Different is good
Yoga is for every body: celebrating our anatomical variations. By Ali Barnard
Yoga is for every body! We often hear this term thrown around the studio and on social media. It is meant to uplift and inspire and promote yoga as an accessible practice that transcends stereotypes. However well-meaning this phrase, I often wonder whether these words truly are interchangeable with action.
My first yoga encounter left an indelible impression on me, one that I tried to shake for many years. It was not love at first chataranga as many other yogis have proclaimed, yet it was profound for the way it shaped my thinking as my practice evolved. For me, it brought our nuanced approach to body image into stark focus, emphasising our innate human quest for perfection at the expense of our physical constitution, especially under the command of people we regard as experts.
I approached my first yoga class back in the early 2000’s with enthusiastic curiosity, confident that I could master a little bit of stretching and balancing on one leg. What I experienced instead was an hour of intense scrutiny, where I was micromanaged by the instructor who took umbrage with my externally rotated feet as if they were a personal affront to her profession. Every pose attracted more attention from that teacher as she struggled to reform my wayward stance. She paced the room, audibly muttering her astonishment at my alignment.
In exasperation, she resorted to picking up my foot and turning it inwards and holding it there while I sweated and strained with the effort of manipulating my skeletal structure. Her disapproval peaked in savasana when she bound my feet with a strap to keep them from flopping outwards while I lay on my back, embarrassed and exhausted.
It was many years before I had the courage to step into another yoga studio. On my second try I was nurtured by an instructor who was more interested in allowing her students the space to explore sensation in their body than precision or perfection. She encouraged us to be curious about each pose, to celebrate each movement and sink into physical sensation until there was no feeling at all except the synchronisation of breath and deep, delicious awareness. I was completely captivated, overcome with the realisation that yoga really was a practice for every body — and not just those with forward facing feet!
In the years since I have learned to celebrate the intricate collection of bones and joints that make my feet what they are and have adapted my yoga practice accordingly. I have remained curious, studying anatomy and, completing my teacher training, determined to deepen my understanding of my physical form and the awareness in which it exists.
I now know my body better than anyone. I know that my feet are a product of externally rotated hips. I know that forcing my feet inwards makes me knock-kneed and unbalanced. Yet despite all I understand about my structure, I still hear myself apologising to new teachers for my feet. I habitually nod and murmur agreement when I am lectured by new teachers that my alignment is a bad habit that can and should be corrected, even though I know better. I am constantly perplexed by the tendency of yoga teachers to uphold the black and white principles of a pose without any regard for the individuals experiencing it.
In my experience, the structure of our bones is largely overlooked by the yoga community. Teachers typically focus their attention on muscles, ligaments, and fascia. We encourage our students to lengthen and contract, movements of the muscle, with little regard for the corresponding effect on our joints and bones. Our skeletal rhetoric is confined to hips, spine, and tailbone, that open, bend and tuck respectively, to enhance our practice. But what about the unique arrangement of the other bones that hold up our muscle matter? Are teachers missing an opportunity to enhance their students’ experience by not taking skeletal individuality into consideration?
According to registered biokineticist and yoga instructor, Megan Grobler, the current 200-hour training provided to aspiring teachers does not sufficiently promote an understanding of human anatomy: “Generally, the 200hr teacher training course includes 20 hours of anatomy. That is a very small amount of time dedicated to learning about a very complicated structure — the human body.”
Grobler believes that while bone anatomy is more complex than that of our muscle makeup, it warrants an inclusion into the way we teach yoga. “In my opinion, it is paramount to have good structural understanding of the human body. This will enable a teacher to critically think and modify poses to better suit their clients. It can't all be about muscles.”
“It is paramount to have good structural understanding of the human body. This will enable a teacher to critically think and modify poses to better suit their clients. It can't all be about muscles.”
She warns that the idea that yoga can correct the alignment of individual skeletal structures is flawed. “Correct might be a tricky term. Yoga may help to alleviate stress on a uniquely aligned joint, by giving the joint more range and strength,” she explains.
“We are all designed differently, and this should be celebrated instead of judged. Many people are naturally more internally or externally rotated, this generally stems from a differently shaped femoral head in the hip socket but can also stem more from the knee joint where the tibial platea is aligned with more external rotation against the femur. In the case of external rotation, yoga poses like Garudasana and Virasana, which require the opposite — internal hip and knee rotation— would be good to practice; not to ‘correct’, but rather to ensure the joints have range in both directions. Just because someone is naturally externally rotated, doesn't mean they should avoid or overly focus on internal rotation. Keep joints happy by encouraging a variety of ranges and movements.”
Grobler believes that empowering yoga instructors to develop a deeper understanding of anatomy will facilitate a greater appreciation of the individual needs of students under their instruction. This way, she says, instructors will be better equipped to help students achieve the optimum pose for their body type and help them prevent injuries over time. “Teachers that stand out, will be those that continue with curiosity, down the anatomy pathway. I would encourage teachers to delve into anatomy, even if it does seem intimidating. Remember why we practice yoga. It is not for perfection; it is to be present and know ourselves. Celebrate all anatomical variations — they're beautiful things!”