by Karson McGinley: There is not a single pose in the entire yoga lexicon that every human body can achieve. Let that sink in for a moment…
In a world that would have you believe that if you just work harder, longer, and faster, you too can achieve chiseled abs, a perfect split, and put your leg behind your head, the latest research in yoga anatomy shows that not every body is capable of achieving every pose due to unique anatomical differences.
There is actually no universal alignment that applies to every pose, nor is there perfect form that applies to each person. Each body has different capabilities, some of which can be altered and some of which cannot. Understanding this teaching can revolutionize your understanding of yoga and of yourself.
Everyone Is Different
The fitness industry (including yoga) has not always done a great job of accounting for the uniqueness of each person’s inimitable anatomy. Yoga books (especially older, more traditional ones) show the ideal alignment of dozens of yoga poses that can make people feel incompetent or deficient when not easily achieved.
The truth is most poses are downright impossible to “achieve” in accordance with these photos, because these photos are only of one person’s body! Just because BKS Iyengar was born into a body capable of twisting like a pretzel does not mean that you were, too. You are unique, and therefore, your yoga postures should be unique as well.
Feeling insecure or embarrassed because you cannot go any deeper into your Forward Bend could be putting blame in the wrong place. Having short, tight muscles will account for some limitation in how you move, but beyond that, your difficulty or ease in a pose is due to the shapes of your bones, fascia, and joint capsules.
Tension and Compression
Of course, you have some control over your ability to adapt and deepen your expect of asanas over time. Anyone who practices yoga regularly has seen their body increase flexibility and range of motion to a certain degree. Thanks to the research and teachings of Paul Grilley and Bernie Clark, it is now clear that the physical causes of restricted range of motion are:
1. Tension (when the tissues resist being elongated)
2. Compression (when two tissues run into one another)
To see photo examples of tension and compression in yoga poses, click here.
While most people credit tension to stopping their poses from going further, “tight muscles” only account for so much. The main limiting factor is more often compression.
Think about your elbow joint. When you straighten your arm, the compression of your upper arm bone (humerus) hitting your lower arm bone (ulna) causes you to stop being able to go any further. Bone-on-bone compression is not changeable. In his book, Your Body Your Yoga, Bernie Clarke says: “When compression arises, you will have reached a fundamental limit to your range of motion—for that posture in that direction. It is important to acknowledge this point.”
Compression happens all over the body. And thanks to human variation, it can be a huge relief to realize that it’s actually compression (and not anything you are doing wrong) that might limit you from going any further in a pose.
Take Cobra Pose for example. Yes, the front of the body has to stretch to lift up into this pose (tension), but at some point, the bony processes of each vertebra will run into each other (compression). Each person has a different amount of space between their vertebrae, which will account for why some yogis can lift up higher than others.
Photo: from Bernie Clark’s presentation at the Fascia Research Congress
Human Variation and What It Means for Your Yoga Practice
From Paul Grilley’s work with cadaver bones, here are a few fascinating examples of human variation:
- The shape and angle of the femur (thigh bone) neck and head will affect how “open” your hips are, and how wide you can take your legs from the midline.
These femur bones belong to two different people. Look at the angle of the head of the femur bone (the “ball”, where it sits in the hip socket) in relation to the shaft of the bone itself.
- The size and shape of the pelvis will affect the range of motion of the hips and legs.
Here you see two pelvises with different sizes and shapes. One thing to notice is that you cannot see the hip sockets on the right specimen, because they are located more on the sides of the pelvis, rather than on the front.
- The size and shape of the shoulder blades will affect your ability to clasp your hands behind your back.
The specimen on the right would have a harder time interlacing his or her hands behind his or her back due to compression with the acromion.
- The length of your legs and arms will affect your ability to touch the floor when you fold in half.
Each of these elements of your individual body will affect how you move on your mat and in your life. For example:
- Are your legs bow-legged or are you pigeon-toed?
- Do you have collapsed arches, bunions, or very long or short toes?
- Are you double-jointed or hypermobile in your elbows or knees?
How You Can Honor Your Anatomy in Your Practice
When approaching your asana practice, take the following steps to be sure you are letting the poses serve your body, rather than dictate some unattainable norm.
- Ask what is stopping you in a pose (e.g., where is there tension or compression?).
- Be curious about what you can control and what is beyond your control.
- Create your intention around your discovery.
- Aim for your yoga practice to be a chance to understand and celebrate your unique anatomy with curiosity and self-compassion.
More than anything, be compassionate. Try not to be so hard on yourself when comparing your practice to other people. If Bendy Barbara can get her belly on her thighs in a seated forward fold, it might just be that she has to go that far to feel the same sensations you feel from simply tilting forward an inch.
And just because Tight Tom can’t keep his heels on the floor in a Garland Squat and you can does not mean that he’s doing the pose wrong and you’re doing it right. You each have different skeletons, muscles, connective tissues, and histories that have brought you to this exact moment in time. Your body is the only one like it.
So is your yoga.