photo credit: Stuart F Taylor, Illustrator & Writer, London UK
Ever find yourself in a yoga class, struggling with a certain posture? Looking around the room, observing other students move more gracefully into what can only be described as ‘perfect poses’? Backs completely flat in Seated Forward Bend, noses to knees, beautiful arches in Camel pose, gazes on the wall behind, and legs neatly crossed in Lotus pose, knees to the floor. The icing on the cake is when your yoga teacher leads a demo, and it just stops you in your tracks. Jaw dropped, you utter to yourself:
“I can’t bend that way!”
Maybe you’re new to the group, and know there’s a little way to go. More ‘stretch’ and attention to be had, which in time will release tense muscles, surely? Or perhaps you’ve been coming to yoga for a while now, and… there just seems to be some things/poses your body won’t be able to do! Either way, the ability others have is starting to perplex you and fill you with a nasty heavy feeling in your stomach, which before long leaves you standing in a well of inadequacy.
“Why doesn’t my Cobra/Downward Dog/Wheel pose… look that way?” “Is there something wrong with me?”
You’re not alone
Firstly, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. You may think so when you’re stuck in the well, and you can’t see out. But rest assured, there are countless others who experience the same thing as you do and feel similarly. It’s normal to be restricted, and not meet a particular ‘standard’.
We all have our personal limitations in yoga, and it’s good to have an idea of ‘what can be improved or worked on’ and ‘what just ain’t gonna change’, due to our make-up and the way we’re born. And maybe – we’re holding too tightly to the idea of perfect poses anyway, and it’s time to loosen our grip, so the definition of yoga isn’t skewed by our attachment to beauty and physical form.
What restricts us?
We’re all unique – and so is our yoga
One thing we can say is we’re all different. We come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Our bone structures and proportions are unique. Such a blessing, eh? Part of the yoga journey is understanding and seeing the way you are, on a physical, mental and emotional level. When you get on the mat and focus in, you notice your right side moves and feels differently to your left, you may be tighter or stronger in one muscles group to another… Things become clearer through yoga.
Gaining peace of mind
Whether or not you can go further in a pose can be put down to a few things. In his popular DVD, The “Anatomy for Yoga” Yoga Teacher Paul Grilley explains how different we all are in our skeletons, anatomically. He shares his wisdom and knowledge about how and why we move differently in yoga:
“There’s a real need in the yoga community to have a deeper understanding how anatomical differences affect our yoga practices” Grilley
Through demonstrations, Grilley highlights the point that no two people are the same. Due to our different anatomical structures, we move uniquely. Two key concepts Grilley introduces are ‘Tension’ and ‘Compression’. When working in yoga postures, you can be met with either tensile or compressive stress. Tensile: something that can be stretched more or is tight, compressive: when two bones hit each other, and there’s no way further to go.
Tension or Compression?
For example, in Cat Stretch, Grilley shows that the arch of your lower back moving towards the floor will depend on your skeleton. A large arch (inward curve) in your lower back means your belly will dip further to the ground as you breathe in. Whereas, if there’s a far smaller inward curve, the arch will be less obvious. Everyone’s Cat pose will look a bit different, due to when compression occurs and how the muscles are being worked.
A second example he gives, and one I’m personally familiar with, is how far towards the ground your heels come in Downward Dog. For me, it’s always been a challenge to place them down, despite spending some time in this pose and stretching the leg muscles. My gut feeling, that they weren’t going to come down, was first confirmed by my Tutor Mary Mackie during Teacher Training, who, on analysis, explained that it was due to compression in my ankle joint. This was recently supported too by fellow Cambridge-based Yoga Teacher Sally Lander:
“When you, Rosanna, do a Lunge pose, you can see that in trying to move the front knee as far over your toes as possible, the angle remains close to 90 degrees. The shape of the bones and the way your foot meets the shin causes the angle to be too large for the heel to be down in Downward Dog. This will also occur in poses such as Squat and is due to compression in the ankle joint.” Sally Lander
When Compression occurs, bones meet bones, and you’ve already stretched your muscles fully, what you end up with is your yoga pose. Kinda nice, huh? Having it’s own shape and appearance.
The next example refers to another one of Grilley’s key concepts: ‘Proportion’. Something else that plays a role in our yoga practice. Our bodies have different proportions, eg ‘femur (thigh bone) to torso’ or ‘arm to torso’. In Triangle pose, you may need the aid of a block if even at full tilt of your pelvis and maximum lateral flexion of your spine, your arm still won’t meet the ground! If it’s not a tensile or compressive matter, it could be down to the comparative length of your arm in relation to your torso/legs. Block, anyone?
The final example is of a yoga pose which is commonly met with difficulty and self-critical dialogue: Seated Forward Bend (see image above). There are several factors which could restrict you here to create pose perfect: tight hamstrings, lower back or hips, short arms and long legs to name a few! Yoga Teacher Rachel Hawes explains:
“Over the last decade of teaching yoga, I’ve noticed every body is unique. Some hamstrings have the ability to stretch, and with a little practice, forward folding will be a breeze. Some people, not so much and after years of practice our heads may still be nowhere near our knees. It’s all about our personal physiology. That’s OK though. Reaching Nirvana isn’t dependent on where you put your head but rather by letting go of the pre-existing thoughts and conditioning you keep inside there.” Rachel Hawes
So, next time you find yourself scrunching up your face, muttering the oh-so-common phrase: “I can’t bend that way!” – know that it’s OK. And if you look around you, clearly, you’ll see we’re all in the same boat. We don’t need to achieve ‘perfect poses’. Or rather, what we need to do is work on changing the definition.