Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land examines four familiar poses, explains why they won’t look the same for everyone, and offers practical tips for customizing your practice. To explore five other common poses, see her previous article, 5 Common Poses That Require Greater Than Average Mobility.
We know that people come in all shapes and sizes, have varied proportions, and have diverse lifestyles and habits. Yet somehow when we step onto our yoga mat, we seem to forget about these differences and expect everyone to achieve the same shapes and angles in every pose.
Textbook alignment in many yoga poses, even those considered basic or foundational (such as the examples below), requires more than average mobility. But “average” is a mathematical concept; none of us are truly “average.” Generally, we may be more or less mobile than average. We may have greater range of motion in our shoulders, and less in our hips. Or we could have muscle tension stemming from our posture, work environment, or sport that reduces our mobility on one side compared with the other.
Because we are all unique, it makes no sense to push our bodies toward a theoretical ideal of each yoga pose. So why not treat our practice as an opportunity for exploration and inquiry—a chance for each of us to get to know our unique configuration of joints, muscles, and fascia a little better.
Let’s examine how “average” range of motion compares with the range required for the “traditional” versions of a few more common yoga poses.
Warrior I (virabhadrasana I) creates a strong standing base from which to lift up our focus and energy. It stretches the hip flexors of the back leg, opens the chest, and lengthens the latissimus dorsi over the side ribs. Given that this foundational pose is key to every surya namaskar B, you would think it would be widely accessible. But, while reaching the arms directly overhead can be a challenge for some bodies, what keeps many of us from achieving traditional alignment in this pose is the range of motion required in the back ankle joint. Grounding the back heel while simultaneously squaring the hips forward isn’t comfortable, or even possible, for many students, and the challenge increases as the front knee bends more deeply. Because the alignment many of us strive for in this pose exceeds the ankle’s normal range of motion, no wonder it challenges so many of us.
Warrior II, virabhadrasana II, is a stable, purposeful, and powerful standing pose. With both feet solidly grounded and arms at shoulder height, this is one of the more accessible poses on this list—provided we observe the normal mobility limitations of the hips.
However, “textbook” alignment—the front knee bent at 90 degrees and tracking straight forward while the hips face the side of the mat—requires significantly more mobility, especially in the front hip and back ankle, than most bodies allow. As in warrior I, the range of motion required by the back ankle increases as we bend the front knee more.
The combination of movements involved in cow’s face pose (gomukhasana) makes it an efficient stretch for multiple areas of the body. The arm position accesses almost every muscle in the chest and shoulders, including common culprits for chronic tension (the triceps, latissimus dorsi, and deltoids). And while many yoga hip openers involve hip abduction, gomukhasana brings the legs across the midline of the body. However, the complexity of this pose also explains why it is challenging for so many of us—even if one aspect of the pose is accessible, we may find it difficult to achieve traditional alignment elsewhere.
Heart-opening backbends are a potent counter to life’s tendency to draw our shoulders forward and compress our chest. For that reason, they can benefit both our posture and our breathing. Prone backbends can be even more helpful, as lifting the head and limbs against gravity strengthens the neglected posterior body. Bow pose (dhanurasana) fits into this category. But because the arms and legs are connected, it requires significantly more mobility than alternatives like cobra (bhujangasana), or locust (salabhasana).
Whether or not we realize it, we each already find our own unique pathway to every yoga pose. Our bodies are more adaptive and resilient than we may know, but there are limits. For each person, there is an end point to the range of motion in every joint, and we are more likely to confront that point in yoga poses than in other daily activities. That holds true even with those poses considered foundational. That knowledge should change our physical practice, allowing us to let go of the theoretical ideal. Better to instead show up on our mats with open hearts and open minds, curious about where our practice may take us.
Photography: Andrea Killam