Decades ago when I began my yoga journey and experimenting with various styles and disciplines of yoga, there was always one constant goal - flexibility. I was always taught to try to stretch farther, go deeper. Yes,there were different modalities to get there - more heat, more humidity, longer holds, blocks, straps, etc... But it was always about how far can I stretch. Can I eventually put my leg behind my head and "relax"-Ha. Yes, I did eventually put my legs behind my head, but rest assured I was never relaxed. In fact, this attempt at increased flexibility often left me injured.
In the yoga world we often see in magazines, or more commonly now on social media, images that invoke "flexibility disorders" much like womens magazines create body image disorders. People with unnaturally flexible bodies doing these poses that make the rest of us feel that either we should strive to do these poses or we are inadequate if we cannot contort our body into them. I am moderately flexible , but have always been strong and have gravitated to the more strength based poses rather than the flexibility ones.
Over the last several years I have started to see a shift in the focus of the yoga world that I believe is due to many teachers as well as students getting injured doing a discipline they believed would keep them healthy. So something had to change. Instructors and students started becoming more educated on anatomy and the optimal way the body functions. We have started to move towards addressing mobility over flexibility, stability over strength.
Joint mobility is defined as the degree to which the articulation (where 2 bones meet) is allowed to move before being restricted by surrounding tissues (ligaments, tendons, muscles, etc); otherwise known as the range of uninhibited movement around a joint- how the joint moves. The difference between flexibilty and mobility is that flexibility is defined by the length of a muscle mobility is defined by how the muscle moves and functions. The length of a muscle, predetermined at birth, can be improved over time, but our concern should be on the mobility of the muscle.
Joint stability (according to ACE - American Council on Exercise) is defined as the ability to maintain or control joint movement or position. Stability is achieved by the coordinating actions of surrounding tissues and the neuromuscular system. Strength and power in the muscles are built on stability. If we cannot control movement or positions we cannot gain strength. Once we have stability we can become stronger.
We are starting to learn that we need great joint mobility, which helps lead to better stability and then we can gain overall strength.
So in yoga we focus not on how far we can stretch, but how we can stretch with proper alignment. We focus on how we can stretch the muscles not the joint space. We focus on how we need to work stabilizers. Planks and balances postures should be our focus before we work poses like leg behind the head. In splits, Hanumanasana, we need to focus on hugging the inner thighs towards each other as we move into the split to maintain that stability in the pelvis. In chaturanga, or low pushup we need to draw the shoulder blades slightly together and down to place them in the correct alignment in order to engage the back muscles. All of these are examples, there are many, many more.
If we approach our yoga practice with that in mind it truly becomes a healing modality- one that can lead to healthier, more comfortable body and mind.