Updated: Jul 16
By Dorian Martin, I Start Wondering Founder
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “flexibility”? Maybe you think of yoga, a piece of spaghetti looped around your fork, or Elastigirl from The Incredibles.
Yet flexibility is much more important in supporting our ability to thrive as we reach mid-life and beyond. And in today’s world where everything seems to be very black and white, flexibility is grossly unappreciated.
This quality offers a sense of suppleness to daily life. Take, for example, an older tree. One of the ways that a mature tree survives a significant windstorm is to both be grounded by its roots while also bending with the wind. If it’s not grounded by strong roots, the tree will topple over. And if the tree is too stiff, a powerful wind will snap it in two.
It’s the same for us. Incorporating flexibility into our physical, mental, and emotional life can help us maintain our equilibrium—so we don’t snap when a crisis suddenly arises. Think about when the pandemic emerged. Do you know someone who suddenly stiffened up physically in panic? Who mentally couldn’t navigate the sudden change in a workplace or having all of life’s components placed within the container of a home? Who had sudden or uncontrollable fits of rage or crying?
Oxford Languages Definition of Flexibility: The quality of bending without breaking easily.
Photo by Macarena Moraga on Unsplash
The first area where flexibility is critically important involves our physicality. As we age, flexibility helps us keep our balance when we are on uneven terrain or as we reach to grab something off a high shelf.
But physical flexibility doesn’t always come naturally. While I always have been athletic, flexibility was never my gift. And while everyone was encouraged to stretch, many of us never learned how to stretch.
Fast forward many years and I started to notice my body tightening up. Part of it is because of too much time spent sitting in front of the computer. However, I’ve learned that some of it is due to the emotional baggage that I have placed in my body over the years.
So, how to become more flexible physically? I’ve tried yoga, but it didn’t resonate with me because I found myself trying to keep up with the flexible individuals in the class. The meditation practice I teach—Sheng Zhen Meditation—has moving forms that are helpful, but I realized that I needed additional help.
I recently opened Bob Cooley’s book, “The Genius of Flexibility.” After being hit and severely injured by a car traveling 70 miles per hour, Cooley had to find a way to repair his broken body. During his recovery, he discovered a different way of stretching his fascia.
So what exactly is fascia? According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, this under-appreciated body part is “a thin casing of connective tissue that surrounds and holds every organ, blood vessel, bone, nerve fiber, and muscle in place. The tissue does more than provide internal structure; fascia has nerves that make it almost as sensitive as skin. When stressed, it tightens up.”
Tight fascia can be caused by several factors:
Trauma from surgery or injury
Repetitive movement that overworks a specific body part
An inactive lifestyle
Cooley began teaching others, including swimmer Dara Torres. She credits this type of stretching with helping her win a gold medal in the 2000 Olympics at the age of 34 (which is considered an elder statesman in elite athletics). The approach involves resistance stretching, which involves contracting and lengthening a muscle at the same time.
I decided I needed more than a book to help me learn this method. Fortunately, social media algorithms led me to Bendable Body, whose founders, John and Sita Kelly, were trained by Cooley. Their approach doesn’t involve any extra equipment, other than an exercise mat, a pillow, a chair, and a wall—and your body.
I started with their introductory videos, which I found very helpful in explaining this type of stretching. Eventually, I signed up for a membership, which includes videos of specific stretches as well as live classes via Zoom. Amazingly, I can feel a significant difference after only 15 minutes of stretching and am trying to create a routine where I fit this type of stretching in throughout my day.
This type of stretching can help us avoid some of the issues that are typically expected with aging. And many of these physical issues are actually caused by an underlying lack of flexibility—such as knee pain, which the Kellys address in this blog and offer specific exercises that work miracles.
I’d like to clarify that my recommendation of Bendable Body is not a paid endorsement. I mention it because I’m truly impressed by the benefits I get from this stretching regimen.
Oxford Languages Definition of Flexibility: The willingness to change or compromise.
