Every Body is Different. ~ Bernie Clark

Via on Sep 22, 2012
http://www.flickr.com/photos/lululemonathletica/6154302722/
Photo: Lululemon Athletica

The Two Biggest Challenges in Yoga Today: Part Two.

Frequently I receive emails or postings from yoga teachers and students asking for an opinion about some other teacher’s statement that a certain yoga pose is really harmful for students and should never be taught, or certain movements of the body in a yoga class should be outlawed.

Dogma is dangerous! To say that something is always wrong or something should never be done feeds into fear and at best is unhelpful and at worst is harmful. There are two big reasons why some teachers will render these prejudicial statements:

  1. A common misperception about the nature and value of stress
  2. Ignorance of skeletal variations 1

Skeletal Variation

Every body is different! I am sure that this statement did not rock your world: you know that everyone is different.

And yet, knowing this, we somehow expect that everyone should be exactly the same when it comes to yoga practice. This is very dangerous. There is a reason why a ballerina will never play point guard for the Miami Heat and why NFL Linebackers will not dance for the Bolshoi—individual bodies are not built to do all the possible movements that humans on the whole can do. Not every body can do every pose in yoga!

But this does not mean that every pose in yoga is dangerous for everybody.

In the blog decrying Pigeon Pose the author showed an image similar to this one.
http://www.yinyoga.com/

He said, “This student is not only putting her S/I joints in danger, but she is also going to stretch the ligaments out in her knees pretty quickly, and before long will suffer some pretty serious knee trauma.”

This displays an ignorance of skeletal variation—this woman is doing this pose because she can! I will never be able to bring my front foot that far forward because my hip sockets will not allow it. For me, and for many others, to even try to do this would destroy my knees, but this does not mean it’s dangerous for this particular woman to do so. The only way you can tell if this is dangerous for her is to ask her what she’s feeling.

If she’s feeling any discomfort in the knees then she would be well advised to back off. But many people can greatly externally rotate their legs— some people can bring both feet behind their heads! This pose in and of itself is not dangerous—it can be dangerous to some people but for other people it is perfectly acceptable and is a healthy stress of their hip sockets.

Should we say that no-one should do ballet because a seven-foot tall basketball players can’t do it very well?

Paul Grilley has done significant research into this area: he has compiled pictures of the bones that can affect our ultimate range of motion in various yoga poses. These pictures are freely available for anyone to study and we’ll look at just a couple of examples here. (For more information on this topic, check out Paul’s workshops. He definitely will rock your world!)

In almost every yoga class we’re told to bring our feet together in Mountain Pose, or at least have them parallel. We’ll find this same instruction every time our feet are on the ground—in Down Dog, have your feet pointing forward; in Warrior, have your front foot pointing straight ahead; the same for Triangle, wide-legged forward fold, etc. This dogmatic command has more to do with aesthetics than health.

Why should our feet be pointing straight ahead? Because, we are assured, this is the “right” position for our legs and avoids tweaking the knees or the hips. If you are like me, you have been standing and walking for decades without anyone telling you how to point your feet. Next time you are walking down a busy sidewalk, notice the people in front of you—do they all have their feet pointing straight ahead and parallel? No! Why? Because every body is different and everyone’s bones are different. The desire to make everyone conform to a standard is based on aesthetics not function.

Here are two pelvis photos from Paul Grilley—selected because of their big differences. This is not a sampling of extremes taken across thousands of people! This is a similar sized group that is often found in a yoga class, which means that you may well see this range of variation in your own students.

Notice anything different between these two pelvises?

Two Pelvises from Paul Grilley's Chicago CollectionLet me give you a hint: where are the hip sockets? The sockets (known by anatomists as the acetabulum) are pointing forward in the pelvis on the left but are not visible in the pelvis on the right: they’re rotated to the side of the pelvis.

What will this mean for our students? The owner of the right pelvis is very externally rotated (we’ll assume that the femurs that insert into the acetabulums are the same, but of course they will have their own variations and implications as well!) The owner of the pelvis on the left is more internally rotated.

Who do you think will find it easier to stand with their feet pointing straight ahead? The internally rotated person. Who do you think will find it easier to do the Pigeon Pose as shown above? The externally rotated person. We’re not the same and some poses for some of us will be really easy and some poses will be dangerous to try.

I suggested we ignore the femur but the amount of variation there is just as dramatic. Check out Paul’s pictures to see for yourself. We can also look at a lower leg bone, the tibia. Here are two—notice any differences?

Two Tibias from Paul Grilley's Chicago Collection

These are right leg tibias and the difference may seem subtle to you but notice the torsion, which is the technical word for amount of twist in the bone. In the image on the right the bottom square region which sits on top of the talus bone in the ankle is almost parallel to the bottom edge of the photo while the tibia on the left is angled. The bottom right part of the tibia forms the inside of the ankle. Depending upon how much torsion there is in the bone, the foot will be more internally or externally pointed.

When we insist that everyone stand with their feet parallel we are causing some students to internally rotate their legs to accommodate our aesthetic desire.

To know what this feels like, try this exercise in empathy:

Come into Mountain Pose.

Touch your big toes together but move your heels 12 inches apart—you’ll feel rather pigeon-toed.

Now, keep this orientation of your feet while you do some half-sun salutations/forward folds.

Notice how uncomfortable that is?

But that’s exactly what you may be telling some of your students to do because you believe that alignment cues work for every body. They don’t— there’s no such thing as universal alignment! There are only alignment cues that work for your body.

Putting it all together:

To bring this learning back to the three statements at the beginning: Should we never do Pigeon Pose? Is it always deadly for every body? No— we need to stress the sacroiliac joint and many people will have no problem with this pose. Will it be dangerous for some people? Yes! But this does not mean that everyone should avoid it.

study of cadavers showed a wide variation in the range of motion of the sacroiliac joint: from three to 17 degrees. Seventeen degrees is a lot and these cadavers were from people who were elderly! For someone who has too much mobility in the sacroiliac joint, care should be taken to not make matters worse. This instability is known as hypermobility and the suggested approach is to strengthen and tighten the joint. Pigeon Pose along with many other poses may not be a good idea for these people. However for people with little mobility, called hypomobility, poses like Pigeon may be just what the doctor ordered to loosen up the joint.

If the idea was to never risk stressing the sacroiliac joint, then we’d be well advised to never do Janusirsasana (head-to-knee pose), Hanumanasana (splits), Anjaneyasana (low lunges) and several other poses. The idea in yoga is not to avoid stress but to stress the joint appropriately for your body.

The list of knowledgeable yoga teachers who include Pigeon in their repertoire is impressive: B.K.S. Iyengar teaches it (see Light on Yoga page 389) as does his senior instructors; John Friend included it as part of the Anusara practice; Leslie Kaminoff included it in his book Yoga Anatomy; Judith Lasater included it in her book YogaBody. Dr McCall in his book Yoga as Medicine and Dr Fishman in his book Yoga for Osteoporosis both suggest this pose. Are all these teachers mistaken? If you were to take a class with these senior teachers you’ll find that they will modify the pose or even leave it out if it’s inappropriate for a specific student but this doesn’t mean that it should never be taught.

How about flexion of the spine? Should we never allow flexion of the spine in forward folds in Yin Yoga?

No—we need to stress the ligaments that wrap the spinal column. Will this be dangerous for some people? Yes! For those people who have herniated disks, bulging disk or many other defined lower back disorders where flexion is not advised, they should not flex the spine. But this does not mean that everyone has to avoid this movement.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lululemonathletica/6936394783/
Photo: Lululemon Athletica

The video blog that I cited earlier was short but the teacher commented that we should not flex the spine at all in a long-held Yin Yoga pose. Fortunately, the textual commentary that accompanies the video does qualify what she said verbally: she writes that it is only students who have osteopenia or osteoporosis that should avoid spinal flexion. This I would concur with.

Unfortunately, many people have only seen the video and not read the commentary and concluded that flexion is never allowed. Flexion is allowed when it’s safe to do so.

But again—every body is different so you have to determine whether it is a good idea for you to flex your spine in yoga poses.

The last topic: should pregnant women never do Yin Yoga because it may cause thrombosis (blood clot)?

I can only speculate that this concern arises due to concerns that immobility for longs periods of time has been linked to conditions such as deep vein thrombosis.

This is a problem for people who fly long distances stuck in the middle seat of an aircraft and don’t get to move their legs. In some instances, a thrombosis can develop and if this clot gets lodged in the brain or the heart’s main arteries a stroke or a heart attack can develop. This obviously is not good! But is this really a worry for pregnant yoga students?

Pregnant women do have thicker blood, probably as a protection against bleeding to death during a dangerous and prolonged delivery. The risk of an embolism is about four times higher for pregnant women than non-pregnant women, but the overall rate of this occurring is about one in 500 deliveries and the death rate due to such complication is one in 100,000 deliveries. Pretty small odds, and even then it is not clear at all that this situation is made worse through decreased mobility such as long term bed rest (Venous Thromboembolism: Mechanisms, Treatment, and Public Awareness).

Again, everyone is different, but if not moving for five minutes while holding a Yin Yoga pose is dangerous for pregnant women, then they would also be advised to never sit still for more than five minutes while reading at home, watching TV or working on a computer. They should also avoid sleeping at night for more than five minutes because people are very still for large swaths of time when they sleep. Clearly this is nonsensical.

In fact one way you can evaluate dogmatic claims of “never do X” is to think of times in ordinary life when we do do X. For example, when we walk we stress the sacroiliac joint! When we run or play tennis we stress it even more. Clearly it’s not always bad to stress the SI joint. Clearly it’s not always bad to flex the spine. And clearly it’s not always bad to sit still for a few minutes at a time.

Conclusions:

Stress is not bad. Compression is not bad. 

Painful compression is not good but painful stress of any sort is not good.

We are each unique and what may be good for you maybe very dangerous for me. But just because one person may be harmed by a particular pose does not mean that is has no value for others. Due to our unique anatomy and physiological history we have to take care to make sure any yoga posture works and is appropriate for us.

If it’s not working, we’ll usually be told by some complaint of the body. Don’t ignore these early warning signals but don’t be afraid to try postures if your body is able to accommodate the shape. Beware of dogmatic statements—ultimately you have to be the one to decide what works for you.

You might also want to read Part One: The Value of Stress.

1 — Thanks to Paul Grilley for coining this apt phrase.

 

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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About Bernie Clark

Bernie Clark has been teaching yoga and meditation since 1998. He has a bachelor degree in Science from the University of Waterloo and combines his intense interest in yoga with an understanding of the scientific approach to investigating the nature of things. His ongoing studies have taken him deeply inside mythology, comparative religions and psychology. All of these avenues of exploration have clarified his understanding of the ancient Eastern practices of yoga and meditation. His teaching, workshops and books have helped many students broaden their own understanding of health, life and the source of true joy. Bernie’s yoga practice encompasses the hard, yang-styles, such as Ashtanga and Power Yoga, and the softer, yin-styles, as exemplified in Yin Yoga. His meditation experience goes back to the early 80s when he first began to explore the practice of Zen meditation. He manages the Yin Yoga website and he’s the author of Yinsights, The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, and of the recently released From the Gita to the Grail: Exploring Yoga Stories & Western Myths.

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39 Responses to “Every Body is Different. ~ Bernie Clark”

  1. Lori Lucas says:

    Love it Bernie! Glad you are writing for Elephant Journal. Happy fall xo

  2. calhy says:

    Thank you. Teach an anatomy 3-7 day intensive for yog ateachers please.

  3. sophie says:

    Thank you Bernie. Every yoga teacher should read this article.

  4. Rosanne says:

    This is such a helpful article. I have a Yin Yoga DVD by Paul Grilley and I've already learned a lot about the subjects discussed here from that. But I particularly like what you said about aligning your feet in any pose. I always try to keep mine perfectly aligned and when I then lose my balance I feel like I'm 'not able to to it properly (yet)'. This has given me a new perspective. Thank you!

  5. Kelly says:

    Thanks. Great article.

