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October 13, 2016

A deep, long-standing personal practice is the most impressive qualification a yoga teacher can have.

It is an indication of their authenticity and diligence. It shows they are viscerally connected to what they are offering. The hours upon hours they spent exploring in interconnectedness between the pressure underneath their big toe and the tension in their jaw inform their teaching in a way that reading a textbook never could. This expectation of teachers to draw from their personal practice is one of the reasons we have such a wonderful dynamic in the yoga community. Unfortunately, it also comes with a risk.

 

The spiritual teachers who founded the most popular styles of yoga in North America were male. These are the gurus who defined many of the rules of alignment and sequencing that are repeated in Western yoga classes to this day. In an interesting contrast, as of Yoga Alliance’s most recent count , twice as many women as men currently practice yoga in America. Men can be wonderful teachers to women, and women to men, but when the well-established rules are based on a few men’s personal experiences and applied mostly to women, there are bound to be some problems.

 

There is wide variation in women’s and men’s bodies;

 

Some women will have a narrower pelvis than the average man and some men will have more flexible joints than the average woman. However, there are significant differences between the average female and average male body. The differences are marked enough that anthropologists can often distinguish between a male and female pelvis in a single glance. Some of the practices well-suited or the typical man are not be as healthy or helpful for the typical woman . If you have been practicing by the men’s rules for years, read on for a set of alignment and sequencing suggestions written with women’s needs in mind. Making some simple adjustments to the way you practice may bring you more ease in your asana practice in the short run and may help prevent a debilitating injury in the long run .

 

  1. Feet and knees hips width apart.  In many styles of yoga foot placement is cued as the feet relate to each other. For example, “big toes touching” in mountain pose or “front heel aligned with the back heel” in warrior one. The problem with these alignment cues is that the ankle, knee, and hip joints align drastically differently depending pelvis width. With a narrower pelvis (typical in males) these joints may be relatively stacked with the big toes touching in mountain pose, but with a wider pelvis (typical in females) the hip joints are farther apart, so the thigh and lower leg bones have to angle inward to bring the toes together; the joints do not align as they should in a neutral position. In mountain pose this means less ease, and practicing warrior I as if standing on a tightrope may lead to injury. For someone with a wider pelvis, simply bringing both feet to the midline lengthens the hip muscles, and adding the additional stretch of deepening the lunge or rotating the pelvis to face forward may torque the knee, ankle, or hip joints.

  2. Feedback beyond how it feels.  Women of childbearing age typically have looser ligaments (joint stabilizers) than their male counterparts. As a result, they have less proprioception around their joints; that is, it is harder for them to feel their alignment. Cues like “listen to your body” and “do what feels right to you” may be unhelpful in many cases because many women simply do not have the joint tension to feel misalignments in the moment. They do not feel discomfort until years later when muscular imbalance has lead to injury. So, for women other forms of feedback than how the pose feels are vital. For example: practice with teachers who give individual feedback, practice in front of a mirror so you can see how your joints are aligning, or where possible use your hands to feel for landmarks on your body to make sure your joints are lining up the way you think they are.

  3. Balance right and left frequently. A popular theme in vinyasa classes is to string together warrior, after side angle variation, after triangle pose all on the same side before finally washing it out with a vinyasa and switching lead legs. There are joints that hold the pelvis together in the front and back (the pubic symphysis and sacroiliac joints); they have a some give but they are not supposed to move all that much. When we hold a warrior position on one side for an extended period, we are more likely to gradually torque the pelvis and cause one of these vital joints to shift out of alignment. This may require a, expensive, professional adjustment to realign or cause long term instability. As mentioned above, women tend to have more mobile joints than men, so they have a lower tolerance for long, one-sided sequences. To keep the pelvis safe and healthy, balance out poses on the left and right sides frequently.

  4. Vary muscle groups.  Many iconic asana sequences include several poses in a row that stretch the same muscle group (most often it is the hamstrings). If your joints are stable, this type of sequencing is effective for increasing muscle flexibility quickly. However, as mentioned above, women of childbearing age tend to have less stable joints than men, and repeated stretching of the same areas may destabilize the joints to the point of dysfunction--and ligaments take a long time to tighten back up. To help prevent this, vary the groups of muscles you are stretching and spread deep stretches of the same muscles throughout your practice instead of doing them all at once. It is worth note that you can have tight muscles and loose joints (often when the joints themselves are loose muscles tighten around them to help stabilize; see #5 for more on this). If you need the release that repeatedly stretching a muscle group provides consider massage or foam rolling to complement your practice; they relieve muscles tension without the extreme joint angles.

  5. Stabilize.  The asana practice is not only about ease and letting go. It is also about finding stability and integrity. It is common for muscles to tighten around those mobile female joints we have been talking about as a protective mechanism. Stretching these muscles without also doing stability exercises results in more instability around the joint, and the muscles react by tightening even more. The key to releasing these muscles is to do a combination of stretching and strengthening. In a balanced practice (which may include more than what you do on your yoga mat), you do as much core strengthening as you do backbending; you spend as much time strengthening your glutes and hamstrings as you do releasing into pigeon poses and forward folds; and you are just as good at finding equanimity in a chair pose as in savasana. This tendency for mobile joints increases greatly during pregnancy and breastfeeding due to a hormone called relaxin, so although you will modify your practice during these life stages, it is not the time to cut out stability exercises (please consult a pre-/post-natal specialist for more guidance).

  6. Strengthen.  Even beyond childbearing age, strengthening is vital for the female body. As we age, women are more likely than men to develop osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become brittle and porous. Onset of osteoporosis can be delayed or prevented by doing weight-bearing exercises throughout your lifetime. Even if you eat an abundance of protein, calcium, and vitamin D, your body is tenaciously efficient and your bones will only get as strong as you require them to be. When you lower slowly into chaturanga, sink into a deep chair pose, or hold locust your muscles’ tendons pull forcefully at the bones, and the bones respond by drawing in more protein and minerals to become denser and stronger.

 

Please note: These are suggestions to explore, not strict rules. Every body is different. Go explore and improve every day.



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