Today I’m focusing on the physical aspect of the yoga practice – moving a body that was born a particular way, has lived for a certain amount of years, experienced the same habitual patterns through sleep, work and play, and has shaped itself as a result of these different factors.
Your body’s life to date
Divide your life into decades – childhood, teenage years, 20s, 30s, 40s, etc.
Look back on certain repetitive activities or situations. Did you start to play the flute or violin as a child, and have done so ever since? Each of your arms and shoulders will have adopted a particular pattern.
Did you twist your ankle repeatedly as a teenager? Your ankle will have healed a certain way, and scar tissue will affect your ankle’s position and movement.
Have you spent 20 years at an office job, sitting in front of a computer? Your hip flexors and hamstrings have been repeatedly shortened, and your shoulders will have rounded forwards over time.
Have you played rugby for years and sustained multiple injuries? Each of those injuries will have healed and scarred a particular way, and influence how you move today.
Did you spend years standing for long periods of time in high heels? This will have affected the tissues in your feet and legs, and will have caused misalignment in your lower back and spine.
What is your sleeping pattern? Do you always favour lying on your stomach with your head turned to the left? This will have created small imbalances in your neck and down your spine.
These are situations in isolation. Add up all activities, injuries, sleep patterns and anything else your body has done throughout your life, and you begin to see your body’s life picture.
As a result of it, your body is unique, it moves in its own way, and you will find your way into making shapes (yoga poses).
A once male-dominated practice
Going back to the roots of yoga, this mostly female-dominated practice today was originally a male-only practice, and boys started young, with very supple bodies. As they grew, they developed the typical straight male body that did not display female traits. Not until the 1930s was the first woman, Indra Devi, allowed to study the practice officially. She became the student of yoga master Sri Krischnamacharya. The practice was progressively adopted by a group of curvier and softer bodies. Today it is practised by people of all ages and walks of life, and as a result, yoga has evolved.
Among the many different types of yoga, ranging from Hatha to Vinyasa, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power, Yin, Restorative, etc., we now have Pre-natal and Post-natal yoga – functional-based yoga for women whose bodies are changing completely, and whose primary objective is not to align themselves into perfect yoga shapes (there is no such thing as a perfect yoga pose!) but to strengthen their bodies before and after birth, and to give their muscles, tendons and ligaments, space, nurture and relief.
We also have Yoga Therapy – a form of yoga to help rehabilitate people who have sustained injuries or have a continuing health condition or complaint, and who are working with the body to help alleviate the symptom or, where necessary, help regain functional movement.
Functional yoga cares less about how a pose looks and more about how the pose feels for your body. This does not mean that you need to reject all alignment principles. You just approach it more out of feeling, not thinking.
Whereas in classical yoga my forward-bend would be expected with straight legs, both feet together and toes pointing forwards, functional yoga accommodates:
- my need to have space between my feet because of the compression that I experience at the level of my pelvis
- my right foot needing to turn out slightly because of my externally-rotated right hip and scar tissue in my ankle
- my knees being as bent as they need to be as a result of my tight hamstrings
With my feet together and knees straight, I could put my hands around my legs and pull, but no amount of pulling myself down would change the compression in my hips. Whereas widening my legs gives me more space and avoids that compression.
If you were to look at ten different people doing the same pose, you would see ten different variations of that pose. The variations might only be small but they would be there, because you would have ten different bodies, with ten different life stories to tell.
By listening to my body, I find my variation – I find my forward-bend.
I have come across students who try to avoid using props because they think there’s a stigma attached to them. They are for the old, weak, or injured.
They are for everybody! Props have become my best yoga friends and have changed my practice. I always have a block or two at the front of my mat, ready if I need them. They give me more height, more space to open up, and enable me to access postures that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to because of my body’s structure.
Parivrtta Trikonasana (reversed triangle pose) without a block is a nightmare for me. My body screams that it doesn’t feel right. By using a block, I can get into the twist and feel the benefit of being in the posture. This is my variation of the pose.
Approaching yoga with what I now call a functional perspective, listening to my body and using props, has worked wonders for me. I get so much more out of my yoga practice now because I make the poses fit my body, not the other way around. This doesn’t mean that I don’t put effort in to progress. It means that I no longer approach it with analytical thought but with awareness instead. My body flourishes because it’s being heard.
Try for yourself. See if you can bring this approach into your yoga practice. Feel your way into a pose rather than think your way into what you believe it should look like, and find your yoga shape.
Author: Claire Ng-Martin