  6. Bryan says:

    MMM. Interesting article. I agree that all students are different and shouldn't be forced into poses, but in time shouldn't we be able to have a large range of motion and be able to externally and internally rotate our legs (for example). Shouldn't there be freedom in our movements, provided we are know what we are doing and are clear in our intent / ability to do so?

  7. [...] Every Body is Different. ~ Bernie Clark [...]

  8. Bernie Clark Bernie says:

    There is a dangerous myth in Yoga that everyone can do every pose if we just keep working, find the right guru, take the right supplements, wear the right Lululemon outfit … eventually you too can bring the back of your head to your butt! Don't believe it! This myth that you can do every pose as well as any gymnast, dancer or contortionists causes a lot injuries because it compels you to keep pushing past the point of where you body can safely go. When you begin a yoga practice you are generally restricted by tension in your tissues: tight, short muscles; adhesions in the fascia; contracted joint capsules; etc. Over the years you open up: creating space in your joints, length in your muscles, movement in your fascia, and then – you hit the limits of what your skeleton allows. Once you have reached the point of compression, where you body runs into itself, you are not going to go any further in that direction. Fortunately in yoga we have a wide variety of options and postures that may allow us to go around the original points of compression and allow us to work through any residual tensile resistance in our tissues, but again, eventually, the body will hit the body and we will have reached our limits. This is when injuries occur.

    Since everyone is different there is no 'should' – when you ask, "shouldn't we be able to have a large range of motion…?" you are ignoring the realities of skeletal variation. Some people's bone structure will not allow much range of motion at all: that is a fact of their anatomy and there is no point denying it or forcing postures – injuries will occur. For these people the best they can do is find their optimal range of motion and be content with that, because that is all they are going to get, short of radical surgery. Some people's bone structure will allow a huge range of motion and once they work through their tensile resistance they will amaze their friends and teachers with their elegant poses, will be used as models of the 'right' way to do the postures and go onto careers in show business. The process is self-selecting: those that can will do what they can, but those that can't will grow frustrated and quit, thinking that there is something wrong with them. There is no 'should' here – there is only your reality, so find your yoga! Don't worry about what range of motion anyone else has, find what is optimal for you. It may not be much, it may be a lot, but so what? If your intention is to be healthy, then be content with getting what you can get, not what someone else can do.

    Cheers
    Bernie

    • sophie says:

      We often judge our practice not even on how good we are at one pose, but more how poorly we think we perform in comparison to the teacher or to others. If the teacher or the next mat neighbour is a gymnast or a dancer, it really makes the comparison particularly unrealistic and unfair.
      I hesitated to become a yoga teacher and felt that I would be a fraud if I couldn’t do all the poses ‘perfectly’.
      Somebody then told me something very liberating: it’s nice to be able to show the full expression of a pose, but it’s not a goal, students learn from your teacher’s limitations too.
      A problem I see as well, is teachers making hasty assumptions on body types and forcing students into poses because they looked like they were able to. It happened to me a lot in ashtanga classes. A teacher who I met just once on a holiday, assumed I was a dancer and that I was being lazy and lifted my leg higher than it could in the hand to toe sequence and I ended with torn hamstrings. It took me months to recover. I was a runner!

  9. [...] was an interesting blog post I found on Elephant Journal I thought I’d share ~Roxy Frequently I receive emails or postings from yoga teachers and [...]

  10. Miri says:

    The more years I practice, the less attached I am to achieving specific postures that feel super difficult for me. I keep working with them but am trusting my body more to know what feels right in that pose. Also, if a pose doesnt' work for my body, I sometimes look at those who can do it and see the differences in how our bodies are to understand if that will just never work for me. I think it also depends on how often you practice yoga and what is realistic given that information. I used to practice 6x a week and definitely saw progress in my flexibility and strength for me in specific poses. But now, with 2 little kids and full-time job, I am practicing more like 1-2x a week which means i need to be gentler with myself and know I am benefitting from the practice in other ways.

  11. nunh says:

    Excellent article. I agree 100% and learn so much from your excellent articles – keep them coming!

  12. Steve Clark says:

    Bernie–
    if you're still there, I have one suggestion. You really do understand Paul's perspective, but I would hate to see such a wonderful teaching be used in service of fear. It's not about saving ourselves from injury, it's about recognizing the truth. You can spread the yin-yoga facts without using the injury bugaboo. Remember what Paul's teacher, Dr. Motoyama said, "To do yoga, you need to be willing to die for your practice." That doesn't mean we need to hurt ourselves. We don't. But yin practice is the opposite of yang practice in the deepest way of all. Yin practice is about allowance. Paul neglects that awareness a bit but I hope you can keep it in mind more. You're a good Yin spokesperson. Drop the business-oriented fear mongering, push allowance instead, and you'll be a great Yin spokesperson. That's my yang advice.

    • Bernie Clark Bernie says:

      Hi Steve – "push allowance" – that's an interesting yin/yang oxymoron. :-) The article was written in response to exactly what you are warning against: the theme was I was asked to comment on was a blog that said, "Don't do Pigeon Pose: You will hurt yourself." I think the exact words starting the blog was, "don't let me catch you doing it before class" As you say, that is fear-generating. There is nothing wrong with fear: it is a necessary emotion and if it wasn't adaptive we wouldn't have it. But, like anything, it can be overdone: there is a saying – "There are fears that help us to live and fears that prevent us from living." What I hope to be expressing is that we would serve ourselves well if we practice self-awareness, to learn where our limits are, to aspire to get to them but not obsess when we can't pass them.

  13. Steve Clark says:

    In respect to the oxymoron, that's why I called it "yang advice." Nothing yin about it. And since you recognize the issue with warning people about hurting themselves, you obviously don't want to do that yourself. Just because your responding to something, doesn't prevent you from doing the same thing. You did. It was just in service of a better idea and the idea can be presented without falling into the same trap as the people telling people not to do pigeon pose. Again, I'm with you on all other points.

  14. guest says:

    Thank you so much. I am a trained Anthropologist and I had to correct yoga instructors because they explained stuff plain wrong. I wish every yoga instructor would have to take a basic anatomy class.

  15. saazzi says:

    Thank you for this well written and informative article. I've read many articles about yoga but this was the first time I've seen one so focused on anatomy. I am a health care practitioner who practices yoga as a supplement to running. In order to have control and faster leg turnover, loose hip ligaments are not desirable. I tend to take some of the poses more conservatively for fear of injuring myself. Sometimes I feel guilty when I see how far others in the class can stretch. Now I have a new perspective on what is good for me in my practice that will help me decide when and if I want to take a pose to the next level.

  16. Seth Daley says:

    Hello again Bernie,

    I want to start out by restating my comment from Part 1, that it is in no way my intention to say that no one should ever do pigeon pose. Instead, the point I intended to communicate in my blog was that advanced poses are being taught much more frequently these days to new students under the flag of making yoga more ‘accessible.’ While I agree that more people practicing yoga is a good thing, this should not occur at the expense of safety. Many of the points you make are true and applicable when working with a student one-on-one, or in a Mysore-style setting, but fall apart when introduced to the much more common drop-in group class format.

    I’m going to start by respectfully taking exception to your claim that my issue with the version of pigeon pose with the front foot taken forward comes from ignorance rather then from a difference in opinion on anatomical theory. While it is demonstrably true that no two bodies are alike it is dangerous to assume that ‘can’ implies ‘should’ when it comes to any activity, yoga included. I have one of those bodies that allows me to bring my foot far forward, and indeed spent years doing so. My ligaments and connective tissue are generally more lax then average. Rather than this meaning I can go as far as I want into poses, it means that I have to apply a much greater degree of caution to my practice. Someone with a tight body and stable ligaments that provide more resistance will feel very quickly when they are moving into an unsafe range, whereas we ‘bendy’ folk often do not have that warning system.

    It appears to me that you are assuming if an action feels good or okay in the body, then it is safe to do that action in yoga practice, and I find two significant problems with that idea: 1) The validity of that assumption requires a deep level of awareness and perception of physical sensations that is rarely present in the beginning years of practice. Students new to yoga will often ignore sensation to the extent that they are not even consciously aware that they are avoiding it, or if the do notice the sensation, many (unfortunately) assume it is a good sign of working deeply and effectively in a pose; 2) There are a vast number of sensations that feel good, and yet are not of much help to the health of the body in practice (e.g., to take it into the absurd: opiates like heroin). To phrase that in another way, we are often attracted to our addictions, what feels good, what is easy for us, etc. and seek out sensations that are not necessarily productive. I like backbends because they feel good and are fairly easy in my body, and yet to spend most of my practice time doing what my body already has an easy time doing is to ignore any imbalances and weaknesses in my body (which are what I, arguably, should be working on). I acknowledge that a very skilled teacher can address these problems, but it is my experience that such teachers are shockingly rare. If safety is to be the primary emphasis of any asana practice, and given that ahimsa is one of yoga’s highest principles, then we must acknowledge the level of teaching skills and knowledge the majority of yoga teachers possess and adjust our expectations of what the community of teachers is capable of accordingly.

    (part 1/3)

  17. Seth Daley says:

    Some of your comments seem to dismiss decades and decades of bodywork theory. You say that because the general population tends to have their feet turned out, we should not address that in a yoga class? What about the tendency for protracted shoulder blades that result in a collapsed chest? Should we leave that common body pattern alone as well, or even worse, take advantage of it in some way to “achieve” a yoga posture? It has been my experience working as a yoga teacher, anatomy instructor, and sports rehab professional that while skeletal variation does account for some postural dysfunction, muscular imbalance accounts for more and fascial restrictions for the majority. Both the muscular and fascial challenges can be addressed through retraining of postural and movement patterns, and some notable therapists, such as Ida Rolf, have even suggested that skeletal variations can be shifted in detectable ways over time. These changes to habitual patterns are one of the primary functions of yoga asana, yet are completely missed if the body is allowed and even encouraged to remain stuck in habitual patterns.

    I will concede that many, if not most, teachers out there instructing parallel feet are doing so without much understanding of the desired effect that particular position has, and are giving the instruction only because they heard it from their teacher, or saw it in some silly ad in Yoga Journal. This does not, however, mean that it is an intrinsically bad instruction. The intention of the parallel feet is to create an inward rotation at the hip joints, and facilitate an anterior pelvic tilt during the forward fold or backbend as well as many other more subtle functions. This rotation in the hips is necessary for the correct working of the lumbar spine during the pose, in addition to being the beginning point of the process of learning how to engage and work properly with mula bandha. The intent of the instruction is not to force a student into a hypothetical yet non-existent ideal shape, but rather to create specific and important actions to create a desired safe and healthy effect while in the pose.

    Having said that, there are, without a doubt, students with bone shape differences in the acetabulum, femur neck and in the rest of the leg that can create the appearance of an outward turn to the feet without the associated external rotation in the hips. A skilled teacher will be able to see this, and modify the instruction to create the desired effect without using a blanket instruction about parallel feet. To argue that the less-skilled teacher should avoid using an instruction like parallel feet in order to accommodate the rare student with structurally externally rotated femurs (caused by the shape of the bone) is to compromise the practice of the majority of the students.

    I want to briefly make a couple of other points.

    a) The knee position in the pigeon photo is going to be risky regardless of the capacity of the hip to rotate (although I agree that the greater the degree of rotational capacity, the smaller the risk). The knee joint is at its most secure when it is fully extended or fully flexed. These positions restrict the rotation within the knee joint, and thus provide the most security to the ligaments of the joint. The woman in the photo has her knee open to approximately 45 degrees and, as a result, loses much of that stability. Doing the pose in that way will, almost without exception, compromise the collateral ligaments (along the side of the knee) with repeated practice.

