Why can’t I touch my toes anymore?

May 24, 2023 0 Comments

“], “filter”: { “nextExceptions”: “img, blockquote, div”, “nextContainsExceptions”: “img, blockquote, a.btn, ao-button”} }”>

Going out the door? Read this article about the new Outside+ app now available on member iOS devices! >”,”name”:”in-content-cta”,”type”:”link”}}”>Download the app.

As a physical education teacher, I deal with unexpected comments. Like the time I was explaining the rules of badminton to the class and a second grader asked if we were going to play “badminton” too. Or the case when a third-grader ran 400 meters and asked, between heavy breaths, if he could go to the nurse. “I’m only eight and my heart feels so, so old,” he explained.

I’m used to coming up with pithy answers that combine weirdness with a little wisdom. But I was really confused in early January when a student asked if I had a New Year’s resolution. To be honest, it never occurred to me to come up with it. So, like Steve Carrell in a scene from The Host, I looked around the gym, desperately grasping for filler. We happened to be stretching, so I whimsically replied that my solution was to touch my toes.

It might sound like a joke coming from a PE teacher who also does yoga, but the truth is, I could never touch my toes without bending my knees. Every time I did a sun salutation class and it was time for Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), I used myself as an example of what it looks like not to put your hands on the floor.

I don’t mind being an example. But as my quirk began to take shape in my mind, I began to envision a new, more flexible way forward. I thought that a newfound commitment to stretching and my yoga practice would allow me to achieve that rarest of resolutions: ones that are actually achievable.

So I halved the strength of my Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior Pose 1), I tried sitting in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) while reading or watching Netflix to open up my hips, and I followed Henry David Thoreau’s advice to stretch in the morning with my students and confidently walked in the direction of his dream.

However, I inadvertently created an audience for my progress—or my relative lack of it. Over the course of the semester, my students watched me reach for these wiggling protrusions on the other end of my body without closing the gap, constantly reminding me that I wasn’t quite there yet.

Being so close but not where I wanted was crazy. Was it worth continuing this Sisyphean quest? Is it time to accept that I will never be able to compete with the stupid flexibility of my students?

Plausibility of touching the toes

That was six years ago. I still can’t touch my toes. And it still bothers me. My identity as a physical educator and yoga practitioner sometimes feels dangerously fragile, a house of cards built on special circumstances beyond my control. I’m only 38 and my hamstrings feel so, so old.

If I can’t reach my decision, I thought maybe I can at least confirm that my arbitrary decision isn’t as important as I thought. So I turned to David Behm, who literally wrote the book on stretching. A professor in the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Behm has devoted his career to research in sports science and exercise physiology.

“Flexibility is important,” Bam said. At that moment, my house of cards seemed ready to collapse. But he continued. “Everyone needs a functional range of motion around a joint to be able to perform everyday activities, such as picking something up off the floor, reaching down to tie shoes or putting on socks.”

My mood started to lift. Having a four-year-old and a one-year-old means I’m constantly picking something or someone up off the floor and bending down to tie my own shoes, as well as the shoes on many other feet. It’s clear that my range of motion is anything but functional.

And yet I needed to know the importance of touching my toes. I asked Bem.

“Touching your toes is an arbitrary measure of flexibility,” he said, giving me the confirmation I was looking for. It wasn’t quite like The Wizard of Oz, but perhaps it was an acknowledgment that the flexibility of mind necessary for pleasure had been in me all along. When I asked (by asking a friend) what advice he would give to someone frustrated by not being able to achieve a certain goal, he said, “Persistence. Everyone can improve their flexibility if they keep working on it.”

Crazy achievement of my goal

It’s good to have goals. They move us to action. They create momentum where there used to be inertia. A year after that resolution, my yoga practice became more consistent. My overall stretching game has changed from playful to purposeful.

But instead of carelessly reaching out in the direction of my legs, I began to reach out to grab them. You could say I’ve become a bit obsessed with my hamstrings reaching a elasticity they otherwise didn’t know existed.

Aspiration tends to create a binary in which one either succeeds or fails. I also practice Zen and have been dealing with this tension behind me for several decades, so I should have been more aware of the trap I had set for myself.

Like many other criteria—run a marathon, read 50 books a year, or give up red meat—the goal can be the engine. But as many of us have had to find out the hard way, it is our relationship with purpose that matters most.

You can run a marathon, read 50 books in a year, give up red meat and still be the same single-minded grump you were. Or you can run 5 km, read 24 books, give up hamburgers and undergo radical change.

The process can unfold along the spectrum. Even a small change in behavior can lead to huge changes in our personal trajectory. What is important is not the goal itself, but the focus on your process and the changed perception that occurs in response to the goal.

The longest journey begins with one segment. But we must constantly put one foot next to the other and reach for them. If this journey south is not perceived as a dynamic event, why even set a goal? Who wants to spend that much time with their toes anyway?

Now my toes remain as elusive as ever. And I agree with that. Perhaps a smarter approach is to acknowledge the arbitrary nature of my goal while honoring the tenacity it inspired in me.

RELATED: More than a toe tap

About our contributor
Alex Tselnik is a writer, physical education teacher, and director of Mindfulness based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He holds a master’s degree in mindfulness studies from Lesley University and has written about the intersection of education, mindfulness, and movement for publications including Tricycle Magazine, Slate, The Daily Beast, and Reverse. You can find him on social media @atz840.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *