It’s very easy to look at gorgeous, well-photographed, yoga pictures and feel like we’re somehow doing yoga wrong. As if our asanas don’t look exactly like the ones in the pictures, we aren’t doing yoga right; we are somehow failing as a yogi.
But you need to understand that your body has a unique relationship with yoga that nobody else can claim. Today I hope to dispel that myth and help you to realize that your yoga practice and your asanas will never look exactly like the practice of anybody else. I hope you leave this article knowing not only is it OK to have a practice that is completely unique to you, but that’s the most authentic way to “do yoga.”
My Unique Relationship with Yoga
I have been through a lot in my 29 years on this planet, and my body has been through a lot, too. I have majorly sprained each ankle and each wrist multiple times. I slipped a disc in my neck. I have had several conclusions, hyper extended my joints, pulled numerous muscles, and severely torn tendons.
Forgetting the fact I’ve been hard on my body (especially for someone who has a nervous system disorder), my genetic makeup is unique as well. My body composition, my abilities, and my limitations are all written in my genetic code.
My body has been through different things than your body, and my body is genetically programmed differently than your body. My body is not the same as your body. Every body is different.
This seems pretty obvious, but for some reason we come to yoga with the expectation that we will, at some point, be able to “do yoga” just like the super bendy skinny people who grace the trending topics in Instagram.
More and more we get on our mat with the expectation that if we do yoga long enough, or somehow “do yoga better,” our poses will eventually look exactly like the poses of others. The odds of that happening are quite slim, and that’s OK. Having a unique yoga practice is a good thing! A unique practice with no judgment or comparison means you are embracing the true essence of yoga.
I started to really embrace the uniqueness of my practice when I began to understand what exactly it is that makes my practice unique. I discovered before you can fully accept that your yoga practice will be unique, you should first understand what factors are influential.
So, how does this stretching thing work?
For many, many years it was believed that as we stretch we are lengthening the muscles and tendons and that, in turn, is what causes us to become flexible. This belief is so deeply engrained in our society when you ask a yoga teacher, “How does stretching work,” you will usually be told stretching lengthens the muscle and the tendons and that increases your flexibility.
Well, that’s not quite true.
“You only see changes in the physical structure of the muscle after months of stretching, for many hours at a time,” according to Dr. Malachy McHugh, director of research for the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
Let’s use the gastrocnemius muscle as an example.
The gastrocnemius is one of two muscles that make up what we commonly refer to as the calf muscle. The gastrocnemius is stretched during Downward Facing Dog. Many yogis believe Downward Facing Dog creates a permanent lengthening in the calf muscle, and that allows us to get deeper into Downward Facing Dog (heels touching the floor). While Downward Facing Dog does feel good, it does not actually create a permanent lengthening in the gastrocnemius.
So if the muscle fibers aren’t permanently lengthened as a result of holding a yoga pose for 30 seconds, how does yoga make us more flexible?
The act of stretching actually trains our nervous system and that is, in turn, is what makes us flexible.
Sounds crazy, right? But, stay with me here.
Jules Mitchell is a yoga educator and exercise scientist who wrote her 150 page Master’s Thesis on the biomechanics of stretching.
Mitchell discovered your stretching tolerance (your edge), is not a matter of the mechanics of your muscles, but rather your body adjusting to the sensation.
As you stretch you will hit a point where you feel discomfort. This is your nervous system saying, “Whoa. I’m not cool with this.”
Your nervous system is telling you you’re doing something that could hurt you if you go any further. This reaction keeps us from injuring ourselves, and it happens when we start to enter a range of motion that we are not usually working in. When we are quite literally outside of our comfort zone.
The more we stretch, the more comfortable we become in a pose, the larger our comfort zone becomes.
Doing a pose more frequently, we are telling our nervous system, “Look! It’s really OK that I’m in this range of motion.” The more we soothe our nervous system, the more we build up a tolerance for the sensation. As a result, we can go just a little bit further.
Our nervous system will also send the, “Whoa, don’t do that!” signal when we have done a pose before, but we haven’t done it in a long time. I had an extremely deep Downward Facing Dog this time last year, but then I injured my knee, and spent several months recovering, unable to do Downward Facing Dog. If I try to go as deep as I did last year, my body yells at me because it is no longer comfortable with that range of motion.
This emergency brake response from your nervous system exists in everybody, but where you feel it is completely unique to you and influenced by how often you’ve done a pose, how long it’s been since you’ve done that pose, and how long you hold it.
Our flexibility and range of motion is very much “use it or lose it,” but not because we have stopped lengthening the muscles as we have been led to believe. It is because our nervous system adapts to the range of motion we are in most frequently.
This is why when you get injured and stop doing a certain pose for a few weeks you struggle to get as deep into it as you did before. Severe injuries can drastically change the ability to get into a yoga pose for years to come. You’re not just fighting against scar tissue, you’re fighting against your nervous system which does not want you to get injured again.
Your Yoga is as Unique as You Are
The idea that your yoga practice will look like that of someone else’s is a myth that is as deeply entrenched in modern yoga as the myth that stretching makes you flexible because it lengthens your muscles. An equally entrenched myth is that your practice has to be the same length as everybody else’s in order to be effective.
Your yoga practice is as unique as your body, your calendar, and your personal life. Time constraints, meetings, work obligations, taking the kids to soccer, having date night with your partner, are all things that will influence when you practice, where you practice, and for how long you practice.
Your yoga practice is also influenced by past injuries, whether or not you have conditioned your nervous system to adapt to a new range of motion, and your DNA.
We all know DNA is what makes your body unique. Your DNA determines things like your hair colour, skin tone, and eye colour, but it also determines your body type.
Your DNA will determine where you put adipose tissue, which can influence your ability to get in and out of certain yoga poses. If you put your weight around your waist, you may notice you can’t get as deep into Standing Forward Fold as other people.
Your joint flexibility is largely predetermined as well.
Dr. Paul Weitzel, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at New England Baptist hospital, says everybody has a range of flexibility that is genetically predetermined.
You have a baseline level of joint flexibility and you have a maximum level of flexibility. You may never be able to put your feet behind your ears, but you can work within your own range of flexibility.
Why This Is All Okay
Your nervous system will put on the emergency brake at a point in the asana that is unique to you. Your past injuries may prevent you from doing a pose exactly the way you used to. You may have a little extra around the middle that you need to move around during standing forward fold like I do. Your genetics may prevent your joints from being as loose as you would like.
But that’s all okay.
When we obsess over how we look on our mat, when we judge our bodies and our practices based on how they measure up to the person next to us (or on Instagram), we lose sight of what yoga is really all about.
Yoga is not about the body you had yesterday, or the body you wish you had today, or the body you hope you have tomorrow. Yoga is about the body you have right here, right now, in this moment.
What your body needs today, here and now, will be completely different than what it needed this morning, or what it will need in three hours. When we obsess over trying to strike the perfect pose, or do yoga better than our classmates, or look “just right” in our $90 yoga pants, we forget to tune into our body.
We forget that yoga is all about deepening our connection with our body, and learning to love ourselves just a little bit more deeply.
The happiest yogis aren’t the ones who can do all the fancy poses. They’re the ones who have used yoga to embrace their bodies, complete with all imperfections. They’re the ones who love their bodies regardless of when the nervous system puts on the emergency brake, and regardless of what they look like on Instagram.