    (part 2/3)

  18. Seth Daley says:

    b) You mention the range of S/I joint mobility found in cadavers, and suggest that for those with restricted movement in the joints, doing a posture like pigeon would help to increase that mobility. While you are absolutely correct that we want to increase the available movement in a hypomobile joint, there are some issues that present themselves. In the hypomobile student who would benefit from some exercise that creates a greater range of movement, it is at least common, if not universal to have one S/I joint more mobile then the other. In poses like pigeon, unless the student is significantly advanced, they are going to increase the movement in the more mobile side, and increase the imbalance between sides, resulting in their hypomobile side becoming even more solid and fixed in place. It is incredibly challenging for both a teacher and a student to know the extent of the range of motion available in the S/I joint without the benefit of an autopsy, and so many students unaware that they have a hypermobile joint, will work with great effort to increase that movement and create a very unstable pelvis. Additionally, hypermobility is the cause of far more dysfunction in the sacrum then hypomobility, so the students with joint dysfunction are often the ones who should avoid the pose.

    c) Lastly, you suggest that several senior teachers include pigeon pose in their repertoire, and thus it must be a lovely pose indeed. My position is not that pigeon should never be taught, but rather that it is an advanced posture, and when taught to beginners (and most intermediate students) in the typical group-class setting, leads to misunderstanding, sensation seeking, and injury. This is an opinion shared by teachers you mention like Mr. Iyengar. In Light On Yoga (1991) he lists eka pada raj kapotasana as having a difficulty level of 28 compared to trikonasana at 3, parivritta parshvakonasana at 8 and padmasana at 4. (Other poses around that 28 difficulty are the very obviously advanced parsva kukkatasana, and dropping into backbend from handstand). Very senior Iyengar instructors such as Ramanand Patel are quick to stop students from practicing poses like pigeon too early, and it is, in fact, from such senior teachers that I initially learned about the risk to the knees. Senior Ashtanga teachers like YogaWorks founder, Chuck Miller, would be likely point out that pigeon pose appears very late in the Ashtanga series–long after poses like foot behind the head while standing upright. If anything, it seems that the more senior teachers are the ones advising against casually teaching the pose and encouraging students to practice the pose too early with respect to their level of experience with, and understanding of, yoga. My own teacher, Hart Lazer, could explain the more subtle reasons why some of theses poses are not advisable for most people, but my own education is primarily in the anatomy world, so that tends to be my focus.

    To conclude: I agree wholeheartedly that there is a wide range of body types and abilities that play into which poses are suitable for which people. It is that very reason that yoga was classically taught in an individual manner. With private classes the teacher can address the specific needs and capacity of the student. The reality of the modern yoga world, however, is large classes with inexperienced teachers—a situation in which it is impossible to give individual attention to each student. Teaching advanced poses in that setting is both irresponsible and unsafe. It is even MORE irresponsible and unsafe when those classes are composed of beginner and intermediate students—regardless of their physical capacity. Yoga is not solely about physical capacity.

    Sincerely,
    -Seth http://www.bentoutofshape.ca http://www.theshala.ca

    (A brief aside, you mentioned that if pigeon is bad, then what about hanumanasana? You are quite right, that it is a very advanced pose too, not to be attempted by beginner or intermediate students unless heavily propped. Iyengar lists it as have a difficulty of 36).

    (part 3/3)

    • Bernie Clark Bernie says:

      Hey Seth- thanks so much for taking the time to offer your thoughts, points and counterpoints. This is a really valuable discussion and it feels like we should be creating two or three more articles to more fully explore some of these key points. I have tried to structure my response to your major points.

      1) You mention a couple of times that "it is in no way my intention to say that no one should ever do pigeon pose." I can appreciate that maybe it wasn't your intention but your opening statement of your blog "For those of you who have been to my class, you probably know that one surefire way to get a long-winded rant out of me is to ask what I think about pigeon pose (or let me catch you doing it before class…)" is pretty clear: don't do Pigeon Pose! I was asked by a student to respond to your blog because this was her impression: she said, "I was recently sent this article on pigeon pose and how horrible it is for our bodies." The impression you left was pretty clear: Pigeon, bad.

      2) You go on to say that Pigeon is an advanced pose – we can agree to disagree here: certainly the full Rajakapotasana is advanced: how many people can bring their foot to their head? But in your post you say that you are not talking about these variations, you are talking about the bread & butter pigeon (see the picture in my article.) I teach Pigeon often in class and to all levels (not eka pada rajakpotasana – but the much more accessible "standard pigeons" which your blog addresses.) In Yin Yoga we include a similar pose called Swan – I do not consider it advanced and virtually everybody can do it with appropriate modifications. Loren Fishman in Yoga for Osteoporosis includes it and here we are talking about some very delicate bodies. (Pages 204 – 209) Of course he uses lots of modifications. I have also seen it taught in Restorative Yoga classes, again with modifications and props. Not every pigeon is the same, so to say never do Pigeon is not right, which you clarified and agreed with in your opening statement: so I guess we can agree to agree on this point. The "easy Pigeon" is available to most people.

      2a) You make the point later that Mr. Iyengar assigns a difficulty degree to eka pada rajakapotasana of 28: I am not sure why you are making this points since we are not talking about this version of the pose, but even so – this illustrates my point in two ways: first – difficult does not mean dangerous! Iyengar assigns a difficulty level of only 4 to Lotus pose (padmasana) implying it is easy but many people have broken their knees by trying to his pose (I, unfortunately, can speak from personal experience.) Just because Pigeon may be difficult does not mean it is dangerous; just because something is ‘easy’ does not mean it is safe. The second comment about this difficulty scale is my main point of the article: it ignores skeletal variation and the fact that everyone is different! Lotus may be easy for people who are very externally rotated but for people who are very internally rotated it is impossible and can be very dangerous. His scale may be his experience of how difficult some poses were but to apply it to everyone is not right: for my body Lotus is not a ‘4’. Scales like this are dogmatic and imply everyone is the same and if you can’t do an easy pose then there is something wrong with you.

      end of part 1 of 3

    • Bernie Clark Bernie says:

      3) I think we can agree that safety is the key issue: if a pose doesn't work for a student, don't do it, but how is a student to know? People tend to do what they like, not what they need and the teacher's challenge is to make sure the students get what they need but don't risk hurting themselves. One of the biggest teachings I can offer students in my classes is to learn how to feel their own bodies: to pay attention. You are right, beginners don't have much sensitivity, but they can learn this skill. I would agree that beginners should not attempt dangerous poses until they have developed this sensitivity (we just disagree whether easy Pigeon is a dangerous pose.) We also agree that 'can' does not mean 'should': but this also doesn't mean ‘never.’ Your injunction was pretty clear, whether you intended it or not – don't do Pigeon: you are going to over stress your body. You said of a woman in the pose, "she is also going to stretch the ligaments out in her knees pretty quickly, and before long will suffer some pretty serious knee trauma." How do you know this? She may, but she may not too. We do need to teach students how to feel. Your points are valid but in my opinion can go too far into the protective zone and maybe end up with no stress or avoiding poses out of fear – I'd prefer the middle path – stress and feel, when it’s too much back off. How much is too much – the student does have to learn this for herself. You can guide but you can also become the overly protective parent that won't allow any trial and error learning.

