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Yoga Anatomy

Why Inflexibility May Not Be What’s Stopping You From Doing That Pose

When an asana is out of reach, yogis frequently blame their flexibility. But Bernie Clark explains that one pose simply doesn’t fit all. So he’s laid out a road map for getting to know your own unique anatomy and determining what actually is stopping you from doing a given pose.

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king dancer yjlive

In the era of compulsive selfies, celebrating our individuality has entered an unnatural and distorted dimension. Technology constantly provides us with new widgets to cheat on our appearance and to hide our true self behind a filter of pixels. So when you throw yourself into the most sublime Dancer Pose and your toe doesn’t touch the crown of your head, reality hits you in the shape of your tissues and bones. Your body just can’t do this.

This doesn’t make you unfit or unyogic, it makes you human. It is the sobering reminder that we are all different. “You are unique, and that uniqueness is what makes the difference between what ‘everyone’ seems to be able to do and what you can do. There is no pose in yoga that everybody can do, and no one can do every pose,” explains Bernie Clark in Your Body, Your Yoga. When it comes to yoga practice, one pose simply doesn’t fit all.

See also “Why I Don’t ‘Stretch’ Anymore”

Your Anatomy Is Unique—Study It

Integrating difference and uniqueness, represents a complexity that not all societies are ready to accommodate. In a yoga class of five students, it is easy for the teacher to cater to everyone’s needs but that proves more challenging as the number increases. Thus the generalizations that leads them to make are potentially damaging if not taken with a pinch of salt. Insecurities can kick in in a yoga class, though. You may find yourself longing for a more compliant body and fearing that if you don’t perform the “real pose,” you will stand out and be deemed deficient.

“Differences aren’t deficits,” Clark writes quoting geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky encouraging us to embrace uniqueness and to be less harsh toward our quirks. “Why think that because someone else can’t do something, you will fail? There are things you can do right now, there are things that you will be able to do in time, and there things that you will never be able to do.”

If you are curious enough, you can gradually become the best equipped person to understand the unique mechanics of your body. Most teachers don’t actually know you, and they will never understand you as well as you will be able to.

The odd overzealous teacher may even make erroneous assumptions that can harm you. It is essential to take charge of your own practice both on your mat at home and in classes. This involves taking the time to investigate your strengths, weaknesses, limitations, and skills.

See also Not ALL Hips Need Opening: 3 Moves for Hip Stability

Bernie Clark tension and compression

What Stops You?

Clark suggests an efficient way of mapping your own physical limitations comes by systematically registering your sensations in various yoga poses. He leads this exploration with the interrogation: “What Stops You?’ In other words: what limits your mobility?

Two things can stop you, he explains. One is tension, which is resistance of the tissues to being stretched (muscles, ligaments, fascia), and the other is compression, which is created by contact: bone to bone (hard compression), flesh to flesh (soft compression), bone to flesh (medium compression).

So by paying heed to sensations of tension or compression in your yoga practice you can explore your body’s unique anatomy and limitations. That in turn enables you to work with your body, rather than against it in a given pose. To assist this process Clark searched the nooks and crannies of anatomy to observe where tension or compression surge and described the sensations that correspond to each type of resistance in his book. In this excerpt from Your Body, Your Yoga, Clark explores three poses yogis commonly get “stopped” in and why. 


backbend spine stretch

Your ultimate range of movement is dictated by when your bones hit each other or squeeze other tissues in between them. For example, consider the two sets of lumbar vertebrae above. Obviously, the person on the left (let’s call him Stiff Steve) will not be able to extend the spine (e.g., do a backbend) nearly as much as the person on the right (let’s call her Flexy Flora), all other things being equal. However, as they worked through areas of resistance, [in their yoga practice], Flexy Flora kept going deeper and deeper into extension, while Stiff Steve quickly reached the point of compression.

See also A Safe, Core-Supported Backbending Sequence


spine stretch squat

What stops you when you come into squats (Malasana)? The maximum dorsiflexion of the ankles is required when the knees are furthest forward of the feet and the heels still on the ground (B). For many students, it is at this point that the heels start to lift off the floor (C), due to limitation in the ankle dorsiflexion. With heels up, less dorsiflexion is required. Position D requires less dorsiflexion but maximum hip flexion, it may not be due to the ankles at all.

See also Anatomy 101: Understand Your Hips to Build Stability

Triangle Pose

triangle anatomy

There are two ways to abduct the hips (move a leg away from the midline of the body): You can either move the femur or move the pelvis. In the first example (a), we have a yogini who has lots of room to abduct the hips and can keep her spine straight as she reaches her hand to the floor in Triangle Pose. In (b), we see one strategy for those who cannot abduct the hips as much: lateral flexion of the spine. In (c), we see another strategy: adding flexion at the hips, allowing the pelvis to rotate around the point of compression with the femur. In (d), we see another option: accepting that you cannot abduct very much and resting the hand on the leg or block.

See also Iyengar Yoga 101: Triangle Pose Three Ways

See also 8 Keys to Take Your Yoga Teaching Beyond Standardized Alignment Cues

Adapted from Your Body, Your Yoga by Bernie Clark. Published by Wild Strawberry Publications, April 2016.