5 Ways to Rethink Your Yoga
By Sophie Legrand
The line between real and fake has become so blurry these days that our critical self almost wants to stop caring. Truthfulness is a currency whose value has plummeted over this decade. In the era of compulsive selfies, celebrating our individuality has entered an unnatural and distorted dimension.
Technology constantly provides us with new widgets to cheat on our appearance and to hide our true self behind a filter of pixels. When ‘posing’ used to suffice to look good, photo-editing pretends to make us look perfect. Being ‘normal’ and reasonably vain isn’t enough, social media pressure wants us flawless.
Luckily our yoga practice comes again and again to correct our warped perception of ourselves and others. It appeals to our saner side and intends to bring us back into a more authentic realm. So when you throw yourself into the most sublime Dancer Pose and your toe doesn’t touch the crown of your head, reality hits you in the shape of your tissues and bones.
Your body just can’t do this.
This doesn’t make you unfit, it just means you are human. It is the sobering reminder that we are all different. What your teacher or the stretchy girl on the mat next to yours can do, you might never ever be able to do. In every pose, you will bump into your limitations. This realisation invites you to grow, and to cultivate the virtue of delayed gratification.
In order to fit in in a yoga class, we would happily coerce our body beyond its abilities and range of movement. When our body resists these constraints, frustration and feelings of failure can ensue. We need to temper our ambitions because at the end of the day, we are not working against our body but with our body, regardless of how we look in a pose. We have to reconcile our idealised version of a pose with the reality of our unique anatomy.
There is no app to photo-edit your anatomy. A short-cut you might want to take is to forget about cosmetic ideals and instead learn to map the sensations in your body.
In his latest book Your Body Your Yoga (YBYY), Bernie Clark offers a body scan of our points of resistance and a guide to reading our sensations during our practice. From this inspiring read, I singled out the following ‘tips’ to develop a more balanced and realistic dialogue with our body and with our students.
1. HAIL TO YOUR QUIRKS: U is for UNIQUE
One size doesn’t fit all
“You are unique, and that uniqueness is what makes the difference between what ‘everyone’ seems to be able to do and what you can do. There is no pose in yoga that everybody can do, and no one can do every pose.”
In YBYY, Bernie Clark explains how we are all different and that when it comes to our yoga practice, one size doesn’t fit all.
‘It is more important to know what sort of student can do a pose, than to know what sort of pose is doing the student.’
Integrating difference and uniqueness, represents a complexity that not all societies are ready to accommodate. In a yoga class, while it is easy to cater for everyone’s needs with five students, for example, it will prove more challenging as the number increases. Making allowances for everyone’s uniqueness requires time, study, maturity and that special bit of selflessness that turns a good teacher into an inspirational teacher.
Comparisons are Odious
In a yoga class, our insecurities may kick in and make our mind long for a more compliant body. We fear that if we don’t perform the ‘real pose’, we will stand out and be deemed deficient.
“Differences aren’t Deficits.”
Bernie Clark quotes geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky encouraging us to embrace uniqueness and to be less harsh towards our quirks.
“Why think that because someone else can’t do something, you will fail? There are things you can do right now, there are things that you will be able to do in time, and there things that you will never be able to do.”
2. VALUE YOUR VOICE: GENERALISATIONS CAN BE HARMFUL
In the same way comparisons are odious, generalisations are potentially damaging if not taken with a pinch of salt.
The oldest trick in societies’ book is to avoid complexity by creating a myth of normality: that old ‘cosmos versus chaos’ chestnut. We often yield and conform under the pressure of mass simplification because it is necessary, simpler, or it saves us a lot of trouble (or so we think). This happens in our yoga studios too. Bernie Clark reiterates:
“No one is average. This means that whatever works for “an average person” (who does not actuality exist) may not work for you. (…) There is no normal and no abnormal. There is only you in all your uniqueness.”
Paul Grilley, who has done extensive research about skeletal variations, warns yoga teachers, in the foreword to YBYY, against generalisations when it comes to teaching yoga:
“We cannot teach effectively without some generalisations, but we haven’t reached maturity until we have outgrown generalisations and can competently focus on the unique needs of every student in every pose.”
Stepping outside of the comfortable mold of generalisations opens up a whole world of unknown that we might not all be prepared for. It is at this stage in our practice, a reference guide such as YBYY comes handy.
3. LIFT THE HOOD: UNDERSTANDING YOUR BODY
You Can Be The Machine AND The Mechanic.
If we are curious enough, we can gradually become the best equipped person to understand the unique mechanics of our body. Most teachers don’t actually know you, and they will never understand you as well as you will be able to.
The odd overzealous teacher will even make erroneous assumptions that can harm you. A few years ago, I injured both hamstrings because a teacher thought I was a dancer and pushed my legs further up than they were ready to go in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (extended hand-to-big-toe pose).
To me, this serves as my personal cautionary tale: there is a quack in everything.
It is essential to take charge of your practice, on your mat at home or at the yoga studio. This involves taking the time to investigate your strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and skills. Our yoga practice endlessly accompanies us in the discovery of what makes us unique, all inclusive: the good, the bad, the shameful, the beautiful, the fragile, the ordinary, and the special.
What Stops You?
Bernie Clark suggests that an efficient way of mapping our physical limitations comes by systematically registering our sensations in yoga poses. He leads this exploration with the interrogation: “What Stops You?’ in other words: what limits your mobility.
Two things can stop you, he explains. One is tension, which is resistance of the tissues to being stretched (muscles, ligaments, fascia) and the other is compression which is created by contact: bone to bone (hard), flesh to flesh (soft), bone to flesh (medium).
