Tension | Compression

Yoga is a lifestyle practice. A process delivering perhaps at some point, enlightenment, and positively providing a set of guidelines with which to harmoniously navigate the human experience spiritually, morally, mentally, and physically. The discipline leading to self-knowledge is the unity offered to the ancients, and to us. From my observations, most practicing “yogis” are all-in for the physical part — they take classes regularly — but are somewhat less committed to those other seven limbs of the Yoga Sutra. For most, yoga is a workout, little more.

Now, enlightenment can happen spontaneously. The supreme cosmic purpose can be revealed to an individual in an instant, whether the newly enlightened has done any yoga, meditation, study, or not. The lightbulb goes on as understanding is imbued. From where? Who knows. Check your Instagram feed — someone may have already posted the crest of a waterfall making your upstream swim unnecessary. Or, step onto your yoga mat.

Now, when I say, with regard to my Yin yoga classes, “If not spiritual awakening … at least a righteous stretch!” I am speaking to the fact that enlightenment can be attained through yoga, or simply happen for no particular reason at all, and that even if it doesn’t, your practice provides everything a modern yogi desires, anyway. That is, that righteous stretch.

So then if yoga is accepted and pursued as a physical endeavor, a workout centered around postures, isn’t perfecting those postures the idea? Yes … and no. And this is the thing I stress in my Yin yoga classes, immersions, and teacher trainings. In a phrase, as Yin yoga progenitor Paul Grilley says, “The line of the asana is not indicative of its correctness.” But, how can it not be? This is the pose, so students should do the pose just like the teacher, or what’s pictured in the instructional book, or in some article. While there is a logic to that, there is also the inherent fallacy that any pose is somehow universal. Actually, yoga postures as generally illustrated are completely arbitrary.

Of course, you’re in a yoga class and the teacher calls a particular pose, and everyone does that pose. Not another pose but, that pose. (Extreme modifications notwithstanding.) These poses, again, are arbitrary; well, the line of the asana is, anyway. How’s that? Iyengar’s Light on Yoga depicts many, many poses as he did them. There are a number of people who can do these postures pretty much like the master did, but there are far more who cannot. This is important, and one of the main points I seek to impress as I teach. If I’d written his book the postures would look considerably different … and they’d still be correct.

Iyengar’s physical proportions — the shape and orientation of his bones — determines his, (and everyone else’s) ability to get into these particular shapes. If you are so gifted then yoga as we know it is accessible. If you do not share his skeletal architecture, well, insofar as achieving the line of the asana, you’re out of luck. That doesn’t mean a yoga practice isn’t worthwhile, assuredly it is, regardless of “ability,” but the line of the asana is not your objective. For a yoga-magazine cover model, yup, the posture must be done just so. You, me, anyone else? Not so much. Alright then, what’s the point? The point is to set aside any aspirations of accomplishing the posture, per se. Rather, determine what the posture does, and do that. You’re wondering, now, isn’t that the same thing?

With as basic a posture as there is, let’s consider this. In Mountain there are cues. Feet together and facing forward, with heels slightly apart and big toes touching … (brakes screeching) … So, with absolutely neutrally oriented joints and bones this is fine. You look like Iyengar. Hooray! But, if you happen to have knock knees, what then? If you happen to have hip sockets that face more forward, you’ll find you have to externally rotate your hips to find feet-forward “neutral.” But you may be far from neutral. Conversely, if your hip sockets face more toward the rear you have to internally rotate, perhaps significantly, to find this so-called neutral. Keep in mind the thigh bone itself can be twisted, and so can the shin. If that’s the case, well, alignment of the knee cap belies inevitable convolutions above and below. The takeaway is that the direction of the feet is not necessarily congruent with that of the knee caps, nor the hips. The same posture can be — and usually is — vastly different yogi to yogi. Yet cueing forward facing feet persists.

Some yoga teachers are sensitive to this. They know about individual anatomical differences and respect their students’ uniqueness, allowing for postural variation. Others, coach the line of the asana as the gold standard, suggesting that over time anyone can accomplish whatever pose. They’ll suggest props, so as to better approach that ideal, but always they defer to Iyengar’s example. It does a disservice to the yogi with different proportions — unless that yogi understands how physical individuality plays into their practice, and self-directs. Sadly, too few do.

