individuality in yoga

If you have ever traveled to Thailand, I imagine you will invariable have come across the saying same same but different.

Seemingly appropriate for almost any situation the interpretation, intended or perceived, may vary from ‘well it’s almost identical, it’s just a fake’ to ‘really it’s nothing like what you are asking for at all, but perhaps it will do’. It is one of my favorite sayings, sitting perfectly alongside the lovely Thai people.

As I travel around the world teaching workshops in yoga anatomy, it is not the volumes of anatomical texts that bubble across my consciousness but this simple phrase and how we might explore our human potential with the concepts that percolate through it. In this short blog I’d like to share some of those thoughts and explain what the hell I mean by flipidy-flip.

As you are reading this just take a moment to look around you and absorb the beautiful diversity of the human race. If you are in the right situation you can even cast your eye over the way people perform a relatively simple activity such as walking (of course although we walk for the most part without even thinking about what we are doing, try and get a robot to walk and you may be there for decades).

We are all different in the way we look and move but at the same time the similarities are vast. We have the same muscles, bones, joints, internal organs etc. as the person next to us (unless you are missing something or have a little extra). Cool, that must mean we can all do the same yoga postures in the same way and reap the same benefits. But hold on a sec, how come Usain Bolt can run 100m in 9.58 seconds and when I ran up the road to catch the train the other day even my jaw started to ache.

I also don’t fancy being plonked on an American Football pitch or whipping on a tutu for swan lake. I feel that my individual attributes make me more suited for say walking on the beach. As similar as we are we are not gingerbread men all popped out from the same cookie cutter. If you ignore what we might term decoration; clothes, make-up, piercings, tattoos, hair, eye or skin colour etc.

What did you notice as you observed your fellow kind? Height, girth, proportion, age, sprightliness, sluggishness and agility might be a few of the things that were easy to spot. Lurking under the surface we also have the way our bones orientate with each other, muscular tensions, tissue densities, ligamentous laxities, strength differences, degradation and established movement patterns to just name a few. You might even like to add in psychological disposition, past histories, previous injuries and energetic balance (feel free to add you own ideas here).

The point is much like playing with the spices in some tasty dish, seemingly small changes to mama’s recipe can have profound results:

  • Long slim limbs might make it easy to bind
  • Being super bendy could allow certain postures to be accessed effortlessly but maybe also make it hard to stabilize in others.
  • Super strong and you may be tempted to throw out technique and muscle your way through.
  • Not strong enough and you might compensate in an awkward way stressing other areas.
  • If you have plenty of girth then shifting your centre of gravity sufficiently might be problematic or that bulk might just get in the way in some postures.
  • Too skinny and you may get blown over when they turn the fans on.

You might even have noticed that in your own body not all is equal. Your hips might be happy to play along with your yoga endeavors while your shoulders refuse to co-operate or vice versa. You might be good at folding forward and rubbish at backbending (of course there is no negative weighting in that statement only a description of what is).

If you are super diligent and starting to get in touch with the body you may even have noticed that those hips or shoulders that you thought were open, move in some directions much easier than others. That weakling label you gave yourself might be eroded when you find that there are somethings you feel quite strong at or alternatively that super strength normally present seems to be missing in some actions.

Sometimes that is meant to be, for example our hips are supposed to flex (think fold forward) much more than extend (taking the leg behind the pelvis) but other times it could be patterns of muscular tension or the way we are built. In further exploration you may have uncovered the fact that your leg rolls one way much easier than the other (that movement is still happening at the hip by the way and in anatomical speak we would say external and medial rotation).

Perhaps this happens to be exactly the same as your BFF or maybe it is completely the opposite. Doh, what happened to our super simple ‘one yoga practice fits all’?

Time to call in flipidy-flip. Still awaiting acceptance into the prestigious Oxford Dictionary, flipidy–flip means to throw something into the air, then throw some more stuff up before it falls and see what you have when it all lands back down together. What we are throwing up in the air this time happens to be ideas. Let’s start with some statements that we might have extrapolated from the story so far.

  • What one person needs from their yoga practice might not be the same as someone else.
  • We tend to like what we are good at, but that is often not what we need to create balance (OK, I just tried to slip that one in).
  • Not every yoga practice will address what an individual requires because it may not use the desired joint movements, directions or strength challenges.
  • Some people may have attributes that are either ideally suited or adversely challenging towards performing particular postures.
  • We are not all good and bad at the same stuff.
  • We have arrived at this moment in time via many different routes.
  • Considering we are different shapes and sizes to start with it is unlikely that we will create yoga postures that look the same or even that such a thing would be desirable.

That will do for the moment, now we want something else for us to throw up and mix together.

The human body responds to things it finds difficult by trying to change. For example if we start lifting weights the body attempts to get stronger by adapting the neurophysiology and increasing muscle density. If we stop increasing the weight or repetitions the body will decide that everything is fine as it is. If we want to get increases in our range of motion at particular joints we need to demonstrate to the body that we need it and are going to use it.

We mostly get stronger in the actions we perform and not in those we don’t, same same with changes in range of motion. The body also responds much better to variety, not only in evening things out but also in spreading stresses. We can get very good at something we do a lot but may be particularly useless at something we don’t do very much.

As an example, I am an Ashtanga practitioner and as such happen to do the balancing posture Uhitta Hasta Padangushtasana (Extended Hand-to-big-toe Pose) quite a bit. On the other hand I only do Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) if I go off reservation, because it is not in the Ashtanga sequences. Hence I am quite good at UHP but complete rubbish at Ardha Chandrasana.

Guess which one I should spend some time doing. This idea is quite problematic if you have your sequences are laid out already and you don’t want to mess with them. My best suggestion would be to have a regular play day where you explore different movements and challenges.

Some students might like to say that their yoga practice is a spiritual practice and that an emphasis on the physical body is misplaced. In answer to that position I would offer that you are using your physical body to move through space within gravity and create yoga postures, consequently this endeavor will create change in the physical body. Better that this change is balanced and what is required rather than just what happens to occur.

So here we go, let’s throw all this up in the air and see what we get in the flipidy-flip. Similar to reading tea leaves we might all see something different but this is what I see:

  • Yoga will initiate change in the physical body. Better to appreciate and evaluate those changes than rely on chance.
  • There is a yoga for everyone but it should be what you as an individual needs at that moment in time.
  • Variation is both healthy and essential for balance and equanimity in the body.
  • One size does not fit all, nor should we want it to.

We should expect that we will be better at creating some postures more than others and even that certain postures may never be achievable due to our particular attributes. We should therefore challenge ourselves but not beat ourselves up or break bits in an attempt to achieve what may be unachievable. (This in no way detracts from the fact that we can be astonished by what we can achieve or that we should not endeavor to soar like eagles.)

What do you see in the tea leaves?