A few months ago I read a post online from Dewey Nielson, someone at the forefront of the new generation of movement specialists in North America. Nielson’s article addressed the common misconception that in order to become more proficient at a specific movement, like a squat, we just need to practice squatting more.
The error in this line of thinking, Nielson explains, is that the squat, like many complex movements, may appear simple (“Hey, babies can squat no problem!”) but in fact requires multiple muscle groups and competencies. When there is one leak in the system, such as poor ankle flexion (in other words, ankles that don’t bend, causing the heels to lift when we try to squat at full depth), the rest of the movement will suffer.
During a recent teacher training session, I was reviewing some of the basic standing postures with a group of trainees, many of whom were fairly new to yoga. One student was struggling with the Warrior pose, Virabhadrasana, experiencing discomfort in the ankle of her back leg, where the foot is turned out at 45 degrees with the heel grounded, while the front leg bends to lunge forward. Due to limited ankle flexion, which could have resulted from injury or simply lack of range, she found it challenging to keep her foot in this position. The ankle joint was being jammed, consequently affecting the overall stability of the back leg and in turn compromising the entire pose.
There was a time when, upon seeing this type of alignment issue in someone’s pose, I would have believed that just practicing that pose to the best of one’s ability would eventually right the problem. In the Ashtanga system we are continually told, “Practice…all is coming”. For some students with a regular practice, this dogma holds true; they feel their bodies opening up and getting stronger, and the poses that were once unimaginable become attainable. But for those who come into the practice at a later stage in life or with injury, or who walk onto the mat after spending hours of their day at a desk, relying on yoga poses to correct substantial postural issues and muscular imbalances is at best inefficient, and at worst, a recipe for further injury.
With the teacher trainees, I explained how working on the separate components of each pose will not only make the postures feel better, but take their practice as a whole to the next level. Sticking with the example of the Warrior pose, we looked at the various pieces that could present challenges to different bodies: there was of course the ankle flexion issue, as well as stabilizing the hips to find a level, square position, along with the challenge to freely reach the arms overhead. Like one of my Mysore students use to say, “Only about 1000 things to think about during this pose”…it’s true! Why aren’t we addressing each of these components separately, rather than expecting a rigid sequence of postures to solve all of our movement inefficiencies?
The trainees spent the better part of the afternoon together learning how to open their shoulders and activate the core to stabilize the pelvis. We also introduced more thoracic mobility and overall awareness of the spine, and explored different exercises specifically targeted at improving ankle flexion. With a different sense of awareness in the body, we then revisited several postures in the series, noticing how the body moved differently into each one following the preparatory mobility work.
This type of approach to the practice is what we’re promoting through the Yoga Detour training. We look at the demands yoga postures place on the body, and then educate our students in how to best train and prepare their muscles and joints to make the practice more accessible. With the right information, they then apply what they know to any type of movement—it doesn’t have to be yoga. Our aim is to help people learn how to move better and feel better in general. And if they then walk away with the desire to share that information with others, the future of yoga will be brighter.
For more information on upcoming trainings, please visit www.yogadetour.com.