We Are One But We Are Not The Same

Not even on the inside.

This is a scientific fact: every bone in every body is different. Some differences are huge, some are minor. But they are big enough to create enormous variations in how our joints are put together, which in turn will determine how much movement each joint can create.

In a group of 25 or 30 people, like we have in our trainings, we already see differences so significant as to determine if someone will be able to sit in lotus pose easily or never at all- no matter how hard they try or how regularly they practice! If someone can flop forward over their legs or hardly move, if someone will be straight as a candle in shoulder balance or bent like a V- this is something that’s mostly determined before you begin your yoga practice.

Like most things in life, it is so obvious once you know where and how to look. You can see that some students, even after years of dedicated practice, will simply never be able to touch their toes

A bone cannot be tight

Because we – yoga students, teachers, and fellow humans – have completely ignored this fact for a long time – we’ve always assumed that if someone couldn’t do a pose it was because they were “stiff” or didn’t practice enough. But a bone cannot be tight. Muscles can be tight, or stiff, and yes, they can prevent us from getting deeper into yoga poses and often do. But the ultimate determining factor for range of motion is compression, when tissues – bones mostly, but soft tissue also – come into contact with each other. Think of a door opening for example: when the door hits the wall behind it, or the hinges get stuck, there is no more movement and the door has reached its maximum “openness” (if you can say that about a door). If you force it aggressively enough, something will break and the exact same thing can happen to your body!

Once you know, you know

Like most things in life, it is so obvious once you know where and how to look. You can see that some students, even after years of dedicated practice, will simply never be able to touch their toes when sitting with their legs stretched out in front of them (see the image below)

Skeletal variations in caterpillar pose - functional yoga

If tension would be the factor stopping the person on the right, that would be an immense amount of tension indeed. Possible in principle, but in practice you will not see that often in class. It is much more likely that there is some tension present – especially if this is someone who hasn’t practiced for long – but definitely some compression too. Whereas the person on the left is often able to do this in their very first yoga class. They can be experiencing tension too, but the range of motion in their bones simply allows them to go that far.

A “good” yogi

Another example that we often see in class is on the illustration below.

It looks like the guy on the right is “tight” and a beginner and the one on the left is a good yogi (whatever this may mean). But even if there is tension present in the legs and shoulders, in most cases – if not all – compression is a much more determining issue. The guy on the right is hitting compression in the shoulder way sooner than the person on the left, due to the shape of his bones. And because of this compression they will not be able to come into the aesthetic ideal of the pose. They – and sometimes their teachers – may think the shoulders are “tight” and need “opening up”, but if the problem is compression it will never change. Never. Ever. They may still benefit from the pose and enjoy it, but they may need different alignment cues to get the best out of the pose.

And that right there, that’s what a good teacher should provide – a way to have the best practice we can have with the bodies and the bones we’ve got. In my opinion, of course.

Cover image taken from paulgrilley.com © Paul Grilley

The author:

Anat Geiger, based in Amsterdam, is ½ of The Fat Yogis duo alongside Marcel van de Vis Heil. Anat took her first yoga class in 1996 and immediately found something that she, without knowing it, had always been looking for. After studying intensively with Teresa Caldas and Dona Holleman she found Paul and Suzee Grilley who remain her teachers today.
Anat is now a well-respected Functional Yoga teacher herself, teaching both students and teachers around the world.