The ‘Yoga Body’ Myth: Perfect poses and fancy forms ignore the reality of our uniquenesses

#6 in my series on the myth of attaining perfection through yoga. Throw out your textbooks, yogis!

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A lot can happen in a week. First, I quit working for a woman who made it clear she didn’t appreciate what I do. I got a tattoo reminding myself to go gently through life and I went to an uplifting kirtan session after serendipitously bumping into an important person in my life. I spent a weekend expanding my study of anatomy and physiology, surrounding myself with yoginis for a third-eye-opening experience. I caught up with friends and I rested as much as I could. Work-life balance exemplified? Hardly. Just a week for some timely reflection.

Many people might be pretty surprised that yoga instructors study anatomy in-depth and that we apply this knowledge to our practise. It’s not all about chakras and auras! We learn the bones, joints, soft tissues and the 10 systems of the body and, most importantly…. uniqueness. The biggest lesson in anatomy training is always that no two bodies are alike. Most interesting are the significant differences in joint shapes and depths. Femurs and hip sockets determine so much about what a body will and won’t perform in yoga. Therefore, no pictorially-illuminated textbook is gonna give you the best guidance in yoga – only your body can do that. And if you need someone to assist your inquiry, find yourself a very good, well-informed yoga instructor, not a textbook. I particularly dislike BKS Iyengar’s ‘Light on Yoga’  (1965) and I threw out my copy as soon as my initial yoga teacher training was finished. The pictures show poses only achievable by this hyper-mobile Indian man who overcame significant joint laxity by dedicating every waking minute to building his considerable strength. Who else has time for that?

It’s maddening that yoga the way we have been doing it is often not healing, but harmful. The New York Times published an article I read recently, containing some alarming findings from a 2009 study conducted by Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. The study was a survey of yoga teachers around the world and asked them the most common and serious injuries they had seen related to yoga. They listed lower back, shoulder, knee and neck injuries as being not only persistent, but oftentimes disabling. Stroke was also listed along with four cases of brain damage that were caused by extreme back bending. Then there is the rather scary sounding “yoga foot drop” condition which specialists say results from deadened nerves in the feet and ankles after long periods of compression. Anyone out there sitting in varasana for just a bit too long, with pins and needles running through your legs? Stop it now! There is inherent risk in practising yoga like someone else does it or like a photo you’ve seen and admired. Before you begin yoga, it is useful to know your limits.

First of all, your bones are the foundation of your limitations. I bet you one free yoga class that my humorous is somewhat shorter than yours, despite me being of average height. Because of short arms, I’ll never be happy and elevated in bakasana (crow pose) and every single one of my sun salutes involves repositioning my hands in ways that many people don’t have to. I can’t even touch the ground in dandasana (L-sit) so it’s silly to try pushing myself up to bridge pose or to swing through from plank to dandasana, like our ‘teachers’ told us to in my initial yoga teacher training. Another pose they had my fellow trainees doing was unsupported headstand. I refused to because I have no intention of doing headstand on my short arms. My head and neck would be bunched up and I don’t have the core strength for it anyway. Better to stick to modified dolphin and good old down dog – those poses give me the same shoulder strengthening benefits in the form of a semi-inversion. Why follow Iyengar’s model and wreck my body when I can go all the way to my personalised edge and safely so for years, maybe even decades to come?

Which brings me to the biggest decision I made this week – I quit my job teaching yoga at a small, community health centre where the owner made it clear I was not only over-priced, I also didn’t fit her image of what a yoga teacher should look like. She’d always been a concerning employer for me as I knew we didn’t share a common vision for yoga. But the last straw was her threat to conduct a client satisfaction survey focussed on my teaching. There was suddenly a target on my head. But my saving grace was speaking to the teacher who worked there before me – she had a similarly frustrating experience and was disappointed to hear of mine. Together, we compared our experiences and checked our facts. We realised the owner had lied to both of us to suit herself. I handed in my notice that night. If you are a new yoga instructor, I recommend you don’t work for someone who is not a yoga practitioner themselves. If they haven’t felt yoga in their bodies, they just won’t get it. For them, yoga will be a concept and probably a money maker. 

So I’ve stopped wasting my time in a place that advertised my classes with stock photos of blonde, scantily-clad contortionists in bikinis. It was at this studio I spied some other unhelpful textbooks. One was poorly named, trying to promote body positivity but falling short of the mark. ‘Yoga for REAL women’ implies that some women aren’t real by comparison to those with a fuller figure. I guess I’m a synthetic woman if I don’t look like the prettily groomed, plus-sized women in the pictures. Woe is me for not looking like a supermodel either. Christy Turlington sits, long-limbed and peaceful on the cover of her yoga textbook, Living Yoga, her open hip-sockets and skinny thighs so open they rest fully on the mat. I won’t do what Christy does and I’m glad I’m getting better at communicating to anyone who asks why. My continued study of yoga and anatomy helps me to better explain why we’re all better off never striving to replicate others.

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Readers are probably wondering how can we free ourselves from the often damaging expectations we have of ourselves in yoga? I believe it’s about confidence and informed choice. Make a firm decision to self-care and do not waver from it when challenged. I’ve decided I won’t practice like a man, I won’t practise to look like a textbook or a Pinterest post and I certainly won’t practise over the top of a persistent injury. That injury is a message from my body and it will repeat itself until it is heard.

My ‘mat’s down’ time continues to be remedial in intention, incidental, quite intuitive and somatic (small, deliberate movements). Before I practise, I try to ask myself who I am today and what feels goooooood. I’m also informed enough to know my focus should be on using the deep muscles of my abdomen, stretching my left side quadratus lumborum and ‘containing’ my poses as much as possible to ensure I don’t go all hypermobile on the mat. Yoga is still an inquiry into what will put me at ease. I hope your own yoga teacher is still studying anatomy for healthy yoga, brushing up on their knowledge and encouraging a mindset of inquiry. Yoga can be fun and so much is possible!

And that tattoo? It says Go gently in cursive script, my own handwriting. They were the wisest words I could think to have etched permanently on my wrist. I’ve been proud of myself this week – of my self care, my learning, my decisions and my convictions. What have you learnt this week that surprised you or solidified your beliefs? Comments below are most welcome.

 

 

 

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