      4) You are setting up a couple of straw men when you say I said we should never address the feet in a yoga class or never correct hunched shoulders. What I am reacting to are teachers who overly focus on the feet when there are good reasons for some students to have their feet not parallel. I didn't say that all students should just let their feet go wherever they want. And I didn't talk about protracted shoulders at all! I would agree that there are some pathological movements and body shapes that need correction but I have seen very senior teachers, supposedly world class, at conferences in open classes, harangue students to bring their feet together. It was as if they assumed the students were either deaf or stupid. We do have to give some direction but we don't have to insist upon it before proceeding. I do tell students to point their feet straight ahead but if they don't, I don't assume that they are just being willful, I try to find out why? Maybe they were not listening for a moment, or maybe that is the way his body is. For protracted shoulders: again I didn't talk about that, but some people's shoulders are anatomically rounded forward and for them that is their normal, but for most who have this condition, I would agree it is an imbalance in the body and they would benefit from addressing it. It is just that one diagnoses doesn't fit everybody so we have to be ready to check it out, not dogmatically follow rules as if they apply to everyone.

      end of part 2 of 3

    • Bernie Clark Bernie says:

      5) Re your point (a) – we can spend a nice time debating this but I am not sure this is the right venue: perhaps it is a topic for another article. You are right that the knee is 'more stable' when the leg is straight because the collateral ligaments are straight and taut then but this is precisely why, when the knee is bent, the front leg can be where she has it: the ligaments are the most lax when the knee is bent 90 degrees which makes it the safest place in this pose for the ligaments (note: it may not be so great for the meniscus if the hips are tight). What we often hear in yoga is that the knee must never twist: this is wise when the leg is straight but when the knee is bent the knee can twist and that allows some postures to be accessible. The danger is in the transition from bent knee/lax ligaments to straight knee/taut ligaments: if the knee remains twisted during this transition then death and destruction may result: care must always be taken during transitions. There is much more I could say about knees but I think we can both agree, however, that most people can't or shouldn't go to where this student is, but my comment was in regards to your statement that she IS hurting herself: that is guessing. How do you know? You have to check. If she is experiencing any discomfort there, she should back off – agreed, but if she isn't, why not let her be where her collateral knee ligaments are most lax, allowing this degree of hip rotation?

      b) We can agree with your synopsis for the case of a hypermobile student but my point was – to say never do this pose mean that students are not hypermobile don't get the chance to work where they would like to and need to work. Again, just because some people shouldn't doesn't mean others can't.

      c) To reiterate my earlier point: in your post you specifically excluded the advanced versions of pigeon like eka pada rajakpotasana … You said that the easiest versions were verboten, even the sleeping pigeon. This is what I reacted to – I would agree that the advanced versions are advanced but the tenor of your post, and the reason it was brought to may attention, was your conclusion that Pigeon should never be taught: this I disagree with because there are many versions of Pigeon that are safe and lovely for students. You have now clarified your position and so we have no debate on this point.

      6) We both agree that every body is different and I also agree that yoga taught in a classroom setting is challenging at best! Yoga one hundred years ago was not a classroom activity: it was a private teaching passed along from a guru to a student whom he knew intimately. Today it has changed. Imagine this analogy: your doctor comes into the waiting room where 30 patients, with a variety of complaints, await: he says to everyone, "Today we are going to do aspirin!" One woman with a migraine headache thinks, "yes!"; but another woman, 6 months pregnant, is wondering if aspirin will be good for her baby; another student with asthma wonders what the heck aspirin is going to do for her; while yet another man with a bad ulcer is thinking, "Oh no! Aspirin will kill my stomach." But the doctor insists, "aspirin, aspirin, aspirin." Yoga teachers are sometimes like that doctor: "Today we are going to do hip openers!" Some people think "great" while others groan. A skilled teacher can work the class and modify the poses etc. but it is challenging! Yoga taught in classrooms is a fact of life: as teachers we have to walk a middle path when we teach to avoid injuries but not do so little that there is no benefit at all.

      The main point of my article is – avoid dogmatic alignment cues that insists everyone must do this pose the one right way, or never do this pose at all; there are always some students who should not do that pose this way and that's okay, but there are others who may benefit from the pose but only when the alignment is changed! We can always seek modifications of the poses to make them more accessible. Everybody is different and that makes all the difference in our yoga practice.

      Thanks for the chance to continue to discussion!
      Cheers
      Bernie

      end of part 3 of 3

      • Steve Clark says:

