actually lived with three runners; they would plan running trips together, plotting new locations and coming back with photographs looking sun-kissed and sweaty. They’d invite me to join them, but I’d excuse myself, complaining about my lack of footwear.
One day, my roommate took me to a shoe store. I bought a pair of New Balance sneakers, and ran my first mile that same day. Sure, it took me thirteen and a half minutes, but when I finished, my roommates looped back around and gathered me in a hard hug as the blood pounded in my ears.
I wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment again. At the beginning of this year, I made a list of the things that I wanted to do before the year was up: “Take a yoga class,” I listed (and immediately cringed with fear).
I’d been avoiding this for so long that it seemed unfathomable that I’d actually go. What would it take to make me feel comfortable enough to attend a class? The answer was simple: I needed to believe in my body’s ability to change and grow.
I’m an organized, goal-oriented person, so I embarked on a 30-day stretching challenge with clear rules and objectives. I knew that I needed a routine I could be accountable to, so I decided that I’d stretch for the first and last five minutes of every day. I also knew that my goals needed to be measurable, so I decided to focus on the thing that had caused me so much shame when I was younger: I wanted to get closer to touching my toes every day.
On the first day of my stretching challenge, I felt the familiar feelings of shame sneak up again. Even though I was alone, I could feel the skin of my face heat up. There were more than four inches between my fingers and my toes. But beyond the shame, I could feel that ‘good pain’ of a muscle giving way and warming up. That evening, when I stretched again, I was disappointed that I hadn’t already (somehow!) seen progress, but at least I wasn’t feeling total self-consciousness.
Weeks 1& 2
Up to two weeks after beginning this challenge, I still hadn’t noticed that much of a difference, but stretching—as a definitive part of my morning and evening routines—became important to me. It was like brushing my teeth or washing my face: an important self-care ritual.
It wasn’t until day 20 that I noticed a substantial change. I’d gotten out of bed and stretched outside the bathroom door. At this point, one of my cats came to stand at my toes. The tips of my fingers—which could actually stretch far enough to pet my cat—were far lower than they had at the beginning of the month. In the beginning, there was no way I would have been able to touch my cat if she came to visit me while stretching.
As I stretched, I counted backwards from 30 to help myself hold the move, and I literally had to stop myself from jumping up and down in delight. I was actually doing this!
By the 25th day, I knew that I’d clearly made progress. I was still a few inches away from easily touching my toes, but I was really getting there. At this point, I thought back on what I learned about the human body: namely, that it is incredible and malleable. It is capable of change.
On Day 30 of my stretching challenge, I basically touched my toes, although briefly. In order to fully accomplish my new goal, I realized, I’d have to take this knowledge of my body and head to a yoga studio. So, I searched for a drop-in yoga class near my apartment.
The vinyasa class I walked into was exactly what I needed. Within a few minutes of getting started, I was too busy trying to follow the instructor to worry about whether people would notice how bad I was at yoga.
At one point, I actually fell over, but no one laughed or looked at me with judgment. I have no idea if I was the worst person in the class, but I survived it. And that’s because I put trust in my body.
I intend to go to another drop-in class before the week is over. And now that I’m almost able to touch my toes, I’m going to start a new challenge: I’m going to work on my splits—every morning and every evening.