September 19, 2009

Vive la difference: How anatomy can (and should) influence your yoga practice on and off the mat.

Ever been in a yoga or fitness class, working your way through a certain pose or movement and wondered what’s wrong with you because you don’t look like your neighbor? Everyone else is doing it, but you feel trapped in a painful distortion that makes the goal seem impossible. No matter how much we try not to compare, it’s part of our social conditioning.

Here’s a kernel of wisdom to help you reconcile that discrepancy and bring you to a new place of awareness in your yoga practice and in life: our Creator made no duplicates. We’re all unique. Our parts are similar in some ways, but not at all alike in others, according to Paul Grilley, a yoga expert who specializes in anatomy. When we find a movement difficult or impossible, Grilley says it’s usually due to one or any combination of four anatomy factors: compression, tension, proportion or orientation.

In his DVD, Anatomy for Yoga, Grilley introduces a wide array of body structures that illustrate why some people may never safely touch their toes, do a headstand, or swing freely between their arms from a seated position, no matter how strong or how flexible they become. From one person to the next, our range of motion in joints can vary widely, not because of flexibility (tension), but because of structure. A bigger or smaller socket or ball at the elbow joint (or some combination of both), for example, can restrict or liberate rotation of the lower arm from 50 to 180 degrees. We’ll only move a joint so far until we reach bone on bone. Grilley calls that compression. The same goes for ankles, hips, knees, necks, shoulders and just about any other hinge in the body.

Grilley says the proportion of the body—the relationship between arms and legs, for example–– also plays a role. One of the best revelations of my yoga training was realizing that my failure to touch my toes in a forward reaching position was no failure. It’s a factor of proportion. The length of my legs compared to my arms and upper body prohibit it no matter how flexible I become. Through practice, I may get closer to my toes than I’ve ever come before, but it’s doubtful that I will ever reach them. I will forever adore the yoga instructor, an amazing woman in her seventies, who lovingly introduced me to this fact. Thank you, Dona Robinson, for showing me that it’s okay to bend my knees in a forward fold.

I’m a relatively slight person. But if I had to guess, I’d say that two-thirds of my weight is in the lower half of my body. My neck is small and it already has a few injuries. Know what that means? I’ll never do a headstand. Trying it would be like inviting a serious injury to the party that is my life. All that weight on a tiny injured neck…it wouldn’t be good.

This information is equally important for yoga students and instructors. It means people are as unique as snowflakes. When we can’t achieve a certain move, it doesn’t mean we’re defective. When we can, it doesn’t make us superior. We can marvel at the differences that allow our neighbors to pivot differently from us, but we should never judge that difference. To do so is to overlook the uniqueness of our own God-designed bodies and will most certainly cause harm.

From now on, promise yourself that you won’t succumb to an ill-advised instructor who pushes you past your comfort zone when reaching for your toes, or the peer pressure of a student who casts a sidelong glance of superiority when flopping her forehead to the floor in a wide-legged stretch. Take it a step further and promise not to judge yourself or others because of weight, a number that depends on a lot of things, not all of which we control.

Beyond the mat, here’s the lesson that sticks: no matter what experiences we share, it’ll be different for you than for me. Different in our bodies, different in our minds. It means I need to cultivate more compassion and respect for my fellow man and for myself. It means forcing myself or someone else beyond the point of discipline or need, especially when there are other winning alternatives, may be harmful. A co-worker, student, employee, or spouse who doesn’t want to do things my way isn’t always purposefully uncooperative. They may just be showing a nature that’s unique to mine. This isn’t an excuse to skirt rules that exist for the greater good or tread over others. It’s just a fact.

When we can’t understand why a co-worker triggers our anger, why a sibling resents a parent so deeply, or why a child gets under our skin, it’s best for everyone not to invest too deeply in the right or wrong of our position or theirs. We can’t possibly know how another person has processed life, even when we share a wide range of common experiences. We all feel differently, even while experiencing the same things. In some cases, the gap is so enormous that it’s almost impossible to appreciate or respect our differences. Meanwhile, at a bare minimum we must learn to accept. To compete, compare, or judge each other is pure foolishness because it keeps us from living and expressing our God-given individuality.

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