Senior Yoga Medicine® teacher Rachel Land examines five familiar poses and explains the value of adopting a more open-minded approach to asana.
If there were one belief I could dissuade my students of it would be that there is a single version of a pose that everyone can achieve with patience and persistence, and that any variation of that ideal represents failure. This false notion underpins many of the questions and comments I hear from students, such as: “How can I get my heels down to the ground in down dog?” “When will my hips open enough that my knees can come to the floor when I sit cross-legged?” or “I have such tight hamstrings; I’m terrible at this pose.”
But what if the problem wasn’t the student but the pose or our expectation of how the pose “should” look? Because here’s the thing: If we dissect the range of motion required by even foundational yoga poses (as we will in the examples below), we see that many require above average ranges of motion.
Our range in any given joint could be above or below average, meaning that the idealized image of a yoga pose may or may not be available to us. The good news is that it doesn’t need to be in order for us to reap the benefits of practice, which include strength, stability, coordination, and focus. And when we let go of our need for a pose to look a certain way, we create space to receive those benefits while respecting our unique anatomy.
So what is “average” range of motion?
Before we go further, let’s define “average” range of motion. Range of motion charts commonly used by physical therapists and other movement professionals were calculated by measuring joint end range in a specific direction across a large sample of people. Then averages were calculated from that sample, roughly midway between the most flexible and least flexible people.
Of course, some people will have more range of motion than average and some will have less, but understanding the average ranges can help us manage our expectations of what’s possible in practice.
Can we increase our range of motion?
Put simply, our flexibility is a reflection of the elasticity in our muscles and fascia as well as the hard boundaries created by the shapes and proportions of our bones. How do we know whether we are limited by muscle tension or bony compression? Soft tissue tension is likely to be on the opposite side of the joint into which we are moving: In a forward fold, for example, we might feel a tug on our hamstrings. Bony compression would be on the same side of the joint: In the same forward fold we would feel the tissues deep in the front of the joint meet, preventing us from folding further
Yoga does have the potential to increase soft tissue flexibility over time, so if muscle tension is preventing us from moving deeper into a particular yoga pose, we may be able to increase our range by stretching the muscles that are involved. However, the shapes and proportions of each person’s bones vary slightly, and will not change, so we each have a unique end point in the range of motion of every joint.
If bony compression is limiting us in a particular yoga pose, there are ways to adjust our alignment, potentially changing the positions of the bones enough to bypass that limitation. But that requires us to let go of our attachment to the textbook version of the pose and take a more open-minded approach.
Let’s examine a few poses that could be enhanced by this approach—poses regularly featured in all-levels classes that require above average range of motion.
Downward dog, adho mukha svanasana, is a staple in yoga classes for good reason. It stretches the hamstrings, calf muscles, pectoralis major, and latissimus dorsi. It also helps us balance upper- and lower-body strength, and prepares us to more effortlessly support our body weight on our hands.
Downward dog is regularly offered as a resting pose, but for many of us there’s nothing restful about trying to use our arms overhead without compressing the sides of our neck, straightening our legs without rounding our back, or attempting to get our heels to the floor. These challenges aren’t imagined; this pose requires average or above average range of motion in the shoulders, hips, and ankles.
Looking around the yoga studio and seeing students effortlessly fold in half, you could be forgiven for thinking of the standing forward fold, uttanasana, as an easy pose. But now knowing that the hip flexion required by downward dog exceeds average range of motion, you can see how uttanasana presents an even more significant challenge.
Standing forward fold does offer a hamstring stretch, an opportunity to gently traction the spine and neck, and the chance to cultivate an inward focus. However, the goal of uniting chest and knees or head and shins is simply not accessible for most of us. Average ROM in hip flexion is, at 70 to 90 degrees with straight legs, not even halfway into the forward fold. This suggests that most of us will need some kind of modification for this pose.
Upward facing dog, urdhva mukha svanasana, stretches commonly tight muscles on the front of the body, including the abdominals and hip flexors. It even presents us with a rare opportunity to lengthen the muscles on the tops of our feet. The inclusion of this pose in sun salutations can also teach us alignment lessons we can apply to deeper backbends. However, the surprisingly deep range of motion required in the wrists, spine, and ankles could make it an unexpectedly challenging part of a vinyasa practice.
Extended triangle pose, utthita trikonasana, contains enough benefits to be sequenced into classes of all levels. It offers a hamstring stretch for the front leg, eccentric strength work for the gluteus medius and quadratus lumborum on the top side of the body, a subtle chest opener, and a chance to build balance and stability with both feet on the ground. But if this pose is tough for you, you’re not alone: It requires well above normal range of motion in the front leg, especially if you try to connect your bottom hand to the floor.
Seated spinal twist, ardha matsyendrasana, is a regular in vinyasa classes, often used to transition between standing poses and the floor. It can help us mobilize the spine from a stable base, shifting our postural habits—and potentially our perspective. It also provides a valuable opportunity to release outer hip and thigh muscles. However, without modifications this pose does require well above average flexibility in the spine and hips.
I don’t have X-ray vision. I can’t see my students’ bones or the makeup of their connective tissue. I don’t know whether their potential range of motion is above or below average. I don’t know whether they will ever be able to ground their heels in downward dog or get their chest to touch their thighs in a forward fold. Fortunately, asking them to do these things is not my goal as a teacher. I want them to have a successful, by which I mean beneficial, yoga experience.
Guiding my students toward more realistic expectations frees them from perceiving any deviation from an imagined notion of alignment as failure. It means they can cultivate open-minded curiosity instead of brute force determination, allowing them to focus on the benefits of each pose rather than its idealized shape. As far as I am concerned, that approach can bring us all closer to the true practice of yoga.
Photography: Andrea Killam