Yoga Is For Everybody – But Is Every Pose?
Updated: Oct 31, 2020
There’s a popular saying that Yoga is for everyone. Indeed, there are many aspects to Yoga that can serve different populations with varying needs, of which some do not involve postures or even a yoga mat.
Arguably, the most popular form of Yoga practiced now is asana, which refers to the practice of physical postures. The rise of the Internet and social media has allowed more access to resources about postures. That has supported the learning journey of many asana practitioners but at times, also created an impression of the “perfect pose to nail”.
There are many reasons why someone can or cannot do a pose. Good technique, effort, tension in muscles and tissues, lifestyle habits and even a person’s emotional and mental state play a part.
Yet, when a pose does not come to someone despite their best efforts, it may not be an issue of flexibility or diligence. Some asana practitioners may have also met people who have practiced for a shorter time but were able to make more progress, even seemingly with less effort.
The answer may lie beyond skin deep – in our bone structure.
Everyone’s body is different
Ever heard that phrase uttered in a class? It is commonly used by teachers around the world. It may seem obvious since we all have different facial features, height, weight, body shape, flexibility and strength. But the differences lie beyond what can be seen.
Have you ever seen a skeleton? You may spot them during Halloween or in your doctor's office. At first glance, skeletons look largely the same so it is easy to assume that our own skeleton would look similar and that everybody has the same skeleton.
But if you ever get the chance to look up close and compare, you will find that even skeletons have differences. These differences are even more pronounced in a real human body.
We are different right down to the bones
Fig 1: Hip sockets pointing in different directions. Therefore the range of motion in different directions will be different. Credit: Paul and Suzee Grilley
The picture above is available for public viewing thanks to the generosity of Paul and Suzee Grilley, who documented anatomical variations using different sets of skeletons chosen randomly. It shows two pelvises held side by side. Notice how the hip sockets are pointing differently?
A points more to the side while B points more downward. You can see more of A's hip sockets so it faces more to the front while B faces to the side. While we also have to consider other factors such as amount of tension in surrounding tissues as well as the length and angle of femur bone neck, this already shows that these two people will have a different range of motion in their hips.
For example, if both were bringing their legs up in front of them in a pose like boat pose or utthita hasta padangusthasana, A would also likely be able to lift his or her leg higher before hitting stopping point. However, this does not mean A has a superior hip joint. What affords A additional range may become limitation in another direction. Therefore, A may find more ease in certain postures while B will find more ease in others.
Fig 2: Two Left Femurs. The inclination of the neck is 40 degrees different. The ability to abduct would be 40 degrees different. Credit: Paul and Suzee Grilley
The rounded head of femur bones fit into the hip sockets like those in Fig 1. As you can see, the angle of the neck for these two femurs are different. This means that these two people will look pretty different when they do poses that involve bringing their legs apart. A 40 degree difference in abduction would mean one person can do a much wider wide leg split or straddle split than the other. If you add that to a hip joint that allows for movement in the same direction, the amount of range of motion will increase dramatically.
The above is merely a quick look at one part of our anatomy and it can affect the expression of poses such as trikonasana , baddha konasana, upavistha konasana, svarga dvijasana and more. These variations exist everywhere in our body, including all our joints. If every body is different, the idea of a single universal alignment would be a fallacy. This means each person's expression of every pose will be different.
Of course, bones do not exist in a vacuum. They are surrounded by connective tissue, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels. Therefore, there will be many reasons why we do not hit ultimate range of motion and for good reason. Additional flexibility or range of motion is not always healthy. I have met students who experience pain due to great flexibility or shallow hip sockets that would otherwise allow for impressive hip opening poses. A good balance between flexibility, strength and range of motion is healthier in the long run.
Differences don't just exist between people
Symmetry is often pursued in Yoga and that in itself isn't a bad thing. However, it is important to remember that humans are not symmetrical beings. Anatomical differences not only exist between people, but also within ourselves. If we were meant to be symmetrical, we would have two hearts, two stomachs, two livers, two spleens and a mirrored set of intestines.
Let's look at the pelvis again from a different angle.
Do you notice that:
The hip sockets for E don't face to the exact same angle on both sides? F's hip sockets are hidden behind. Again, this will point to differences in range of motion between E and F.
E's ilium (the big piece of "wing"the hand on the left is holding) is different on both sides? The angle they face and the edges of the crests are different.
F's right ilium is bigger and higher on the right. The shape of the right ilium also differs slightly from the left.
The ASIS (bony protrusion at the front of the ilium) for both E and F are different on both sides. With ASIS used as a common indicator in some movement and therapy modules, how do you think this will affect what "neutral" or "even" means?
What other differences can you spot? Again, this is just a quick look at one part of the body. Such differences exist in our own joints all over the body. The size and placement of our organs are also unique to us. This means that:
It isn't unusual to feel that certain poses are easier on one side than the other.
Poses may look different on one side compared to the other.
We may need to change the way we practice on one side in order to achieve the functional objective of the pose.
Asymmetry is not a curse
When I was taking a manual therapy course, the trainer mentioned that some of his clients who are top athletes walk into the clinic looking nowhere near symmetrical. It is precisely the asymmetries that allow them to perform at the level they do in their sport.
While it is true that asymmetry may lead to pain and other issues, pursuing perfect symmetry isn't a practical goal. I used to think that the asymmetries in my body were the reason for my pains that will not go away unless I achieved symmetry. It would be more practical to achieve functional balance that can allow us to go on with our lives in a healthy way. That does not equate to symmetry. It may mean a mix of strength and flexibility training coupled with other therapy modules to achieve a managed balance between different parts of the body that will allow us to do what we want to do in life. Understanding that changed my relationship with my body to a kinder one.
Therefore, I also believe that it is time to stop talking about asymmetries as a problem that holds people back. There are people with asymmetries who go on to do impressive feats with their bodies and lead fulfilling lives.
What does this all mean for practitioners and teachers?
Since our bodies are all different, it means that:
It is more important to understand the functional objective of a pose and practice with that in mind. Different people doing the same pose may look different but achieve a similar function.
There isn't one perfect pose or a perfect "end" pose. Just because your pose does not look like the one on the cover of a magazine does not mean your pose is not good or you are worth any less as a practitioner.
Different people may need different techniques or cues to get into a similar pose. Alignment rules need to be adjustable for different bodies. Rigid rules can be injurious if it forces the practitioner to take shapes that are not suitable for his or her body structure.
There may be poses that are not suitable for our bodies. It is not about the amount of dedication or diligence. We can do a variation of it that serves its functional purpose but it may not look the way we want aesthetically. Learning to be at peace with this realization is also an exercise in non-attachment and a Yoga practice.
Yoga is a practice of compassion and unity. Developing a kinder relationship with our bodies and the asana practice would go a long way towards that. I would like to leave you with this quote from one of my favorite somanauts, Gil Hedley:
"Appreciation for every single body renders the picture of the whole body ever more accurately. Look around: variation is the norm. If you use the "average" or "mean" human body as the mirror for your body, you will never recognize yourself in that mirror. The "average" body represents nobody...What we share universally is that we are, each and every one of us, a unique variation on the theme of the human form. This is something we all share, regardless of your starting point. The human form is the great equalizer, each to a number unique as we are. This viewpoint requires a shift in consciousness. Recognizing yourself in the singular expression of another, you'll find yourself accepting your own."