Will these muscles ever open up?
October 27, 2009 12:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm 54 years old, fairly new (2+ years) into a yoga practice. I'm unable to open up enough to successfully do many of the poses; my muscles are not only tight but also actually shorter (from what a trusted massage therapist told me) shorter than the same muscles on other people, presumably because I've carried stress by tightening up all these years. I do believe in this practice, and the possibilities of actually opening up these muscles over time -- is this just delusional?

When I casually mentioned to the massage therapist -- who is also a qualified yoga instructor -- that I believed that these shortened, tightened muscles would open up / lengthen over time, she seemed surprised; I don't recall exactly what she said, but words to the effect "Hey, you've been tightening/shortening these muscles for decades, they're set this way, you're now 54, give it up" or some such. And I'm thinking "Hey, I'm hoping that my body will open up, might take years but I've got time.

Many of the poses I'm just unable to perform correctly, I'm strong but inflexible; I've had two masters tell me this -- as a general rule, when showing up to begin a yoga practice, women are flexible but not strong; men are strong but not flexible. It is very annoying to me to watch my women friends bend down and palms down on the floor, and because of tight hamstrings and butt and every other muscle I'm barely able (on a good day) to get my fingers to the floor -- and this after two years of this practice, and my women friends not practicing anything other than maybe flexing their fingers around a keyboard -- but I've seen it enough to accept that it's how it is.

So. Will my old ragged body open up over time? Will my muscles not only become more flexible but perhaps stretch out? Am I expecting the unbelievable, hoping for the unbelievable?

Massage and physical therapist and people who have (or have not) had their body open up, share your experiences please -- thanx!
posted by dancestoblue to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Have you seen any positive responses in your body after this 2+ year practice? I'd find it hard to believe your body is exactly the same as it was over two years ago with a regular yoga practice. Or, think of it this way -- if you stopped yoga today, what would your body become? Can you sense a change in your body if you go a month without yoga? Perhaps you're not only very gradually improving flexibility and "openness," but you're also staving off some potentially much worse stiffness, tightness, and feeling of shortening. I know it's frustrating - there are some poses that are just so impossible for each of us -- but I'd give anything for more strength like you sometimes.

On a visceral level, I also know that the one thing yoga has taught me, is that seriously, literally, every single body is so so so different.

Furthermore, perhaps another kind of yoga would be useful. Maybe something like the slow, long-holding poses, instead of Ashtanga (or vice versa). Does the instructor come 'round and help you adjust your poses, either with subtle movements or props?

Finally, I know it's frustrating. But I'd like to give you at least one voice of support -- starting yoga at 50+ with a body that seems to work against it is no small feat. But something must be working for you to stick with it this long -- go back and listen to those small victories and those feelings of general healthfulness and centeredness. It's not all about the toes.
posted by barnone at 12:14 PM on October 27, 2009

Relax. Don't worry be happy. I'm 58 and started at 53. Whether you "open up" or not is irrelevant. You receive all of the same benefits that people more flexible than yourself enjoy. The breathing benefits, the blood flow benefits, the relaxation benefits...

Check back in a decade! Don't forget to breathe!
posted by snowjoe at 12:21 PM on October 27, 2009 [5 favorites]

This really isn't something you should be beating yourself up about -- yoga isn't a competition, and everyone's body is different. According to my instructor, breath and relaxation are far, far more important, and she's always encouraged us to use props like blankets and blocks or make other modifications if necessary. I'd really encourage you to talk directly with your instructor about making personal modifications if you're having trouble getting deeper into certain poses.

It's worth noting that I (a relative beginner) can get into a few poses "correctly" that my very experienced instructor can't. That doesn't mean that I'm more skilled, just that I carry tension differently than she does.
posted by susanvance at 12:23 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm really surprised at the response you got from your massage therapist - what an discouraging thing to say. Keep doing what you're doing. Your muscles are just going to keep lengthening every time you stretch or maintain poses. What's been shortened by time can also be elongated by time. Unless you're also doing some kind of specific exercise/weight training that's tightening your muscles (are you?), you'll continue to train your muscles to relax and lengthen, and you will become more and more flexible. Your goals are definitely attainable. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

I think you have a good attitude : I have the time, and I'll get there when I get there.

This is a good response to a question related to yours.
posted by iconomy at 12:36 PM on October 27, 2009

I was a late starter in yoga also and just love it. Muscles are variable. There are, in fact, people with muscles more suited to sprinting; others to long distance running. There's a lot you can to the make muscles work better, but you also have what you have.

I have rather short hamstrings, which are now stretched and lots more flexible than before I began yoga. I do it every day on my own at home, this after taking three years of classes. Why? I quit the classes because I got tired of my yoga instructor telling me I could/should elongate my hamstrings--as if something was wrong with them. I do have short hamstrings. They're normal, and they're as long as they're going to get. So I found me a new yoga instructor--me--who accepts and loves my short hamstrings.
posted by Elsie at 12:48 PM on October 27, 2009

Of course your muscles will open-up over time. Will you be able to stretch like a 19 year old Bikram Yoga champion? No. But who cares? Yoga isn't about how deep you can stretch or how long you can hold yourself in scorpion pose. It's about your personal improvement, your body, your mind, your practice. Just relax.

Asana is only one part of yoga. If you're in it for more than just the exercise, asana is simply a way to fast track yourself to relaxed states so you can deepen your meditation and improve your control of your breath.

So forget about the discouraging massage therapist. You'll get there.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:54 PM on October 27, 2009

One thing my dance instructor (he was a professional dancer) taught me was to stretch for a period of time after shower before going to bed. He said for most people the body is more relaxed and less tense at that time. What he asked us to do was to lie next to a wall vertically and have your legs up against the wall. Like this. (He did not say anything about putting a pillow below your waist but that seem like a good idea.) And you won't see improvement right away - it takes time. There is no need to push yourself because you are not competing with anyone. It's about being in control of your mind and body (equally important!).

Good luck and have fun.
posted by jstarlee at 1:08 PM on October 27, 2009

Try trigger point therapy
posted by Not Supplied at 1:24 PM on October 27, 2009

The key thing here is, how many hours a day? How many days per week? I'm certain that the answer to your question is 'yes' if these two numbers are high enough. I hope you know that you don't have to practice in a class, the only thing you need is a mat or a blanket (for many asanas you don't even need that). A class is just something to get you started and to show how each asana is done.

However, if you want to do 1 hour class a couple times a week then it's very possible that your muscles will take many, many years or decades to open up.
posted by rainy at 2:05 PM on October 27, 2009

What about the frequency of your practice? One class a week may not change much, a few classes a week and some time (even 15 minutes) on the mat at home would give you a much better shot.
posted by shothotbot at 2:07 PM on October 27, 2009

*nods along with rainy*
posted by shothotbot at 2:08 PM on October 27, 2009

if you just want some extra flexibility, regular athletic stretching during off days helps me when i go to practice. warm up prior to doing some traditional (track-type) stretches. 10-15 minutes biking, running, stairs, anything to get blood into the muscles. this will make them more pliant. hold each stretch for 25-30 seconds. breathe in, hold, exhale, deepen. works a treat. do this every day. i originally started after years of shortened hamstrings had completely pulled my back out of alignment. nice and bendy now.
posted by rye bread at 2:22 PM on October 27, 2009

In addition, how do you do the stretches, especially the ones that are difficult for you? I have rather short hamstrings and doing hamstring stretches with straight legs doesn't work well for me. Now I bend my knees, putting my chest on my hamstrings and then straigten my legs. This gives me a much more thourough stretch than the straight leg hamstring stretch ever did. This book talks more about this technique and applies it to the whole body:


I find I get more out of my yoga practice now than I did before. Maybe had I received individual lessons with good instructors I would have learned similar techniques, or had I listened better to what they said. But this book enabled me to realize how to get more from my practice.
posted by GregorWill at 2:33 PM on October 27, 2009

This document has a lot of helpful information. It's from someone in the dance world, where they take stretching very seriously.
posted by conrad53 at 3:01 PM on October 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

dancestoblue, I find that while yoga is beneficial to my flexibility, yoga in combination with weight lifting (barbell squats and deadlifts) opens me right up. I'm still stiff but the combination really does a number of my tight hips and hamstrings.

