by Lucinda Staniland
For all the years I’ve been practicing yoga, I’ve always strived to ‘go deeper’ into the poses. In fact, I thought this was the point of asana.
In the name of depth, I’ve pursued an ‘open heart’, and ‘release’ in the hips. Whatever the pose—lunges, backbends, twists—I’ve had an image in my mind of precisely how the pose should look, and the depth that I need to reach to achieve the perfect alignment.
I’ve stretched my hands to my toes in standing forward bends, sunk deep into my hips in Pigeon and reached back to grab my heels in Camel. I’ve generally been cautious and careful—once injured, twice shy—but the overall goal has been that elusive, perfect, correct level of depth.
“Why do you want to go deeper?”
At these words, I experienced a moment of profound cognitive dissonance. Isn’t depth and alignment the key to yoga asana?
But Markus continued:
“There’s no scientific proof that deeper is better.”
At this point, I should explain that Markus, accompanied by Yin Therapy’s other half, Karin Sang, was in the midst of leading myself and 20 or so others through the first module of Yin Therapy’s 200Hr Yin Yoga & Anatomy Teacher Training, a course with an emphasis on comprehensive and scientifically up-to-date anatomy.
I think it’s fair to say that what we learnt about anatomy in this training blew our collective minds: in particular, the incredible diversity of human anatomy and how that influences our ability to get into, or ‘go deeper’ into, a particular yoga pose was new knowledge to many of us.
Throughout the course, we performed tests on ourselves and our classmates to determine our own skeletal variations. For example, we explored the external rotation of our hips and determined that there were some people in the class who had a very limited range of rotation. We learned that these people would never be able to get into a full lotus pose without damaging themselves.
It wasn’t because their muscles were too tight, or that their hips were insufficiently open. No, it was in their bones, and no matter how hard they tried to access Lotus Pose, it was fundamentally inaccessible.
For these people, trying to ‘go deeper’ in poses that involved an external rotation of the leg was a sure-fire route to injury. And yet, until now I had never heard a yoga teacher discuss skeletal variation, or how it might prevent their students from accessing certain poses.
Why is it not common knowledge that not all yoga postures are suitable for all bodies?
It should be. It was a huge wake-up call for me to realise that a yoga posture that confers benefits to someone else could be actively harmful to my body. In the past, I’ve often slipped into the simplistic thinking that all yoga poses are ‘good’, passed down from an ancient and wise tradition and that if I could master the ‘correct’ alignment they would be imbued with some kind of magic to ward off injuries or harm.
Rubbish. Yoga injuries happen all the time. And now I understand why.
In my experience, contemporary yoga is usually about asana and it’s usually about asana that looks a certain way,
For years, I’ve been prompted and adjusted by teachers to get my body looking the way that it ‘should’ in poses. But, as Markus told us,
“It isn’t the form of the asana that matters: It’s the function.”
As part of the teacher training, we were explicitly taught the exact function of every pose we practiced and we were encouraged to think about secondary impacts of the pose that might affect some, but not all, students, depending on their unique body.
These learnings brought up a lot of questions for me about my own yoga practice.
Why did I, for example, always try to get my leg parallel to the front edge of the mat in Pigeon pose when I knew that that particular angle was often injurious to my knee? What value was I getting from pushing myself deeper into a hip opening? What was so bad about staying right where I was? And what was the point of Pigeon pose anyway?
So here’s the thing, I’ve given up trying to ‘go deeper’ in my asana practice.
Now when I feel the pull to sink deeper into my hips, or reach my hands closer to the floor, I ask myself “Why?”.
Sometimes the answer is “Because it feels good,” or “Because this is the right position for my body.” But at other times it’s something like, “Because I think I should,” “Because I want to keep up with other students and impress the teacher,” or, “Because this pose should look a certain way and I’m not there yet.”
When this second kind of answer comes up, I know that I’m better to stay right where I am.
And when I stay right where I am, I can work with the thoughts and emotions that are emerging: the insecure, rigid and anxious parts of myself.
It’s painful to rest in that space, but it’s also a gift, a chance to actually access the full possibility of a yoga pose: its function.
It might not look perfect—in fact, it might look downright weird to other people—and it’s unlikely to get me onto the cover of Yoga Journal or catapult me into Instagram fame, but let’s be real, I don’t do yoga because I want to look a certain way in a posture. I do yoga because it helps me to incorporate stillness, embodied movement and radical self-inquiry into my life on a daily basis.
It’s not about depth. It’s not about alignment. It’s about discovering, experiencing and being with our unique selves.
Editor’s Note: You can find out more about Yin Therapy’s 200Hr Yin Yoga & Anatomy Teacher Training here. You can also check out their Yoga Lunchbox interview, ‘What Does It Really Take to Teach Yin Yoga?‘ and my review of their 2017 Training.
I highly recommend this Teacher Training program to students who want to deepen their personal yoga practice and understanding of anatomy, to teachers who want to safely teach students about their own bodies and prevent injuries and to anyone who wants to learn about the profound complementary practice of Yin Yoga.