Competition is a big theme in Western health and fitness culture. You might not believe it, but even with exercises like stretching, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi, many Americans bring a competitive attitude. In sports, this mindset is good. It tells us to leave it all out on the field. When training in something like Tai Chi, this same urge tells us to be just as good as everyone around us. It pushes us beyond reasonable limits to fit in and avoid embarrassment.
Believe it or not, fitness professionals are told by their employers to forgo teaching beginner clients certain exercises for fear of injury. This goes doubly for elderly clients. The Surgeon General has even put out warnings regarding the safety of exercises like toe-touches and squats.
The exercises themselves are not dangerous. In fact, they are the foundation for a healthy exercise routine. The real danger is not knowing and accepting your limits.
Does this mean that you shouldn't push yourself in the gym, or during your morning stretches? No, of course not. But it does mean putting your goals into perspective. If you can't touch your toes today, don't force yourself to. That is a recipe for throwing out your back. But if you bend over as low as you can comfortably go every day, stretching and strengthening the muscles that support your back, you'll reach that goal of touching your toes, in time. I always tell my students to use the rule of 80% when we train Tai Chi or do stretching.
80% effort will give you the perfect balance between improvement and injury prevention.
Most important, don't be embarrassed about not being as flexible or as strong as you would like. You can get there, but it takes time, patience, and discipline. There are no shortcuts to health. Listen to your health and fitness professionals, and even more importantly, listen to your body. Not being able to touch your toes is not embarrassing. Throwing out your back in a yoga class because you pushed yourself too hard... now that's embarrassing!