I've also noticed that I have to be very diligent about stretching. I sit in front of the computer for work. 1 hour of yoga a week is canceled out by 40 hours of sitting, so I have to do a little bit every day (even if it's half an hour of yoga). This may be an issue for you as well. Try to stay active. Even minimal exercise is much better then sitting on your butt.

Finally, don't compare yourself to others. Genetics and lifestyle mean a lot in this case, but what really matters is the change in you. Good luck!
posted by aeighty at 3:13 PM on October 27, 2009

I will absolutely echo what snowjoe said. You don't have to "perfect" every pose. That's not the point. Do what you can, make it work for you.

One of the hardest things for us males in a yoga class is to remove the competition element. You're not trying to meet or beat the instructor or classmates, you're doing this for yourself at your own pace.
posted by phrakture at 3:18 PM on October 27, 2009

Your muscles can and will lengthen. Do lots of gentle stretching. Doing yoga should be joyful and calming, not stress-inducing. You are doing good things for your body. It's not competitive, and the only grade is: Do you feel better?
posted by theora55 at 3:25 PM on October 27, 2009

I started practicing yoga roughly 8 years ago, in my mid 40's. I, too, was strong and inflexible. Progress has been very slow, but measurable. Take snowjoe's words to heart - these are my sentiments exactly.

One thing that took me a long time to learn is to use the props - blocks, bolsters, folded blankets. It's not "cheating," nor does it make you less of a real yogi. If using a prop helps you achieve a better overall shape and lets you really do the work, then by all means use it! Another important attitude adjustment, as phrakture has already pointed out, was learning to leave my competitive instincts at the door. Concentrate on yourself, and let the rest slip away. Enjoy!
posted by McMark at 4:04 PM on October 27, 2009

As long as you are enjoying your yoga practice and feel that it is benefiting your mind and body, don't worry about if it's turning you into a gymnast or not. Yoga is about personal growth on your own level, not compared to anyone else. Don't worry about what your friends can do. Focus on yourself.
posted by radioamy at 7:16 PM on October 27, 2009

So even though your massage therapist is saying that your muscles have been tightening and contracting for decades, I just want to point out that you might live another 40 years, in which case, I imagine, if you do yoga everyday, yes, your muscles and body would change accordingly. Even if you only live another 20 years, but did yoga consistently, your muscles and body would change. This is what I am hoping for for my own self, in any case :)
posted by gt2 at 9:07 PM on October 27, 2009

I'm 36 and have been doing yoga steadily for about three months now. I know that's a lot younger than you, but I was a) very ill when I started b) very weak c) very, very inflexible! I'm still no way super bendy, but yeah, I notice a real difference. I walk taller, my shoulders feel much looser and after practice, I feel very calm and energised and I'm happily surprised by what my body will let me do in class.

I put this down to the kind of yoga I do (Iygengar, which concentrates on correct alignment and support with props) and practicing at home, just for 15 minutes or so a day. I find too I get the best results after a really hot bath and I practice just before bed, targeting the areas that are tightest for me.

Also, FWIW, In the past, I've tried Oki Do, Yoga in Daily Life's version of Hatha; and Iygengar in a couple of different studios. I always found my body responded best to the slow, considered way Iyengar encourages you to stretch and build strength.
posted by t0astie at 12:40 AM on October 28, 2009

One data point for you: I'd been doing yoga on and off for a couple of decades, but not really regularly. This year I turned 49 and decided to commit to about 20-25 minutes almost every day. Just recently, for the first time in 20+ years I can touch my toes (with my knees slightly bent). Yeah, I see those limber folks (mostly women) who casually put their hands flat on the floor, but there's a couple of poses that take strong muscles that I can hold much longer than them....I don't see either of us as "better", just differently built.

I had one yoga instructor who told the class that if we were breathing well and attempting to get into the pose, then we were doing it perfectly.
posted by telstar at 12:56 AM on October 28, 2009

One of my teachers reminds us that every day we are a different person and each time we are at the mat, our body will do different things. With my practice, I know my limitations but don't feel limited by them. After many years of doing yoga, there are things which still challenge me. It is what it is. I don't do yoga for what I can or can't do. I do it for what it does for me.
posted by bookshelves at 5:45 PM on October 28, 2009

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