In YBYY, Bernie Clark searches the nooks and crannies of our anatomy to observe where tension or compression surge and he describes the sensations that correspond to each type of resistance. For example, if you wonder why your heels don’t make it to your mat in yogic squat, you will find a whole section offering you possible reasons.
Bernie proceeds with a systematic, scientific, methodical, yet reader-friendly approach. He talks us progressively into very technical aspects of our anatomy. He accepts however that you might not be ready just yet for all the information provided. The structure and layout of the book accommodate the simply curious reader and as well as the more ambitious yoga teachers.
4. MEET YOUR SWEET SPOT: THE GOOD SIDE OF THE EDGE
Can You Feel It? Check in with your sensations.
The allegory Bernie Clark uses to encapsulate our relationship to stress in our tissues is the Goldielocks’ tale: not too much and not too little. Fine-tuning the art of finding our happy medium in a pose proves to be critical.
‘If too much stress is applied, the tissues degenerate. If not enough stress is applied, the tissues atrophy.’
Once again, you need to let go of aesthetics aspirations in a pose. Sensations hold the key to finding your sweet spot, where the tissues are neither getting too much or too little stress.
‘Your physical edge is not reached by worrying about your alignment or engaging in physical contortion; your edge is reached by paying attention to sensation. How you look is irrelevant. How you feel is key.’
Yoga Shouldn’t Hurt?
Have you ever been perplexed when a yoga teacher drops the ‘Yoga Shouldn’t Hurt’ bomb in a class?’
What does that mean exactly? You can’t honestly bring this up in a class and not elaborate. This is not fair on the neurotics among whom I count myself. To me, ‘Yoga shouldn’t hurt’ on its own, with no proper explanation, sounds as disconcerting as ‘don’t panic but…’
Such unbalanced cues can unleash catastrophic thinking. Once in that mode, the mind easily skips and simplifies a ‘discomfort = ok’ and ‘pain=panic’ into ‘discomfort=panic’.
It is essential to define ‘hurt’.
‘Hurt’ doesn’t mean the same to everyone. There can be discomfort in the yoga practice, and sometimes shying away from it could mean that we are missing out on the stress that is beneficial to our tissues. There is a slim divide between harmless discomfort and pain, and the nuance in sensations can be tricky to gauge rationally.
Our perception of pain is subjective. We all have a different pain threshold too: what matters is not to cross it as we could damage the tissues. Bernie Clark writes:
‘Pain does not belong in your yoga practice, but many students do not know whether the sensations they are experiencing are truly painful or not. If you experience the sensations listed in the pain column, it is a good idea to back away from that edge.’
The wisdom to know the difference (to borrow from the 12 Steps pledge) between pain, and acceptable discomfort grows by being attuned to feelings in the body, by listening and understanding the signals it is sending us.
YBYY contains a table detailing the sensations arising in a pose and it translates the body’s signals into everyday language. It is divided in three columns: WSM (What Stops Me?) i.e. Tension or Compression, Resistance Sensation, and Pain. (see table on left)
When detecting an unknown sensation, it is crucial to be able to decide whether to welcome it or to walk away from it, if it is friend or foe, beneficial stretch, or potential damage. Body intelligence resides in our ability to make and trust those choices.
5. REVIEW THE CUES: BEWARE OF THE DOGMATIC DOG
Teachers: Time to review your cues.
Occasionally, it seems healthy to question our discipline and inspect how dogma might be arresting its development. Narratives have might become frozen with hard fast alignment rules, half-digested theory, and cliché yoga cues.
‘Teachers will spend an inordinate amount of time and attention on the placement of the hands and feet, moving them into some idealized, aesthetically pleasing alignment, without understanding why they were ”out of alignment” in the first place.’
Bernie Clark doesn’t dismiss alignment cues as such and recognise their values.
“Alignment is important! Proper alignment reduces stress in the joints and protects them from dynamically moving into hypermobility, where injury may occur.”
He just cautions us not to buy into more universal, dogmatic, and aesthetic cues that won’t necessarily make sense for everybody. Instead, we need to take responsibility in our practice and ask ourselves: ‘what are the alignment cues that work for me?’
YBYY also questions the current trend of yoga teacher training which asserts that poses should be built from the ground up. Instead, the author recommends we work ‘from the core out’.
Triumph of Hope over Experience?
In our yoga practice, if we want to be true to our body, it is crucial to establish an authentic dialogue with it. Not one of fear, frustration or coercion, but one of wisdom and reason. It helps to keep in mind that what stops us now is not necessarily permanent. We constantly and gently push our boundaries further as we progress in our practice. What matters is to not get ahead of ourselves and to respect our anatomical uniqueness.
Hope and experience shall triumph both. Hope can carry our ambitions and experience can protect us from the pressure of our ego.
Handstand and Wheel Pose photos: courtesy of www.emmajaulinyoga.com
All other illustrations: courtesy of Bernie Clark
About the author: Sophie Legrand
Sophie is the littlest French hobo. After studying American Literature in Paris, she left France in 1998 to first live in Santa Barbara, California, for a year. She then went to Madrid where she started working in publishing, as a literary agent. After 5 years of movida in Spain, she moved to London. There, she was introduced to yoga by two fantastic teachers, who gave her some very good foundations, a sense of precision and a taste for Asian philosophy. She completed her Yoga Teacher Training in Vancouver in 2011 and is now back to England where she is a proud stay-at-home mom and a yoga teacher. She is also a passionate home-cook with a focus on multicultural, tasty and healthy dishes. Her culinary explorations are on L’Artichaut.