alan little’s weblog

yoga curmudgeon

27th January 2005 permanent link

In which Alan sort-of-reviews a yoga DVD he hasn’t actually seen.

People whose opinions I respect seem to be very enthusiastic about Paul Grilley’s Anatomy for Yoga DVD – “the best DVD on yoga, period” (Dan McGuire) – and I’ve been checking it out with a view to deciding whether I need/want to buy it in addition to David Coulter’s marvellous book Anatomy of Hatha Yoga (a full review of which I will probably never get round to writing).

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in how people seem to be taking Paul Grilley’s message, though. These comments are about that and not about what he actually says on the DVD which, as I said, I haven’t seen.

Apparently Grilley’s central theme is that everybody has a different shape and different physical limits, and so there cannot be a single definitive right shape or end point that is the same for everybody in any yoga asana. I completely agree with this.

One point Grilley makes that seems to catch people’s attention is that there are fundamental skeletal limits to how far each individual can go in particular postures now matter how long and how diligently they practice – the proportion of their limbs and the shape of the joint surfaces of their bones. Sooner or later, if you could overcome all other physical limitations in a posture you would still reach a point where you have bone pressing against bone and that’s it. Finito. Impossible to go any further and dangerous to try. And this point is different for everybody, because we all have different shaped bones.

I don't doubt that either – but people seem to be latching on to it as an explanation (excuse) for why they have great difficulty with routine, standard postures …

you doubt you will ever be able to get your knees even an inch closer to the floor. … That may well be true--but it probably has nothing to do with your yoga practice. Instead, it's simply the way your bones are structured. And yoga will never change that.
This is the main message Paul delivers in his superb DVD on yoga anatomy
Tim Noworyta

… and that, I think, is bullshit. Lotus, for example, isn’t that difficult. Most Indians I have seen try it can do it quite easily. And since Indians, especially upper caste Indians, are genetically pretty similar to Europeans, how likely is it that Europeans generally have different shaped hip joints that made it harder for them to sit in lotus and similar postures? Not very. They just sit on chairs. There may well be people whose hip socket shape makes lotus impossible, but I think they’re probably a tiny minority.

if you're trying to choose between two theories and one gives you an excuse for being lazy, the other one is probably right.
Paul Graham

Terry Slade (Terry is one of the founding fathers of ashtanga yoga on the web, and a thoroughly sound guy from what I can tell of the e-contact I’ve had with him over the years) is a huge Grilley fan, but he was probably right first time:

I have always thought that the huge amount of deep chronic tension that I have in my body is what makes it important for me to be careful to find the right way to practice yoga

I'm all for yoga students having a sound grasp of anatomy and not hurting themselves. I’m not for encouraging beginners (and anybody, e.g. me, with less than about ten years of diligent regular practice is a beginner) to think their limitations are probably inherent to their skeletal structure and it’s not worth bothering to even try.

Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself about asanas (postures) you “can’t do”:

Have I tried it at least a thousand times? Pattabhi Jois says you need to have done an asana a thousand times before you really know it. (If you go to class a couple of times a week, and don’t practice otherwise, and attempt your problem asana in all the classes you go to – well, there’s that “ten years” figure again)

Can a teacher get me into it? It is normal in ashtanga vinyasa yoga, the style I personally practice, for teachers to assist or “adjust” students in asanas the student is currently learning. I believe this is less common in other yoga styles, and some people think it is bad because it encourages students to feel dependent on the teacher. I understand that point of view but don’t agree with it. The best teachers, such as Pattabhi Jois and his grandson Sharath, can adjust students way beyond the student’s perception of what is possible. Which can teach you several things: what the position should feel like, so you know what you’re working towards; that limits you might have thought were physical were actually in your head after all; not to get too comfortable with your perceived limits.

The hardest position in the ashtanga vinyasa yoga primary series, for most western students, is called Marichyasana D. It involves putting one leg into half lotus position then twisting round, wrapping an arm round the opposite knee and clasping your hands behind your back. Pardon? Like this (only better):

Marichyasana D

When I first saw it, I thought it just looked ridiculous. My attempt at putting my foot onto my opposite leg to get into half lotus ended somewhere just above my knee. I could have just thought “ok, I know I have a bad knee, this is clearly impossible for me”. But after a while I started to see progress, and people around me in class learning it, so I thought well ok, one day. After trying it for about four years I was getting close: then I went to Mysore, where Sharath put me into the position a few days after I arrived. Within a couple of weeks of thus being shown that I could do it, on my “good” side I could do it myself.

The side where my injured knee is in lotus is proving more difficult: three years after Sharath could get me into the position, I can still count on my fingers the number of times I’ve managed it on my own. For one of those three years, though, I was busy starting to learn something far more important, namely how to be somebody’s dad, and hardly had time to practice yoga at all; then when I began practicing again it took another half a year to get back to where I was before I started making progress again. Nevertheless, my teacher and I both agree that it feels like it could be Real Soon Now.

The point being: something that initially looks and feels impossible may indeed actually be impossible because you have the wrong shaped bones – or it may just need five to ten years of diligent effort. And if it matters to you, then you shouldn’t assume one until you’ve tried the other.

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