Strengths and Weaknesses
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but none of us, teacher or student, arrives at yoga practice with a perfect, or perfectly "normal," body. At the very least, there are mild asymmetries and small structural anomalies. And, of course, movement patterns and postural habits, developed over years of living in our human bodies, will be integrated right into our poses—for better or worse. As teachers, we're challenged to help our students respect these differences but also to teach them how to work with their individual differences to gradually replace harmful patterns with healthful ones.
What We Come With
Some of our differences are advantageous. For example, living and working on a farm will give a woman greater than average upper body strength. The orientation of your hip sockets might help you move deeper into hip opening poses than your neighbor on the next mat. Or maybe your genes blessed you with strong bones. On the other hand, the differences might be a source of pain and problems: An extra lumbar vertebra can make the lower back vulnerable to injury. Years of sitting contributes to a weak back and tight hip flexors, and an old knee injury may result in one leg that is weaker and stiffer.
Obviously, the shapes of bones and the structural orientation of joints are not easily changed. However, the one thing that we can change is the support system—the muscles and connective tissues that move, position, and stabilize the bones and joints. Unfortunately, our nervous systems tend to use the same movement patterns over and over, whether it's a strenuous wrist alignment while typing or a hyper-extended (over-arched) low back in standing poses. The good news is that yoga gives us an opportunity to bring some awareness to our movements: to pause, study, and make a conscious choice about the knee alignment or lower back position. And that's where we teachers have an opportunity to influence real change for the better in our students' lives.
How to Make It Work
A real-life example of this principle comes from the world of knee problems. A common knee misalignment, in which the knee rotates inward in relation to the foot, contributes to a plethora of knee problems including osteoarthritis, ligament strain, and chondromalacia patella (inflammation of the back of the kneecap). A student practicing without awareness of this tendency will repeat the position in standing poses, adding to the wear and strain on the knee. On the other hand, a good teacher will bring the alignment to the student's attention and give cues to correct it: "Keep the center of the kneecap pointing between the second and third toes." The new and improved position will be practiced and strengthened in every standing pose practice, and ideally it will be integrated into every-day activities such as climbing stairs and standing up from sitting in a chair. Thus the leg strength and improved alignment from conscious standing pose practice helps protect against injuries and problems that can subtly develop over years.
As teachers, we can also have a profound effect on spinal alignments that can cause and contribute to significant pain and eventual dysfunction. Our student with the hyper-extended lower back probably lives with aching low back pain, tight low back muscles, and, if the posture has been ongoing for years, arthritis in the lumbar facet joints due to compression. While aware of the pain and stiffness, she may not realize that the hyper-extension is the cause—and in fact may not even be aware of the hyper-extension itself. The exaggerated lumbar curve is firmly ingrained in her movement repertoire, and will be practiced in every standing pose, back bend, and inversion unless a good teacher intervenes with some feedback and suggestions to correct the position.
Another common posture problem often seen in yoga students is the forward head position. After years of forward-head activities such as reading, keyboard work, and fine eye-hand activities, the muscles in the chest and up into the neck, including the pectorals and sternocleidomastoid, become short and tend to hold the head in front of the vertical line running through the center of the torso. Human heads weigh 10 to 15 pounds, and the muscles in the back of the neck must contract with extra strength to hold up the weight of the forward head against the pull of gravity, resulting in tight, sore neck muscles and in some cases headaches. Without intervention, the head will be in its forward position in every pose, including Sirsasana (Headstand). Bearing weight on the neck with this gross misalignment puts serious strain on the neck vertebrae and discs. The teacher bringing awareness to the head position and helping to correct it is doing a great service to the student and potentially protecting against neck injuries.
So, teachers, slow down and take a close look at your students. Are they repeating their same old habits even as they practice yoga? Take this opportunity to help them bring consciousness into their bodies, in this moment, in this pose. Not only are you teaching them the meditative aspect of asana practice but you're also helping bring real change to their bodies—change that may protect them from pain and injury in the years to come.
Julie Gudmestad is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and licensed physical therapist who runs a combined yoga studio and physical therapy practice in Portland, Oregon. She enjoys integrating her Western medical knowledge with the healing powers of yoga to help make the wisdom of yoga accessible to all.