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Take Yoga Back to Its Roots

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Everyone wants to know the secret to health and longevity, but the answer is found in something most people don't want to hear about. It's not in the cleanses, supplements or 90 days of intense workouts. It's not in chasing a marathon or triathlon finish. The answer is found in something much simpler: flexibility.

Flexibility is far more than just reaching over and touching your toes. What flexibility really offers is the capability to use your body to its fullest. By this I mean having a full range of motion, increased blood flow throughout the entire body and muscles that are pliable and resistant to injury, as well as a variety of other physical and mental benefits. Achieving this flexibility provides sustained health and wellness throughout your lifetime.

My obsession with flexibility began when I was 13. Since then, I've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on all types of trainers, doctors, equipment, tools, courses and regimens just to help me become more flexible. Yoga was one of these methods, one I eventually discovered to be most effective when performed over natural, uneven surfaces.

I have been called obsessive about health as I looked for ways to enhance my body and fitness. I went through a number of stages in this journey, and they all included a focus on flexibility. As soon as I started martial arts, I wanted a wider range of motion. As I got more fit, I also wanted to be more nimble and able to go with the flow of athletic movements. And as I got older, I desired flexibility above all else. I was completely bought into the idea that flexibility was the key to late-life mobility and quality of life.

When I was in my thirties, I started doing Bikram yoga. Bikram yoga is a system derived from traditional hatha yoga that focuses on a pattern of postures while in rooms specifically heated to 105°F (40°C). After just a few months, I committed to doing Bikram yoga in these heated rooms every day for a year. And I almost made it, missing just four days out of 365. These were 90-minute classes in a hot room doing traditional yoga aimed at increasing flexibility. Over the course of a year, I found that only sometimes would my flexibility improve; other times, it would actually regress.

Eventually, I stopped doing Bikram but continued to do yoga stretches and obsess over my flexibility. Then a friend of mine, who is a yoga instructor, gave me this quote about Pranayama breathing, the same breathing technique performed at the beginning of Bikram yoga: "One could stop on a gravel path and do Pranayama breathing and regain energy and spirit."

I was immediately fixated upon the gravel path. When yoga was first performed, it was done barefoot. In addition, adherents would not perform yoga on carpeted floors or unnaturally flat gym surfaces.

So I went outside and kicked off my shoes. A lot of paths in Austin are made of crushed granite, and so I found one and did Pranayama breathing while standing there barefoot. I remember within three breaths feeling a more dynamic breath than I ever had before. I let my feet settle into the gravel, feeling the irregularity of pinpoints pushing back against my soles. I took in several more breaths, breathing directly into my feet and going through the Pranayama breathing method again. After 15 breaths I was sweating, as if I was back in a Bikram class.

It was like a key fitting a lock, the grainy, points of the gravel massaging the soles of my feet. I could feel the rest of my body opening up in response to the sudden feedback that had previously been missing. With this simple change in my environment, I started to feel my muscles and ligaments relax. Over time, and repeating this practice, I have been able to attain the flexibility I had searched for my whole life.

Yoga can expand your senses. In turn, you have to make use of all of your senses, especially touch, to unlock the potential of your body. Yoga emphasizes a direct connection to the ground, which is an element we've missed as the polished floors of modern yoga studios became more popular. Like adherents many centuries ago, yoga should be done barefoot on natural ground, letting the many uneven sensations of the earth unlock your greatest level of flexibility.