        Oh, Bernie. I've stepping in here again uninvited, but even before Seth replies, if he does, I have to point out that Paul G did this with an Iyengar teacher a few years back. It didn't go well and neither with this one. Since I do both yin yoga and yang yoga I can tell you again that you are wasting your time. Iyengar people are told not to do any other kind of practice. They think they are right and will tell students what the right way to do a pose is. The whole yin attitude is foreign to them. Paul G tried his best to communicate in a similar way and it didn't go well. It can't. The yin perspective is never going to make sense to Iyengar people. The whole business model of what they do is base on teachers telling students what not to do and how not to get hurt. There is a tremendous amount of knowledge backing up the stridency, but as outsiders it's best that we just learn from Iyengar Yoga and not engage them in discussions that challenge their whole style of instruction. Sometimes Iyengar people change their style but when they do, they are no longer Iyengar people. And don't forget that Paul G left Yoga Works a long time ago because the Iyengar people whispering in Maty Ezraty's ear were saying the same thing Seth is. It's been going on for decades. Erich Schiffman left Yoga Works for the same reason. Can you imagine a yoga studio losing a teacher like Erich over the idea that pigeon is bad. People like us who have been teaching pigeon to beginners for decades just can only shake our heads. Unfortunately, it's not the Iyengar peoples' biggest issue. Yang yoga posing without pranayama makes no sense at all. To hold on to the idea that all pranayama is the Classical pranayama in the Sutras (staying alive with no respiration) is so silly. The yamas, the niyamas and asana limbs prep pranayama and are pranayama. As has been pointed out in another recent elephant journal post, they are one limb. To separate them is ridiculous and explains why Iyengar yoga may not survive economically. If outside teachers hadn't come to the rescue of the LA Iyengar Institute years back, it would have closed. I just hope that what's great about Iyengar Yoga–all the correct knowledge about poses–doesn't disappear with the style. Anusara would have kept Iyengar Yoga alive and well if it hadn't been for you-know-who screwing up so bad. Oh, well. We'll see how things go.

      • Seth Daley says:

        Hey Bernie,
        I really appreciate the time and effort you have made in replying to me. While we might disagree on some points, I think we are very much in agreement that discussions like these are critical to the integrity of the yoga teaching process, and your openness to discussion is wonderful to see as it is, unfortunately, often rare. I think that the more open discussions like this one that happen, the more we (and other teachers whose methods vary greatly) will see that we perhaps agree on the great majority of issues. We are on the same page when it comes to the poisonous nature of dogma and that individual attention is the best method for dealing with the variety found in students. We agree that poses which are harmful and unsafe for some are not harmful and unsafe for all and that the sensitivity of the student needs to be developed so that they are able to better judge the effects of poses on their body. I think it is safe to say that the things we have in common are much more significant then the issues that divide us.
        Before I respond to your comments (much more briefly then last time, I swear) I wanted to first address Steve’s comment:
        Steve, I categorically disagree that Bernie was wasting his time by engaging with me. I think that even if he or I were close-minded enough to inhibit a healthy constructive debate, then it is still valuable to calmly and respectfully make one’s case when challenged, if for no other reason than that others can see there is room in yoga for multiple points of view. Asana practice is made richer by having people explore it thoroughly from all sides and angles. Also, just to make the point so I don’t get smacked around by Iyengar teachers, I’m not from that school. While many of my teachers have studied Iyengar yoga, I practice and teach Ashtanga yoga. That said, it is important to note that I actively reject all of the dogma that has crept into the Ashtanga practice. For instance, I might sometimes teach 3-5 minute holds to a class if I am attempting to communicate something specific or attain a desired result. Furthermore, I have a very well-stocked props room at my studio. (Pause for the shocked shocked gasp of the Ashtanga purists!).

        Bernie: I will take full responsibility for incorrectly communicating my position on pigeon regarding it never ever being taught. In my defense, I was trying to go for the humorous over-statement to make a point. While I do not allow students to do Pigeon before class when they are not warmed up and I have not yet had a chance to assess their practice, I will occasionally give the pose to students to work on in cases where it may offer benefit and bring little risk. I think that our disagreement over the level of the post is the root of our differences, and I’m content to leave it there. I recognize that lots of people teach it to beginners, and include it in books and DVDs designed for beginner and intermediate students. I strongly believe that introducing this pose to so many people at the beginner/intermediate level without the opportunity for one-on-one assessment of the student is irresponsible. However, that is my opinion. I have provided evidence and argument to back that opinion up, but I respectfully acknowledge there is probably room in the world for more than my opinion. ;-)
        I referenced Light on Yoga’s difficulty scale more to counter your point that Mr. Iyengar included the pose in his book; and therefore, it must be okay to teach in class. You are quite correct that any absolute scale of difficulty is going to be loaded with problems and inconsistencies.
        I think that while we might also disagree on some ideas about working with ligaments and other connective tissue, you make a good point that this may not be the correct forum for that debate.
        It all seems to come down to our opinions on the difficulty level of the variations of pigeon. The bases for my opinion have been clearly laid out. My anatomy knowledge and training, the teachings and years of wisdom and experience of my teachers, the experience in my own body (especially when taking a class from an inexperienced teacher instructing the pose), the experiences of numerous yoga students I have taught, etc. have all culminated in my strong opinion that the variations of pigeon that are being taught to the masses in most classes are too advanced for the majority of beginner/intermediate-level students.
        Incidentally, I LOVE the doctor’s waiting room analogy! That we agree so strongly there shows that it really is just a difference of opinion on the strength of the medicine that divides us.
        Thanks again! Most fun I’ve had in weeks!
        – Seth

  19. David says:

    Bernie,
    I'm curious, how do you KNOW that this statement you made is true? "I will never be able to bring my front foot that far forward because my hip sockets will not allow it." Have you had an X-Ray of your hip joint while in this position to show that there was some type of boney restriction there?
    Just curious,
    David

    • Bernie Clark Bernie says:

      Hi David – that is an excellent question and to answer it fully I need to go back to the question of "What is stopping me?" There are two reasons why you reach the end of your range of motion: either your tissues are too tight and they won't stretch any further (we will call this 'tension') or two parts of the body have come into contact preventing further movement (we will call this 'compression.') If the reason you can not move more is caused by tension, then there is still hope; yoga! (Or other flexibility enhancing regimes: Pilates, massage, T'ai Chi etc.) Over time these practices can lengthen tight muscles, removed adhesions and even lengthened contracted connective tissues. However! If you have reached compression, then the game is over for the movement in that direction. When the body hits the body, you will be stopped and no amount of yoga will change that: surgery might, but an easier idea is to see if there is a way around the point of compression, allowing a bit more movement in a slightly different direction. This is one reason that personal alignment cues can be so useful for your yoga practice: you may have become stuck somewhere, reached compression, but with some subtle, or not so subtle, adjustment you can go further – until you hit the next compression point. Eventually, what stops all of us after we have worked out all the tensile resistance in our tissues is compression: you can see this in very flexible students – they have stretched out everything that can be stretched out and their body is hitting themselves so they are stopped.