But we can learn. What’s the point, or the purpose of the posture? Mountain, is simply to stand, solidly, and firmly. It means having your general center of mass (GCM) positioned over your support — your feet. It asks for you to spread your toes, and then grip the floor or mat. It means extending your knees to whatever degree, finding neutral for your hips and low back, head and neck. Notice I’m not saying, “It’s this … ,” rather I’m asking that people find a comfortably balanced starting position. Something that works for them. Also, let me say that pointing the feet forward, even as the hips are rotated well beyond neutral is fine, if that is your informed, conscious decision. Tissues are still stimulated one way or another. Oh, since Mountain isn’t a posture to get into, so to speak, (even though it is,) we’ll look at a standing forward fold, too.

From Mountain, fold forward. First off, if you’re doing this you’re not stretching your hamstrings, you’re contracting them. Those muscles are preventing you from just flopping over uncontrolled onto your thighs, that is unless you have a significant range of motion at your hip joints, and then you’re already touching chest to thighs. (Plenty of yogis do. Many don’t.) It gets a bit complicated here, but stay with me.

Without sufficient range in forward flexion your upper body is cantilevered out in front of support. Your hips will drift backwards as your hamstrings fire to hold you up. If you want to lengthen those muscles you need to relax them. Here’s how. Place your hands on the floor / blocks and press into them, ultimately relieving your feet of some of your bodyweight, thus reducing the load on the hamstrings muscles. Now, actively use hip flexors to draw your upper body toward your thighs, and contract the quadriceps to fully extend the knees. By utilizing something called reciprocal inhibition — whereby contracting muscles on one side of a joint causes muscles on the other side to cooperatively relax — to coax the hamstrings into releasing, you can actually “stretch” the backs of your legs. But this forward fold isn’t so much about stretching, anyway. It’s just a step in a larger sequence of a Sun Salutation. Still it is a specific position that is intended to have some effect.

The idea is to fold all the way over at the hip joints, and the implication is that you’re stretching hamstrings. But, if they are tight, especially because they’re being contracted, or if you’re running into compression between your hip bones and your thigh bones, the range of motion seems to end early. Further range is then turned over to the low back. But wait, that’s a back stretch! Yes, but it’s still a forward fold.

So, is that correct? Not the way it’s usually coached. And to be fair, often in the coaching the direction is to keep the low back in a neutral position, placing the hands on the shins or blocks as needed so as not to turn the posture into spinal flexion. But the guidance that would make the posture most effective, and reveal its purpose, is rarely addressed. The yogi experiencing the tension in the hamstrings is not usually given the insight to successfully go more deeply into the posture, nor is that yogi ordinarily made aware of the possible compressive limiters. 

The bony architecture in the fold, much like in the standing position, makes all the difference. Maybe the hip joints are open, but the tissues of the backs of the legs have been shortened, say, through prolonged sitting. Such tension is a common experience, and is a soft boundary. A limiter that can be worked through. But maybe the neck of the femur is running into the rim of the acetabulum, the rim of the hip socket, resulting in the hard stop of compression. That’s the legitimate endpoint, and the posture is complete however it looks. So, how do you know what tension feels like, or what compression feels like? While some teachers might see it and tell you, others won’t, but the astute student feels it.

Tension is felt as a pulling, possibly a burning sensation on the backside of a joint. In this case, the backs of the legs. Compression is felt as a pinching, squeezing, or pressing on the front side of the joint. It may be in the joint, or in front of the joint. In-the-joint is the aforementioned leg bone / hip bone (near) contact, and in-front-of-the-joint might be abdominal tissues contacting thigh tissues — belly to legs. I might point out that depending on one’s belly, this compression may not be a hard limit. A month or two of Vinyasa flow could very well eliminate that obstacle and magically increase range of motion. So which is it? What do you feel in the forward fold, and what other postures can you begin to understand in this way? Hold dear the immortal words of Emil Faber, “Knowledge is good.”

Going forward, when you’re doing yoga ask yourself whether you’re trying to accomplish the line of the asana, or whether you are finding how to get greatest benefit of the pose, whatever that may be? Again, a yoga model has to be able to do the pose to its full aesthetic expression, to get the gig, and to get paid. You, to get the payoff from the posture, need to know what the posture is intended to accomplish. What tissues are being stimulated, and how are you able to best reach into those tissues? As yogi Bernie Clarke says, “Don’t use your body to get into the posture. Use the posture to get into your body.” (Hint: get to know joint actions of the hips, back, and shoulders, for starters.) That level of exploration into your own practice can lead to enlightenment for sure, whether physical, mental, moral, or spiritual. But even if any new insights and understandings fall short of higher consciousness, knowing what you are doing and why certainly ensures a righteous stretch. For many of us modern yogis, that’s enlightenment enough.