Flexibility goes beyond our physicality. “Just because you appear physically flexible does not mean you are equally flexible spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically,” Cooley said. “Different personality types have predictable flexibility patterns.”
Maintaining our mental balance in today’s world requires a large degree of flexibility. By keeping our minds open, we can adopt an approach to life-long learning, which helps us remain youthful. However, once our mind closes, rigidity in beliefs and actions often follows—and that’s a recipe for aging. Think about those individuals who cling tightly to their preconceptions. They don’t have the flexibility to meet others where they are or to be willing to learn something new that might shake up their view of the world.
Another way to look at this is to consider whether you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. As researcher Carol Dweck points out, people who have a growth mindset have underlying beliefs that they can continue to learn as long as they put in the effort. This requires that we put aside our preconceptions about the aging brain. As MindsetWorks notes, research shows that the brain is far more malleable than we often acknowledge, allowing us to increase our mental flexibility as we age, if we’re willing to be proactive.
Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania agreed in a recent Instagram post: “We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, but we cling to opinions we formed in 1995. Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. The best way to stay true to your values is to stay open to rethinking your views. What have you rethought lately?”
So how do you create flexibility mentally? I personally think this requires actively getting outside of your comfort zone and trying something new. That could mean reading a different type of book (even one on a banned book list), watching a foreign film, learning to play an instrument, or picking up a new hobby.
Another great way to do this is through interacting with individuals from another culture. Obviously, travel is a great way to do this, but you also can gain some important experiences closer to home. Try visiting restaurants with different international cuisines, going to live performances that feature different cultural heritages, or learning a foreign language. And look around your neighborhood and embrace those with different heritages; my immediate neighbors are from Vietnam, Central America, and Guam, and I look forward to learning about their cultures from them.
Oxford Languages Definition of Flexibility: The ability to be easily modified.
Interestingly, the Bendable Body method incorporates Chinese medicine’s concept of meridians. Based on this concept, each meridian is linked to a specific organ of the body – such as heart, lung, thyroid, skin—and specific stretches engage each meridian.
So why put this physical stretching under the subhead of emotional flexibility? It’s because, according to Chinese medicine, each organ is linked to specific emotions. For example, the kidney meridian affects understanding, humor, meditation, and confidence, while other meridians are linked to different emotions and behaviors. While I haven’t made my way through all the stretches in Bendable Body’s program, I have experienced emotional changes from practicing Sheng Zhen Meditation’s moving forms, which also are grounded in Chinese medicine.
Emotional flexibility helps us with our emotional intelligence. Psychology Today describes emotional intelligence as including “a few skills: namely emotional awareness, or the ability to identify and name one’s own emotions; the ability to harness those emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes both regulating one’s own emotions when necessary and helping others to do the same.”
Think about the person who always seems to be angry. That person often tends to be backed into a corner and can’t seem to get out of that emotion. And when times are chaotic, these individuals quickly lose their emotional flexibility and go to their default emotion of anger or rage. They are easily triggered—and also keep people walking on eggshells around them. Without emotional flexibility, these individuals continually walk the same angry path and can easily become isolated, which can turn into a vicious cycle that can lead to violent behavior.
In comparison, by engaging in life with a more open and flexible emotion—such as kindness–you have the emotional bandwidth to navigate sticky situations. You’re able to offer the other person grace and increase the chances of creating a win-win situation.
Flexibility in Life
Ultimately, flexibility requires that we acknowledge that change is part of life—nothing is static or set in stone–and we need to make space for that to happen. “Change is constant. It is in everything,” writes Caroline Myss, a best-selling author, and speaker in the fields of human consciousness, spirituality and mysticism, health, energy medicine, and the science of medical intuition. “Yet, we invest much of our energy on making choices based on the assumption of the permanency of the world around us. We will always have this and we will always be with these people and we will always have security and we will always have flexible bodies. You have your list of ‘always’ and I have mine. We should meet somewhere and burn them in a ritual of release, as they are worthless.”