      Okay, now to your question: the sensation of compression is different than the sensation of tension. How I know that I have reached my limit is when I feel compression, when I feel my body hitting my body. I don't need an MRI or Xray to determine this, I do need to pay attention to the sensations in my body as I practice. For me, in Pigeon, I feel the strongest sensation in the outside,back of my hip socket: the neck of my femur is pressing against the rim of my hip socket and I can feel it there. It does take some training to be able to sense where these sensations are arising but it can be done. If I ignored that, and thought that I could just keep going, that is when I am likely to injure myself.

      I hope this answers your question. Cheers! Bernie

      • David says:

        Bernie,
        Sounds good, however the position that the femur and pelvis are in when doing pigeon, is probably the least likely to cause the bone on bone "compression" between the neck and the pelvis from what I can tell especially in the back. I have no doubt that you feel a different level of stuckness than more flexible connective tissues. Perhaps it's the end of range of motion of your ligaments and you should be stopping there anyway. But you haven't convinced me that you actually KNOW that you've hit bone on bone. Hey Ho… thought I'd ask and see what came back.
        Thanks for taking the time to answer.

  20. Heather Morton Heather says:

    This is a great and wonderful post. Having had a school for 15 years, i ran it with individual classes and more personal attention. The whole point was what works for one does not work for another. Unfortunately, the whole marketing game is not going to be successful once you let the cat out of the bag and tell students that they might never achieve it because of anatomical differences. I agree but also strongly disagree. So I also do not find it misleading to tell students if they practice they too can achieve great things.

    What is missing in that line is that if they practice WITHIN their capacity, with skill, with the proper consistently (most people do not by the way) they can surpass their present conditioning. Now, does that equal a posture that looks like me…..or another bendy person. Maybe yes, maybe no.

    I think we miss the whole point when we put everything in the anatomical shopping cart and label is as this won't work or that won't work. The problems are endless because to probably surpass these great anatomical feats one would have to devote their WHOLE life to YOGA or have an exceptional teacher.

    Case in point is BKS Iyengar who taught the Queen of Belgium in her 80's to do the headstand and helped other people overcome some pretty risky and life-altering issues with Yoga. Only a gifted and skilled teacher could really take people to these places.

    In the end, there are just several things to bear in mind:
    1) some postures may or may not be helpful for some students
    2) one has to really do some deep work on whether it is their mind or their body holding them back..and one may never know for sure!
    3) each person has to really understand YOGA is best taught individually

    In the end, teachers, educators etc…really need to help students work with their limitations and their strengths.
    Stating it is an anatomical defect is not always the right answer.

    Take Bruce Lee…..he overcame having a shorter leg…and developed a greater kick than any of his opponents without this limitation.

    In the end, you gotta remember YOGA is not about the ABC's of your body alone….but your mind, spirit and soul.
    If iron can bend in fire…I am very confident the body will too.

    Now, does one want to work that hard?
    Does one want to enter the pain?
    Does one feel it is necessary for their present incarnation?
    Does one truly believe they are only a body?

    These are only questions each person can answer on their own and in practice.
    For yoga, by the way, never promised the moon, but it did ensure if you practice some benefit will be there…and surely you can go about your life in less pain…than more pain…as life is….

  21. Steve Clark says:

    You were wise not to get into a back and forth with Seth here in the comment section, Bernie. You made your case well and effectively. You only made two mistakes and I already mentioned one. By countering her ideas about something being dangerous with your own quote about something being dangerous, you opened the door to her making "safety" an even bigger deal than she had already made it. Oh, well. Live and learn. The safety thing has always been a big deal to teachers who think they can lord something over other teachers in that regard, making it seem like they know what students need to know not to hurt themselves. If anything, that's what's dangerous. It fosters fear and fearful yoga students can't really do yoga. Oh, and about "fear." It is a big deal, Bernie. In the BG, Krishna tells Arjuna that where there is fear, there is no yoga.
    And in a good way, yin yoga is already right on the edge of not being yoga. It's physical, but not really hatha yoga because it's not "forceful." So what kind of yoga is it? Well, it is hatha yoga because it's about energy. We can and should also translate hatha to mean energy (because of the ha-tha lines of energy thing) and Paul used to be all about energy teaching. Like Paulie Zink, it was the five energetic elements (fire, water, wood, metal, and earth) that counted. Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems like Paul G gave that up a bit because the physical stuff sells better. Too bad.
    Anyway, your second mistake was not making it clear that yin yoga is done completely relaxed. Seth obviously doesn't practice like that. All her points about advanced sensing of things so she doesn't get hurt apply to yang yoga pose holding for just a few breaths. As you know, with yin yoga, we hold poses for 5 minutes on a side. So the truth comes out. I think yin yoga is all about the truth coming out. I think that's another reason it is yoga. The truth comes out because we don't distract ourselves from it with flow or even pranayama. We just stay in poses and experience the energy. Even a beginner learns fast how to position themselves well for a five minute pigeon pose on one side. Seth clearly doesn't realize that you and Paul are teaching pigeon very differently because of the time element.

    • Steve Clark says:

      I apologize for referring to Seth as a female. Sorry. Funky of me and totally accidental.

    • Bernie Clark Bernie says:

      Hi Steve … thanks for the comments, however I do plan to respond to Seth – it seems only appropriate given the amount of time he put into his comments, but haven't gotten to it today. Maybe tomorrow: however, as you point, these are not the forums for long extended discussions so I won't be in continuous dialogue. Cheers!

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  26. Christine says:

    Im still new to the yoga world and having subscribed to some yoga magazines, I always felt like there was something wrong with my body because my joints would not allow me to do certain poses. Im pigeon toed, so some of the forward bends (for ex wide-angled seated forward bend) really hurt my back and legs. I figured I just needed practice but very little has changed after 2 years. I wish this topic was more stressed in the yoga world so folk like me don't feel pressured to push themselves harder to achieve a particular pose, when it's a matter of body type.

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