Different Bodies, Different Paths
Updated: Oct 31, 2020
This is a follow up to Yoga Is For Everybody – But Is Every Pose? , where I brought up the existence of skeletal variation between people as well as anatomical differences within ourselves that need to be taken into consideration for Yoga or any movement modality. Today, I will go into this topic a little further and include some examples from the mat.
"It is/should be/has always been...done this way"
There was once a private student whom I had asked to decide the distance between her feet in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) which would feel most grounding and stable for her. Immediately, she stood with her feet slightly apart and thanked me for allowing her this space. She had been frustrated because previous teachers insisted for her to stand with feet together and it was not comfortable.
I can relate. There are popular instructions that do not work well for my body too. Ever heard of cues like "knees together, feet touching" or "feet together, big toes touching"? For people with relatively straight legs, those cues might be possible. I have a mild case of valgus knees or what people might know as knock knees. My knees are slightly tilted/turned towards each other.
This means that my knees will touch before my feet do when I bring my legs toward each other. As the angle is not too serious, I can bring my feet together if I wanted but my knees would feel pretty squashed together. It is not a position I can hold for long without discomfort.
For someone with such knees, our feet may never touch in Tadasana, especially if the angle in the knees is greater. Some people feel that feet together in Tadasana brings more energy to the pose but the most stable, grounded version of this pose for me is to have my feet apart. My feet do not touch in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) either because my knees are already touching and the feet cannot get any closer.
Have you seen people practicing Utkatasana (Chair Pose) with their knees quivering? They don't feel the challenge in their muscles and only feel pain in their knees? For example:
Their feet are together and their knees are slightly splayed apart or
Their feet are apart and their knees are collapsed inwards.
They are unable to control the position of the knees.
A small change of distance between the feet can make a lot of difference. It does not always have to be together or hip width distance apart. Increasingly, I find it is actually somewhere in between. If they make a slight adjustment to the feet, the knees stop feeling the strain and they actually start to feel the challenge of the pose. That means the issue does not lie in a lack of ability.
Another popular cue one may hear is "feet parallel". For some bodies, however, feet parallel is not a natural position. Bones may look straight but they actually grow in a spiral fashion, leading to different degrees of torsion. Like many things in Nature, we have more spirals and curves in our body than straight lines.
Fig 1: Looking down on the neck/head of six left femurs. The degree of torsion (twist) increases from left to right. Picture credit: Paul and Suzee Grilley
Fig 2: Two extremes of femoral torsion. Looking down on the neck/head of two left femurs. Feet parallel requires completely different femoral rotations. Picture credit: Paul and Suzee Grilley
The pictures above were not taken from carefully selected samples to exhibit difference. They were taken from random specimens. This shows that feet parallel is not necessarily the "normal" position for a person. In fact, requesting someone to stand with their feet parallel could be injurious if their bones are not set up for this position. It may cause strain up the line into the knees and hips.
This does not just exist in the lower limbs. I cannot begin to describe the amount of discomfort and confusion I experienced during the early years of practice when well-meaning teachers tried to force my elbows to face a particular way in Downward Facing Dog. Sometimes, this included strong physical adjustments which caused pain in my elbows and shoulders.
Alignment rules give teachers guidelines to lead people through a class, especially in group settings. These guidelines may work if they exist within a spectrum where a large percentage of the class can execute it. Some would be able to perform better than average while there will also be others who need something different.
I am not discounting the importance of effort and practice because it does take time for strength and competency to develop. I have also benefited from good techniques that suit my body so I am not saying that all alignment based techniques are bad. The question is: alignment based on whose body?
The problem is what happens when there is a narrow view of what"the right way"is or too much attention goes to what poses "should be like" or "should look like" instead of what it does.
It is people who are practicing yoga poses. Therefore, it is people that should lie at the center of instruction, not poses. If anatomical differences exist between every person, then cues given to students should also contain the space for variation.
