If you are a yoga practitioner and have attended a class in the past ten years, it is likely you will have been taught ‘traditional’ alignment. Utkatasan with feet glued together, Warrior I with hips squared forward and heel-to-heel alignment, or Anjaneasana with hands together, arms straight, and shoulders away from the ears. If you have attended a class that enforces cues such as this, it is likely at one time or another, there has been a pose or two that hasn’t felt so great. While this may be due to a lack of mobility or strength, there is another explanation that may be why you’ve been struggling to achieve the poses prompted by these cookie-cutter cues. While we have often been taught that ‘practice makes perfect’, and told by some teachers that if we keep coming back we will eventually be able to access a pose we’ve been struggling with, this may not be the case. What’s holding you back could be due to anatomical variation.
What is anatomical variation and why does it matter? Anatomical variation refers to the different shapes and sizes within the human body and the variety of ways that the inferential parts of the body fit together. Every human being has a slightly different bone structure, and therefore how every skeleton is pieced together is unique. While we all have a femur bone (thigh bone) and pelvis, how the head of your femur bone fits into the pelvis varies from person to person and sometimes even from side to side within the same person! If you just look at the photo from this blog it shows the difference in internal rotation between two people. One can’t internally rotate her femur enough to be able to sit between her feet, she can only sit on them, while the other student is the opposite extreme. While teaching yoga, it is essential to take this variation of bone shape and size from person to person into account.
When our bone structures are all unique, how is it that we’ve been taught yoga poses are one size fits all? Due to the rapid rise and interest in yoga alliance certification in the West during the 90’s there weren’t enough teachers to meet demand. The quickest way to have more teachers was to produce them en mass through 200-hour yoga teacher training. In this setting, it’s easy to get everyone to learn the same cues so standardized alignment and a consistent approach to teaching asanas in yoga were developed. The problem is, that no two bodies are the same, and teaching yoga in a way that only caters to one anatomical structure has the potential to be harmful and cause injury to others. If you’ve been practicing yoga consistently for a while, you might have noticed that no matter how much you practice, some poses just aren’t accessible. Rather than a lack of strength or flexibility, this could actually be because your bones are hitting bone when you are trying to make your way into an asana. This is known as compression.
There are two reasons that you will not be able to access a pose – either compression or tension. Compression can either be bone-hitting bone or bone-hitting soft tissue. It’s that feeling of being stuck and you just can’t go any further into a pose. Tension occurs on the opposite of the body from compression and generally relates to how flexible your muscles are. Tension is the familiar sensation of the muscles and fascia being stretched. If it’s tension that you are feeling rather than compression you will have a sense that you’re able to go a bit further but it feels “tight”. The blind spot with the majority of yoga teachers (and what you see on Instagram) is an assumption that someone can’t do a pose because they are tight and don’t have the flexibility. This is a very narrow view and doesn’t take into consideration someone’s compression points and their unique bone structure.
It’s important to understand whether you are experiencing tension or compression in different poses. If, over time, you try to push beyond your compression points to do the “perfect pose” this can lead to injury. If you try to square your hips in certain poses but your bone structure doesn’t allow for it you can injure your knee. So how do we know whether not being able to get into a pose is due to a lack of practice or our bone structure? The best way to learn the difference is by attending a yoga teacher training in Bali hosted by Inner Yoga Training. As part of both their 200-hour yoga teacher training and 100-hour yin yoga teacher training, you will learn not only about compression and tension but also, a wide array of range of motion tests and movements to practice to determine whether what is stopping you from going deeper into a pose or accessing a pose at all is because of tension or compression.
While a wide-legged forward fold may be hard for some people due to a lack of flexibility in their adductors or hamstrings, some people may have a particular femur or pelvis shape that only allows them to go so far into a pose. Trying to push past the body’s natural anatomy can be harmful and ultimately cause injury. Paying attention to compression and tension is fundamental to any yoga practice whether it’s vinyasa yoga or yin yoga. Taking anatomical variation into account during any yin or yang practice is important. The sensations experienced in cases of tension and compression are different, and there is also a variety of tests and practices you can partake in that can determine whether or not the inability to access a particular yoga pose is due to tension or compression.
As a yoga teacher, how can you teach a yoga class that takes anatomical variation into account? Giving cues that speak to the sensation and target area of the poser rather than the specific placement of different body parts is essential. While it may be tempting to teach more standardized cues, teaching with anatomical variation in mind is essential to teaching a yoga class that will most benefit your students and their needs, in both the short and long term. Both the yin and yin yang yoga teacher training in Bali hosted by Inner Yoga Training will educate you in anatomical variation and help you practice and teach safer yoga classes. Because after all, as yoga teachers we have a responsibility to do no harm.