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.
You would be surprised at many people are hearing "what are you feeling? how are you feeling?" being asked to them seriously for the first time. It may be their first time taking the time to look in.
Asking prompts the practitioner to look inwards and pay attention to what is going on inside on a physical, energetic, emotional and mental level. This allows the building of inner awareness, which is an important part of Yoga practice. It empowers the practitioner to be more involved and be able to practice even when the teacher is not around. This applies to both self practice and teaching.
It may seem like teachers should have all the answers but it is not humanly possible for any teacher to know everything, especially when it comes to what students are feeling.
It can be tempting to want to adjust students if they are taking a position that deviates from the instructions given. If you are a teacher, I would suggest pausing for a moment before adjusting the student. Ask the student what he or she is feeling. If they are feeling the objective of the pose and are not in pain or a potentially injurious position, the student may not need adjustment.
Hips that are uneven in Pigeon pose? Front shin not parallel to the front of the mat? It may not fit the usual image in the book but trying to even the hips could take the student out of the glute stretch or cause pain to the knees.
Allowing students to take a position that differs from what we are used to may be hard to accept. It matters because what is suitable for one person may not be the same for another. Just because it hurts our body to do something does not mean it is the case for the student and vice versa. It is the body of the person practicing that needs to be considered instead of our perception. From there, we can find ways to allow the student to practice safely.
Teachers have great power. For teachers to acknowledge that there is something we do not know may be akin to giving up some power but this is so that the student can be empowered. In return, they will teach us things we never knew. Students are excellent teachers.
Something else I have noticed recently is people posting pictures of other people (often strangers) in a pose and inviting other people to criticize and shame the person in the pose because it looks "dangerous" or "painful". Again, this is based on our perception. While the pose may be inaccessible to our own body, it may not be the case for the person actually doing it. The only way to know is to ask. Without actual information on how the practitioner is feeling and relevant background information, it would only be judgement based on assumption. The practitioner may indeed be doing something dangerous but assumption is not necessarily reality.
How do we tell?
How do we know if someone is facing challenges in a pose because of anatomical differences or because they have tension in the muscles or tissues? The truth is we will never be able to know with 100 percent accuracy because we cannot look into the body. However, knowing the difference between tension and compression can be very helpful.
I had a student who told me she has "tight hips" and she feels this in Pigeon pose. When we got to forward Pigeon pose in class, I asked her to point out where she was feeling tightness. She pointed to the front of her hip where she had folded over.
In a forward Pigeon pose, the key target area is in the back and side of the hips. If she had pointed to that area then it may be a issue of tension because she is still feeling the stretch in the target area.
However, she pointed to the opposite side which would mean that she is not actually tight in the hips. The "tightness" she feels is actually discomfort from hitting compression. What might help her would be to adjust the position of the hips which might involve allowing the hips to be uneven or choosing a totally different pose altogether for the same purpose.
I will use Downward Facing Dog as another example. One of the most common complaints I hear is "My heels don't touch the ground". It seems getting the heels to touch the floor has become somewhat of a holy grail for this pose.
There are several things that are needed for heels to touch the ground:
Firstly, the back line of the body has to be "open" enough for this to happen. This is an area where people might feel the stretch in this pose. This could include the calves, hamstrings or even all the way to the back of the upper body. Should there be tension in any of these areas, it will be more challenging for heels to touch the ground. If the heels are not touching the ground and you still feel the stretch in the back line, then it could be due to tension.
If that is the situation, working on technique, length or stretching might help. With time, this could change with more practice and proper technique. It took me several years before my heels touched the ground and I still enjoy the stretch in the back line. Meanwhile, keeping knees bent or shortening the length of the pose can be helpful.
However, if you do not feel the stretch in the back line and instead feel jammed or pain in the front of ankle, then it may be that your skeleton has hit compression. The front of the ankle closes as we lower the heels in Downdog.
If the front of ankle closes and hits compression before the heels touch the ground, it is not an issue of flexibility anymore but that the joint has hit its limit. Other things like body proportion can also play a part in deciding how a person's Downdog looks like.
In such circumstances, it may help to keep the heels lifted and place a support such as a low block or rolled up towel under the heels.
Acceptance is also a Yoga practice
In the Yoga sutras, it says “Yoga chitta vritti nirodhah”, which can be understood as “Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind”. The physical practice of asana is thus a means to help with that. One does not need to have heels touching the ground in Downward Facing Dog or be able to do a full King Pigeon pose to still one's mind.
One of my favorite quotes that I have heard from several teachers is "We do not use the body to get into poses. We use poses to get into the body".
We all come to the mat for different reasons. It is easy to want to achieve more, especially when we see other people making progress. There is nothing wrong with wanting progress. With good guidance, technique and perseverance, practitioners through the ages have witnessed breakthroughs in themselves as well as their students. That is something to be celebrated.
In seeking progress, there are many teachers with a variety of techniques to assist. These techniques may not agree with each other but it does not necessarily mean one is wrong or the other is more superior. On the right person, a good technique can make all the difference in the world. If it does not suit the practitioner, it does not matter how good it is.
Accepting the individuality of each body means:
We may need to try different ways to practice.
Our practice will look different from another person.
There may be poses beyond our reach no matter no much we want it or spend time on it.
For teachers, it also means:
We have to be willing to let go of dogma and things we knew before.
We need to be open to new ideas because every student will be a new textbook to understand.
You may meet a student who is different from all other textbooks you have encountered. You may have to look beyond your current knowledge and even refer this student to someone else who will be able to assist the student more.
Trusting your students and giving them the power to develop awareness of their bodies because we cannot know more about what a person is feeling than the person himself or herself.
Accepting we do not have all the answers and that our students or even people outside the Yoga community may offer us new answers.
It can be hard to accept the things above but it is Yoga that taught me the importance of acceptance.
When I first got in touch with this information, I was familiar with styles of practice that had a lot more instruction and alignment rules. I had benefited from them so again, I am not saying they should all be abandoned. I am just asking for teachers and students to consider the possibility that there are no singular answers. It does not quite make sense to tell students that everyone's body is different and yet only give one set of instructions.
As a teacher, it was truly a struggle to reconcile this information but I decided to try it anyway. I started asking my students more and assuming less. I made the scary decision to let them decide what they felt suited their bodies more with a certain objective in mind instead of what I thought would be right for them. Till now, I am still learning and need to remind myself often.
Ever since then, they have continuously reminded me of how unique each body is. I cannot remember a class where everyone chose the same pose.
I think that says a lot.