Function over aesthetics
Asana practice is beautiful in many ways and that includes aesthetic beauty. Watching a beautiful flow is quite like watching art in motion. There is nothing wrong with having a beautiful practice.
However, when beauty or how a pose looks becomes the benchmark for accuracy, competency and safety, words like these arise:
"I am not good at ________ pose because I cannot do it like_______"
"My ______ pose is not nice."
"I am not sure if I am doing it correctly because it does not look like what I see on social media/other people in the room/my teacher."
"I don't know what this pose is for."
"My teacher says it should look like this/I see websites saying this pose should be done like this but it hurts when I do it this way. "
"I have tried this pose for a long time but I just can't get to this shape."
"I cannot do Yoga/I am not good at Yoga. I am not flexible like _______."
I saw an online question from a fellow teacher about how one of his students was instructed to keep her elbows in a particular direction in Cat-Cow, which to him, seemed quite unusual for her body structure. He asked if this was an instruction that he was unaware of. My response was something along these lines:
What is the functional objective of Cat-Cow?
Is the facing of the elbows going to make a difference to the objective of these poses?
Is the facing of the elbows going to improve the student's ability to perform the poses with the objective in mind?
Is the facing of the elbows going to prevent injury with the pose objective and student's body structure in mind?
The main objective of Cat-Cow lies in the articulation of the spine. If the answer to the last three questions is No, I will not impose any facing of the elbows on the student. In other words, it is the function of the pose that lies at the center of consideration, not how it should look. If this is applied to different poses, it means that:
Different people doing the same pose may look different but achieve a similar function.
For example: A may have a narrow Upavistha Konasana with toes pointing to the sky while B has a wider pose with toes pointing forward towards the floor but they both feel an inner thigh/groin stretch without pain.
There isn't one perfect pose or a perfect "end" pose.
For example: A may have a teardrop-shaped Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose) while B may look more like a gentle rainbow but they both experience intense opening in front of body and strengthening through the back.
Different people may need different techniques or cues to get into a similar pose.
For example: A may benefit from having hands shoulder-width apart in Downward Facing Dog while B needs his or her hands to be a little wider apart to accommodate the shoulders.
Something's got to give
For example: A can come into full Hanumanasana (Front Split) with hips turned to the side but not squared as it would cause pain in his or her back. If A squares the hips, the hips will not be on the floor. Then one needs to decide what is the objective that is being worked on and choose the option that would fulfill it instead of forcing depth with hips squared.
If the pose that is being offered does not achieve the functional objective that we are looking for, the student may need a different pose.
For example: A feels plenty of stretch in the glute muscles in Pigeon pose but B does not feel the stretch despite all kinds of changes. B might benefit from another pose targeting the same area.
Certainly, there are reasons like insufficient strength or soft tissue tension that may cause the above. For example, have you seen practitioners doing Garudasana (Eagle Pose) and do not seem to be able to cross their top knee over? Tension along the outer leg may make it difficult to bring the knee across or legs may shake when they are still developing strength.
However, there is also the chance that the person's bone structure does not actually allow the movement. The hip joint can influence how much a person adducts. Some people cannot cross their legs in Garudasana because they have hit the limit of their hip joint. They do not feel a stretch in the outer leg and instead feel a compressing pain in the groin. In such cases, the practitioner may need to take figure four or another pose depending on the purpose.
Like the student at the beginning of this entry, allowing her to stand with feet apart may seem like a small detail but it makes a difference to the body who needs to hear "if this is not working, try another way instead".
Hence, if you are a student finding certain cues strange or a teacher seeing that a student is not doing what you asked, it is not always about capability or flexibility. Neither is it because the student is defiant. More often than not, students are earnestly trying their best to achieve what is being asked. When they cannot achieve it, they are not necessarily the problem. Teachers can help a lot with not making the student feel like one.
It is okay to ask
Since human beings do not have bionic eyes, how do we know what is going on inside the body? The answer is quite simple: ask.