In modern yoga, we are very focused on alignment: where should I put my hand? Which way should my foot point? You’ve heard many alignment cues from me and I am sure, many other teachers: “Aim your knee over your middle two toes. Don’t bring your knee forward of your ankle. Bring your hands shoulder width apart. Pull your shoulder blades down”.
But whose body are these cues for? Because we certainly don’t have the same bodies. And what are these cues for? Are they about safety? Function? Or aesthetics?
In Paul & Suzee Grilley’s Anatomy training we are learning about a functional approach to yoga – that means, that we focus on what the function, or purpose, of a pose is, and then place our bodies in the best position for us that achieves the desired effect in the target area.
Due to our unique differences, but particularly due to the skeletal variation between individuals, the end result when you take this approach is a roomful of people in either completely different poses or variations of the same pose that look very different from one another.
Throughout this 16-day course we have all been amazed at the difference in range of motion that a group of 30 yoga teachers have, all with many years of practice and study behind them. Paul kept highlighting that because we were all experienced yoga teachers, most of us would have worked through much of the myofascial tightness that restricts us. (Meaning it’s less likely to be tight muscles or fascia that stop us). Therefore, the differences we were seeing was due to our bones.
This has been cathartic to me. As we worked through various movements in our bodies, I discovered that in many of them, my range of movement was one of the most limited in the room. Simply because I have bone on bone compression, which means that one bone hits another bone and I can’t move any further. For years, I have dealt with feelings of inadequacy as a yoga practitioner, as I thought that I couldn’t do certain poses because I wasn’t “good enough”. I hadn’t tried hard enough, or I wasn’t strong enough, or I wasn’t flexible enough. Yet there are some poses I will simply never do due to the shape of my bones. Others I can – and do - modify to get “my version” of a pose, but now I can let go of the thought that it is an inferior version because it doesn’t follow the so called “rules of alignment”.
To illustrate how significantly skeletal variation can affect how a pose is done, I asked my colleague Jan Penny from New Zealand to take some photos with me. Jan and I seemed to have opposite body types, and poses she found easy I struggled with and vice versa.
Shoelace pose: The difference in our poses relates to how our thigh bones sit in our hip sockets, and the shape and angle of our hip sockets. For those that understand “anatomy speak”, Jan has great internal rotation, I have none. I have poor external rotation in some positions, but this changes if I move my thigh in or out from my “centre line”. Jan on the other hand has poor external rotation.
Wide Shoelace: This is a different version of the same pose, and Jan and I are both limited by our poor external rotation here. It’s the rotation of your thigh that determines the angle you can get your shin bone here.
Dragonfly: Jan’s ability to get her belly to the floor is not necessarily because she is more flexible than me. It has more to do, again, with her hip sockets and ability to tilt her pelvis forward. What stops me is compression in the hip joint: simply put my thigh bone is in the way of my pelvis. You will also note that Jan’s internal rotation means her feet are rolled in, whereas mine point up to the ceiling.
Caterpillar: Here again, my pelvic compression inhibits my forward fold. Yet if I do an asymmetrical version I can tilt my pelvis much further forward.
Saddle Pose: Jan’s favourite and my least favourite. If I tried to lay back here I feel too much pressure in my ankles, knees and lower back. The good news is I have alternatives!
Short stepping dragon: Look at the angle of Jan’s ankle compared to mine. I have always blamed tight calves and Achilles, but it’s actually because my tibia bone hits my talus bone (the top of the foot) hence my heel must lift to decrease the degree of flexion at the ankle.
Long Stepping Dragon: Look at how different our dragons are! Again, pelvic tilt plays a role here, as well as other factors.
Not every pose is appropriate for every body and everybody will experience a pose differently. So next time you are struggling with a pose, forget about what you think it is meant to look like, and try to find a version that feels right in your body.
Thanks Jan for agreeing to be in this little photo shoot! And thanks to Heyes for taking the photos.