What’s stopping you from becoming your most whole, integrated, and amazing self? What’s stopping you from making the world a better place by getting out of your ego’s way and doing things that benefit you, your community, and the planet entire? These are big questions, profound questions, and the kind of exploration that I personally LOVE. I know from experience that every tiny action has a ripple effect that moves from its inception outward and eventually, back inward in reflection. If I am paying close enough attention, I can feel this pulsation in and around me in the everyday. The pulse of action, effect, and aftereffect are at the root of a yoga practice – what’s stopping you from connecting to something bigger than yourself? How about now? What about if you try it with your feet at hip bone distance apart? And what about tomorrow? Yoga is meant to be a lifetime of inquiry and exploration.
For the sake of this piece, I am talking more nuts and bolts (bones and joints), about what is physically stopping you in your body in your yoga. These ideas are filtered through the network of Yin Yoga, as published by Bernie Clark in his book, Your Body Your Yoga, and through the teachings of one particular leader, Joe Barnett, as presented to me. The psychospiritual aspects of the big questions are like a theme in a yoga class that inspires inquiry and deeper study. The physical, tangible evidence of sensation, pain, pleasure, and finding an edge in your practice are gateways into the more subtle stuff but serve a purpose all on their own. Trying to make the yoga asanas look like anything, i.e., how someone else’s body looks, treads on dangerous ground.
If you look at this picture and feel sorry for this person for being “stuck” with knees in armpits in what their yoga teacher may have very casually called “easy pose”, you have drunk the Kool-Aid that yoga asana is an aesthetic practice. From the expression on his face, it looks like he chugged it. I know I’ve been there too, both as a student and a teacher; bound in my mind’s limited idea of what is acceptable and missing the opportunity to learn from and honestly accept what is.
In a functional anatomy training years ago, where the discrepancy between “functional asana” and “aesthetic asana” was elucidated for me by Joe Barnett, I learned a simple way to determine the difference between tension and compression. Tension = stretching in the soft tissues and leads to a sensation of a stretch; it’s got length inherent in its feeling. Compression = end of range of motion (ROM) of a joint as bone “meets” bone, or flesh. Compression can often be pointed to with one finger. An example: in a standing forward fold – uttanasana – if you feel a stretch along the backs of your legs, you’re in tension, stretching hamstrings. If you feel a localized pinch in the crease of your hip, you’re in compression with the anterior superior iliac spine (ASIS) meeting the front of the thighs. Without adjusting your actions, this is the end of the road.
Neither tension or compression is better or worse, good or bad, but it’s super helpful to know the difference and practice accordingly. Stretching muscles creates space, flexibility, and freedom of movement, perhaps improving movement and sensation in the targeted area or joint. Compression teaches us a more subtle story about ROM as a personal expression of what is beneath the surface of the skin. It gives a clear picture of structure and the inevitable edge of limitation that is so inherent in our humanity. To be very clear, compression is not necessarily dangerous, just has much higher stakes than an easy “stretch”. It might call for some more advanced understanding or support but is not something to 100% avoid.
Bernie Clark shares a beautiful chart of the possible experiences along the What’s Stopping Me? spectrum in his book that includes very clear language about resistance sensations and pain. The chart is educational and empowering and could be a great tool for practitioners and teachers alike. He says that “pain does not belong in your yoga practice.” Of course, a part of the deeper study is to determine the difference between sensation and pain, as well as between biological pain and emotional or mental states that keep us in cycles of pain. To be super general, pain requires more than what can be healthily tended in a public yoga class and is not helpful in the yoga room.
This deeper investigation takes time, and that requires slowing down. It can be unwieldy to address ALL of this information in a public class, and so it often doesn’t happen. In the explosion of yoga’s popularity as a spiritually anchored fitness program in the recent decades, we have created a bit of a monster: a stereotypical image of what a person who does yoga “looks like”. It’s a fact that most people who stick with a yoga practice tend to have more mobility and range of motion in their bodies, i.e, it is easier for them! To undo these able-celebratory standards will take a rehaul of the way so many of the yoga teachers in the world today were trained, myself included. I believe it is possible, and worthwhile to do this work.
What, then, can be done? However can everyone be met fairly? How could everyone leave happy from a yoga class if they inevitably bang up against an end road beside another practitioner who seems to have no restriction in their body and can “do” everything the teacher offers, and more?
As teachers, we can stay sensitive to the reality that our students are walking in their own skin and bones (not ours), and offer variations that target the big idea of a pose but might help students find a stretch and make more space, rather than hit a wall and be stuck. By adding abduction (taking your legs wider than hip bone distance) in the aforementioned forward fold, the medium compression of ASIS is avoided, and the hip bones slide between the thighs. Technically, these are two different poses (uttanasana, and prasarita padottanasana), but what gives? If the idea is to stretch the backs of your legs, does it really matter how you get there?
As for us all in the seat of the student, we can stay curious! Notice the difference between a long, deep stretch that you can track along the shape of a muscle, and a singular point of contact, or stuckness in a joint capsule. Does this mean you are required to study anatomy and the shapes of muscles, or know the functionality of joints to enjoy your yoga? No. But, if you find yourself frustrated rather than empowered by the actions you encounter on your mat, this kind of exploration and study might help. And if you don’t know, ask! Your teachers are there for you, and I can speak confidently for the team of teachers at Shree. We are doing our homework, are ready to answer your questions, and will happily direct you to other resources and people if we don’t know. Through this sharing of responsibility and accountability, the yoga starts to take on a whole new form, feel, and style.
If there is no ideal look to a yoga practice, dissolving the feelings of unworthiness that come up when we feel we simply “can’t” do the thing we are trying to accomplish becomes possible. How liberating is that?!? Let’s celebrate having an experience in our bodies, rather than making it look, feel, or be about what anyone else is doing. And let’s please undo the language of good or bad. On the way, let’s stay out of pain, and find something interesting about every experience and pose to take away into our lives. There is so much more to do than try to be someone else. This all starts at home with connecting to self, and bleeds outward through empathy for other humans, gratitude for the experience of being here at all, recognition that there are larger forces at play, and dissolution into the realm of spiritual practice, which eventually leads us back home to the small stuff like picking up trash on the roadside, being kind to each other, and sleeping enough to do a good job being human, which means in process. What’s stopping you from doing that?
With so much love and gratitude,