Have you been told that there is a right way and a wrong way to do a pose? Maybe you were taught one “proper alignment” or principles that should apply to all bodies. Like so many yoga folks, I used to think that there were rules about how yoga should look– but I couldn’t make my body conform to them. Learning to let go of yoga alignment rules set me free to really enjoy my yoga practice, and to help others to do the same.
Okay, journey back with me in time, many years, to an advanced yoga teacher training program* with an experienced instructor. We were breaking down each asana (pose) to learn the proper alignment for each.
When we came to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Upward-facing Dog, I hit a moment of truth. The proportions of my body (more on this in a minute) mean that I cannot experience this shape in the same way that someone with longer arms can. With my arms straight, my hips rest on the floor, and I don’t get a chance to fully extend my spine into a backbend. Because I had been told that in Upward-Facing Dog my hips needed to be off the floor, I was not “doing the pose right.”
There I was, attempting to make my Up Dog look like someone else’s, and failing, naturally, because my body can only do what my body can do. One of my fellow teachers turned to me and said, “Can’t you just lift your hips?”
As a matter of fact, I could not “just lift my hips.” If I did, the pose became more like a push-up; my spine was no longer doing a backbend.* She and the others stood there, stymied, at a loss to understand how my body could not do the proper alignment for this pose.
If we take a look at the two people in the picture above, we can see that the person on the top left has her arms straight in her Up Dog; her hips are several inches above the floor. Now, if she were to change her shoulder position a bit by shrugging her shoulders down and back, her hips would come a little closer to the floor, but we can be reasonably sure they wouldn’t touch.
The person on the bottom right also has straight arms, but her hips are clearly on the floor. If she were to push her hands into the floor, she might be able to lift her hips, but I can tell you from experience that’s a pretty awkward thing to do, and you lose the element of the backbend (spinal extension) in the pose.
If both of these people were to sit side by side in Dandasana (seated staff pose), and place their palms on the floor, we’d have a better look at their arm to torso position. You can see an example in the pictures below.
This is just one of the many ways in which our bodies can differ– and one of the many reasons why our yoga poses can look different, while still being “correct.” Can you see how it might not even be possible for these people to do this pose in the same way? And, looking at the proportion, can you imagine how it might feel different in their spine when they do the pose? Now, imagine these folks were to wrap their arms around themselves for a bind. How might their arm length affect their ability to grab their own hand? What if their torso is wider? Are they doomed to a lower state of enlightenment?
Below, you can see a picture of my own expression of Upward-Facing Dog. I’ve added a block under each hand to artificially lengthen my arms. Because I’m able to lift my torso higher in this way, my spine can extend (backbend) more– and it feels really, really good. I’ve also got my toes tucked under, because I came forward into the pose from Down Dog– but the extra height and stretch under my feet feels nice, too. Why not?
When we let go of our ideas about how a yoga practice should look, we make space for a greater range of experience. We normalize body variation (because despite what we see online and in clip art, yoga is not just for thin white women). We give greater agency to each student to choose the variation that makes sense for them– and we start by not calling them “modifications,” since there’s no right way to “modify” in the first place.
*I don’t know where all of those teachers are now, but I hope they (like me) went on to learn more about anatomy, body proportions, human variations, and how to see the various parts of a pose!
**Also, any time someone says, “can’t you just…” that’s a big old red flag to me that this person is looking for a simple answer to a complex situation.