Yoga for Every Body
Every body is unique and different, which sounds so cliche, and yet we forget. How many students think their yoga pose should look like the one on the cover of Yoga Journal? We forget that there is no ‘perfect pose’, and no ‘one pose that fits all bodies’. Students come into yoga with a spectrum of suppleness: those whose bodies tend to be more flexible and those whose tend to be more stiff and tight. A very flexible student can have too much mobility – so much so that they go too far, and overstretch already loose tendons and ligaments – they need to create stability and strength in their body by engaging muscles to protect the joints. Bendy bodies also tend to sit in joints, for example collapse at the knee (see below). In addition, a bendier body will typically have their stance too large, and need to be given direction to shorten their stance – with a shorter stance they are able to engage muscles, versus letting them go slack and be passive. Students whose bodies are prone to stiffness have a slightly different but equally challenging dilemma – they need to incrementally bring flexibility and openness to tight areas, but know when to put on the brakes and not overdo, so that they don’t strain a muscle. In addition, stiffer bodies tend to have shorter stance (which is not as demanding), when in reality what they need to widen their stance. How do we address these different bodies, and keep the integrity of a pose? This is a challenge for sure, but not mission impossible. It is critical to give instructions (using precise language) and cueing for different types of bodies so that you create a safe yoga class, and the use of props helps. To quote Richard Freeman, “In teaching Trikonasana, I try to show students all the different ways they can adjust the pose, so they don’t have a static model. I give them a variety of tools so they can tease out what works for them.” (Yoga Journal, The Right Triangle, by Todd Jones)
Let’s look at Utthita Trikonasana, Extended Triangle Pose, a straight leg, externally rotated standing pose. Beginning with the foundation, the base of the pose, we work from the ground up – correct alignment from the base of the pose has a spiral effect as we move up the body (what goes wrong down below, gets worse as it moves up the body). Alignment of our feet, the first platform, is critical. An important instruction for the front leg in Trikonasana is to externally rotate your thigh from deep within the hip socket. This action aligns the ankle, knee and hip, and protects the ankle and knee.
In addition, to further protect the knee (an area of risk in Trikonasana), the weight of the front leg should be towards the ball of the foot, not the heel. This is an important instruction because it counteracts the likelihood to hyperextend or lock the knee. Too much weight in the heel generates a risk of knee hyperextension. A useful instruction would be, ‘press down with the big toe mound.’ Even students who don’t normally hyperextend at the knee are vulnerable to overstretch the back of the knee joint. Additionally, engaging both the quadriceps and hamstrings muscles, creates stability in the knee joint. This is a helpful instruction for bendier bodies, who need more muscle stability. An instruction would be, ‘micro bend the knee to engage the hamstring. Then, pull the kneecaps up, engage the quadriceps.’ Another option is to place a block under your calf. This gives support for a student who hyperextends at the knee, keeping their knee from locking. (Note: hyperextension is a condition of ligament laxity causing the joints to be unusually flexible – they go beyond straight. This excessive mobility throughout the joints, can be seen in very flexible and bendy bodies, though not all flexible bodies hyperextend).
Working our way up the body, once in Trikonasana, a block under your bottom hand (or use of a chair, if the block isn’t high enough), helps both stiffer and bendier bodies. If a student lowers their torso to their maximum, there’s a temptation to push too deeply into the pose, and hurt themselves. By using a block under the bottom hand, a tighter body can find length through their waist and spine, and not lose the expansive integrity of the pose – that way, they don’t sacrifice stability for mobility (and vice versa), just to bring their hand to the ground, ‘the way it’s supposed to look’. Modifications help students express the pose – to access the pose. It’s important as teachers that we reiterate to students that props are not a cheat, nor an easy way out, and in fact often make the pose harder. Through this lens, a block is also useful for bendier bodies, since the block allows them to explore the relationship of the work of their legs and the extension of the spine vs. stretching already loose ligaments and tendons further. The block in this case creates stability. This is not to say that a student’s hand can’t come to the ground – again, it’s a matter of Satya – being truthful with yourself. A note to all bodies: discourage students from placing their hand on their shin – instead, encourage a hand on the block. Otherwise, the tendency will be to sink into the joint. This is an important cue for every body.
Leslie Peters, the director of the Los Angeles Iyengar Yoga institute, says it well, “Your intention determines the fruit of your practice. The point of yoga isn’t to tie your body in a knot; it’s to use the body to purify and study yourself, beginning with what you can see – your leg in Trikonasana – and progressing to what you can’t see – your breath and the movement of your mind,” (Yoga Journal, The Right Triangle, by Todd Jones). The yoga is, can you be present enough to listen to your body – practicing satya (truth, honesty) and ahimsa (nonviolence, compassion). Recognizing that our bodies are different on any given day – sometimes tighter, sometimes looser, sometimes asking to go deeper, sometimes asking to back off – when we come to the mat. Going inward, and listening to our bodies we are able to see just what our body needs, and find the Trikonasana of today.