Human variation: why we change the yoga to fit the student
It is no big secret that we are all different. In our mannerisms, personality, likes and dislikes, skills, physical appearance, lifestyle factors, illnesses and disease, genes etc. So if we’re teaching a yoga class, why on earth would we treat all of our students the same? We make concessions for students who have experienced trauma to reduce the likelihood of triggering them. We teach differently when we have a class full of athletes or seniors to avoid injuring them. We modify for students with bigger bodies to avoid overloading the joints. But how about a normal class full of “normal” people?
That’s the thing – none of us are normal. There is no normal. Because we are all highly unique, down to the way our bones fit together. This huge breadth of human variation means the same pose will look completely different on each person. I’m not talking about one person being more flexible than another or a student having a more advanced practice. I mean limiting factors dictated by the framework of our body which will never, ever, in a million years be overcome by any amount of stretching. This is ‘hard compression’ meaning bone on bone, meaning never going to change unless a surgeon starts chipping away parts of your bone.
Let’s take a look at the hip joint. Here alone, there are multiple variations which will affect a pose from one person to the next. Looking at Figure 1, you can see the socket where the femur (thigh bone) fits, called the acetabulum, is forward and downward pointing, compared to the second where the acetabulum is pointing higher and further back. So if both these people were to try to do box splits, the person with the pelvis on the left is more likely to have the greater trochanter (Figure 2) meet with the their pelvis bone and impede any further movement, than the person on the right. And once you have that meeting of bone and bone, that is it. That is their absolute end range until their dying day.
So, there’s one factor affecting the pose. But that might not be all. If you look at Figure 3, there is also a variation in the angle between the femoral neck and head (know as the angle of inclination) which will also affect how far we can abduct the leg (take it away from the body) before it meets the pelvis. There are also variations in the length of the femoral neck.
So, if someone has an acetabulum which points further upwards and backwards, a longer femoral neck and a large angle of inclination, they may be able to slide straight into box splits without issue (provided there isn’t restriction in the adductors or hamstrings) due simply to their bone structure.
However, because their hip socket points backwards, they may have major issues with any internal rotation of the femur e.g. eagle pose. Especially if they have extensive torsion of the tibia (see Figure 4). That’s right, the issue may be nothing to do with the hip at all, but just a ‘twisted’ shin bone. If someone has a lot of tibial torsion and also a hip socket towards the back of their pelvis rather than front-facing, they may naturally stand with their feet pointing outwards and you telling them to point their toes forward in down dog or mountain pose will be incredibly uncomfortable for them because it will require a huge amount of internal rotation just for their legs to look “normal”.
Many cues we hear in our yoga classes don’t take human variation into account. How many times have you been told in down dog that your middle finger should be pointing forwards? I did that for years and would constantly have my down dog corrected because I found it difficult to externally rotate my arms to wrap my shoulder blades around my rib cage. Then one day I read something on the subject and started pointing my first finger forward instead. It seems like the most subtle movement but it improved my down dog and my chaturanga, not to mention it felt a whole lot more comfortable. Look at the three pictures below. In the first two, my middle finger is pointing forwards. You see as I move through a vinyasa into chaturanga, my elbows splay out to the side in the first picture. If I keep my elbows tucked in like the second picture, the inside of my hand starts to lift off the ground. In the third picture, my first finger is pointed forwards, making it easy to keep my elbow in and protect my wrists.
Ever thought you are just rubbish at backbends? Maybe you’re not mobile enough, or maybe your spinous processes (the “dinosaur bones” on your spine) are closer together and hit each other in a backbend sooner than someone whose are further apart (see Figure 5). Maybe you find it difficult to achieve shoulder flexion (raising your arm directly above your head) for handstand without arching your back because you have tight shoulders, or maybe you have an acromion process which is physically stopping any movement until you widen your arms (see Figure 6).
What does this mean? Lots of things. Firstly, we almost never truly know why something is or isn’t happening. We aren’t doctors. More often than not an issue in one area is created by an imbalance in another. Secondly, you have absolutely no idea how your students’ bodies are structured (they likely don’t either) so do not force cues for the purpose of aesthetics. Thirdly, always offer options. Give them the opportunity to try a couple of different ways and see what they prefer. Cue to widen the arms if you have shoulder impingement. Cue to place your hands in down-dog with wrists pointing forwards instead of some arbitrary finger. Cue for feet to land wherever they fall naturally in mountain pose.
Do not be overly prescriptive, do not promise someone they can get a pose if they just stretch enough and certainly do not ever force the body where it doesn’t want to go. As long as your students are moving safely, work with them to find what works best for their bodies. Change the yoga to fit the person instead of trying to force the person to fit the yoga. And as a student, don’t be so hard on yourself. Work with the body you’ve been given. Practice, play and try new things but accept where you are and meet yourself where you’re at. Honour your body which, one of my teachers always says, is the highest form of yoga.