Updated: Jun 16, 2019
We all know that variety is the spice of life! So why do we all try to attain the exact same 'shape' in our yoga poses? The plain truth is ...WE SHOULDN'T. As a yoga instructor, I am not a huge fan of hands on 'assisting'. I maintain that students who are attuned to their own bodies, will find the alignment that feels best for their bodies if given the best verbal cues and instruction. Therefore, I prefer to use more verbal cues to help students 'find their fit' in the pose. However, I will step in and assist if a student looks like they may injure themselves (Of course!).
As a yogi (instructor or student) it is so important to recognise that everybody is an individual. Each individual has different flexibility, different muscles and different skeletal features and therefore determining the ‘correct’ alignment may be different for each yogi. It is also important to understand that if you are having trouble attaining a certain pose, that the restriction you are experiencing could be due to one of four issues. The four issues are compression, tension, proportion and orientation. The yoga instructor must understand the difference between these in order to adequately aid the alignment of the student. To try and force every individual into the exact same 'body shape' would be highly injurious to the majority of my students.
Compression occurs when two body parts are jamming against each other (this usually occurs with bones). Most often the student is physically unable to move past a certain point as their skeletal shape is limiting this movement. It is important to note that this is a skeletal restriction and will not be aided by ‘helping’ the student into the correct alignment. If compression is occuring you will not feel a tensile stretch in your muscles as the main barrier to your movement, you will instead feel pain in the bones or joints. If this is the case, please adjust your pose or ask me for other alternatives! Assisting you to determine an alternative way to assume the asana is the only solution (you just can't bend bones!). I may suggest the use of yoga blocks to aid your alignment or implement a variation of the pose to make your more comfortable. It is also important to protect your extremities in any yoga pose (i.e. feet, hands, wrists and ankles) as these are often injured in the process of trying to assume the ‘correct shape’ when the true issue is compression of the bones in the axis (central body and torso).
Tension is caused when the tissues are not elastic enough to allow the full extent of the movement required to attain a certain asana. In this case, you will feel a stretching within the muscle fibres or ligaments and a gentle assisting from me to deepen your stretch may feel wonderful. However, it is important to make sure you have the correct alignment to ensure there will be no injury whilst holding the pose. I will ask precise questions about where you are feeling any tension and if you would like more or less pressure to ensuring you are comfortable with the process.
Issues may also arise due to each individuals proportions. For example the length of someone’s arms in relation to their torso. These proportions may make certain poses impossible for some individuals. In this case, poses will need to be modified or props used to enable certain asanas.
One last point to be aware of is the overall orientation of a pose. For example, in a spinal twist, the orientation of the spine is the key to optimising this stretch. Two individual’s may seem in very different positions if you just observe their limbs (e.g. their legs may or may not touch the ground). However, if you observe the torso you may see that the same orientation of the spine is being achieved. Modifying these poses to ensure your spinal orientation is optimal is of more importance than concerning yourself with the arbitrary positioning of your limbs.
By recognising your individual needs and potential skeletal compressions you are able to determine if and how your yoga postures can be improved, assisted or aligned. If you would like to discuss any asana during class, please let me know. We can work together to make your postures as comfortable as possible.
Austin, Miriam. Cool Yoga Tricks. Random House Digital, Inc., 2003.
Anatomy for Yoga. Paul Grilley. Pranamaya, 2014.
Pappas, Stephanie. Yoga posture adjustments and assisting an insightful guide for yoga teachers and students. Trafford Publishing, 2006.