Perhaps you can think of a certain difficult yoga pose that you’ve been working on for a long time, but, despite your efforts, at some point it just seemed like you stopped making progress. You've sought advice from your teachers and asked your yoga friends for their insightful tips, but this specific asana still appears to be eluding you.
There is another often-overlooked influence on practice that is decidedly beyond our ability to change: the issue of individual body proportions.
This can be a perplexing experience because we are often taught that any yoga pose is possible to “achieve” if we simply practice long enough and with the right level of dedication. And certainly if we are diligent practitioners we can work to cultivate more strength, flexibility, and coordination in our poses. But there is another often-overlooked influence on practice that is decidedly beyond our ability to change: the issue of individual body proportions.
The truth is that in many instances, a practitioner's specific body proportions will prevent her from achieving the final aesthetic of certain difficult poses (or will at least make getting there more challenging). On the other hand, those same body proportions will give her a distinct structural advantage when it comes to performing other asanas. Ultimately, the fact that our innate body shapes play such a strong part in determining the accessibility and form of any given pose serves as a pretty good reminder that placing high value on the aesthetics of our asanas is an ultimately unhelpful approach.
Let’s explore this issue by highlighting just a few of the many difficult yoga poses in which body proportions play a surprisingly influential role.
Navasana is a notoriously difficult yoga pose for nearly every yoga practitioner, but one element of the pose that is rarely discussed is the role of leg-to-body ratio. In order for us to hoist our legs up in the air and hold them in this position, our hip flexors must work a great deal. But if your legs happen to be on the longer side relative to your torso, your hip flexors will have to exert even more effort to suspend your expansive limbs gracefully in the air. On the other hand, if your legs are on the shorter side compared to your torso, you won’t have to work as hard to support their relatively lighter weight. In the case of navasana, then, longer leg lengths will make an already challenging asana even more demanding, while shorter lower limbs will give a practitioner a “leg up” in the pose. This means that a longer-legged student might bend his knees in navasana in order to lighten the load placed on his hip flexors, but he might still be efforting about the same amount as the shorter-legged yogi beside him with her legs fully straight.
This asana (also sometimes called “interlock” pose) asks the yogi to bind his arms behind his back while in extended side angle pose—a task that many yoga students are unable to perform, often assuming that their struggles are due to inflexibility. A lack of flexibility in certain arm muscles could certainly play a role here, but an often-overlooked factor in arm binding is simply body proportions. If the length of a yoga student’s arms (humerus plus ulna and radius) are on the shorter side, this could easily prevent that student from catching his hands behind his back in this pose. A yoga strap or towel placed between the hands can create the binding experience that this student might not ever achieve on his own, regardless of how hard he works or how dedicated he is to his yoga practice. On the other hand, if a student’s arms are longer than average, he will have a distinct advantage when it comes to binding. He might even be able to effortlessly catch one wrist with the opposite hand instead of simply clasping the fingers of each hand together. Although we often consider this wrist clasp to be a “deeper” variation of the arm bind, it could in fact simply be someone’s inherently longer arm length, not necessarily an exceptional amount of flexibility, that is responsible.
In contrast to the typical momentum-based kicking-up entry into handstand, a handstand press-up is a graceful and awe-inspiring move in which a yogi simply folds forward into uttanasana (standing forward fold), places her palms flat on the floor, and presses down through her hands in order to levitate her feet off the ground and up into the inversion. Any person who can perform a handstand press-up utilizes a remarkable amount of strength and control during this transition; however, individual body proportions play an undeniable role in how accessible this move is to any given yoga student. If you have shorter legs and a longer torso, you will possess an inherent anatomical advantage in learning the handstand press-up. A person with these body proportions is more easily able to transfer his weight from his feet into his hands during the press-up because his shorter lower body will allow his center of mass (hips) to move forward and directly over his foundation (shoulders and arms). Yogis with longer legs and shorter torsos will be at a mechanical disadvantage as they attempt to transfer their weight into their hands. Instead of their hips lining up directly over their shoulders, their hips will be angled back behind their shoulders, creating a significant obstacle in their ability to float their feet straight up off the floor. Mastering the press-up is not impossible for these yogis, but they will have to work much harder than their shorter-legged friends.
A variation of anjaneyasana (also called high lunge or crescent pose) with hands on the floor makes an appearance in many yoga classes. In this shape, our back toes are tucked under, the back knee is lifted, and our hands rest on the floor on either side of our front foot. Yoga teachers often cue students to place their hands flat on the floor in this lunge variation, and there are invariably some students in class who are unable to achieve this feat—they might be able to place their fingertips on the floor or make fists with their hands and touch their fists down, but they just can’t seem to place their palms flat on the ground. Are these students not trying hard enough? Do they lack the flexibility in their arms to reach the floor with their palms? Probably not. In all likelihood the inability to flatten one’s hands on the floor in this example is simply a matter of body proportions. In order to successfully place your palm on the floor, the length of your arm must be greater than the length of your lower leg (tibia). But some people’s arms are on the shorter side, or their lower leg is on the longer side, or both. In these cases it is not anatomically possible to place one’s hands flat on the floor. If flat palms are desired, these yogis should simply bring the floor up to meet them by placing a pair of yoga blocks under their hands. Voila! Flat palms achieved, and individual anatomical needs met.
Do they lack the flexibility in their arms to reach the floor with their palms? Probably not.
In the yoga world, we often conceive difficult yoga poses as having one final form that we are all striving to “achieve” or “finish.” But when we learn to appreciate the role that our unique body proportions play in what our specific yoga poses look like (or how hard we might be working in our shapes), we can start to broaden our notion of what it means to “progress” in yoga practice. Ultimately, our top priority in any asana should be for the shape to serve the individual body performing it; how the pose looks will then be a natural byproduct of that goal.