Retiring Yoga Poses?

By Susi Hately, BSc. Kinesiology, C-IAYT Yoga Therapist warrior-2-muscles

One of the more common conversations I am having with yoga teachers is about “retiring poses”. There seems to be a growing belief that there are just some yoga poses that no longer work and it is time to shelve them for good.

I have to admit it does make me (sigh) with a bit of sadness, which is accompanied by a touch of resignation “well if that is the way someone wants to practice . . . . .”, followed by “wait a second . . . if they understand movement, load transfer and overall structural integrity they may very likely bring those old favourites back to their practice. They just need to learn how to move better, and move more functionally”.

Yes, change is possible.

Tissue can change. Neurodynamics can change. How forces and load move through your body can change. No matter your age. Yup – whether you are 15, 25, 35, 40, 50, 60, and beyond!

Is there a catch? Yes!

You have to shift your thinking.

Most 200 and 500 hour programs focus on two primary components when training teachers how to teach yoga poses.

  • Alignment Maps
  • Stretch Sensation

The alignment map addresses the “form” or the end pose. The stretch sensation addresses the “what you should feel if you are in the pose correctly”.

While this approach works for the vast number of yoga practitioners, it is also an approach that is leading to many injuries. Mostly because neither alignment maps nor stretch sensation are accurate measures of whether the pose is being completed correctly or appropriately for the function of the person who is doing the pose. Neither actually indicates the “how” of getting into the pose.

Let’s look at an example.

Stepping wide from Tadasana, into the prep for Warrior 2. When looking at the lower body, the end form focuses on the position of the feet and what angle they should be at. As a result, the practitioner focuses on the feet. What is missed is the movement is actually at the hips, specifically how the femur is moving in the acetabulum of the pelvis (abduction to step wide and then rotation). As a result, the hip mobility/stability components of this position are completely bypassed. The movement happens more passively, with less awareness, which increases the likelihood to take abduction too wide, land up with a pelvis compensating for the too wide stance, which often leads to an anterior tilt. To then “balance” this now anteriorly tilted pelvis, the student or teacher will then adjust the pelvis into a posterior tilt.

Compensation ontop of compensation. It happens so frequently, and so often it is because of focusing on the end form of a pose (the alignment map) and not focusing on the body part that is actually doing the movement (the femur in the acetabulum of the pelvis). As a result, not only does the practitioner increase the possibility of stepping too wide for their available range of motion, function, and stability, they miss the opportunity to increase mobility of the hips, or what is commonly called “hip opening”. After awhile they wonder why they are developing knee pain, SI joint pain, back pain and why they haven’t progressed any further into their poses. Because of the increasing pain, they make the decision to retire Warrior 2.

Please don’t assume that I am against retiring poses. Where I do want to shed the light is on a very specific “missing piece”. If the practitioner simply moves in the range that is available they won’t step too far, they will reduce the possibility for compensating with an anterior tilt, which will eliminate the need to tuck the pelvis or lengthen the tailbone. They will become more mobile, the hips will become more supple, more stable and Warrior 2 will become alive rather than being lesson in frustration and karmic annoyance.

If alignment maps aren’t an accurate measure then what about the stretch sensation? The difficulty with relying on stretch sensation as a measurement of doing a pose correctly is the sensation is a subjective experience. As well, if someone were to tell any of us to create a stretch sensation anywhere in our bodies, we’d be able to do in one of a thousand ways and many of those ways are compensatory. Ultimately, as awesome as juicy stretches feel, they simply aren’t measure of doing a pose correctly.

Here is a short story from a recent I Love Anatomy online training, which highlights the gains made by simply moving with less reliance on stretch sensation and alignment maps:

“I have been obsessing with Vira 1 right along with Tree…. and come to the conclusion that I’ve been lengthening my tailbone because I’m not connecting my ribs and my pelvis. When I do, while at the same time focusing on rotating my femur in my pelvis to the full extent it’s capable of, I don’t feel the need either to tuck tail or “knit ribs in,” something else I always do–probably because somebody told me to way back when. Lightbulb, lightbulb, lightbulb.”

Here is a Bumper Sticker to consider over the next couple of weeks. When I work with yoga practitioners who have retired poses or are contemplating retiring poses, we always find a series of compensatory strategies, and poor movement patterns. As they become aware of these patterns and learn to move better, those patterns resolve, and they gain better structural integrity, greater suppleness, stability and strength. Their resignation fades and they become inspired again. And yes, they no longer have to retire those yoga poses.

Change is possible. For everyone – including you.

Have a great time on your mat.