The Right Way To Do Yoga
Yoga students are always asking me about the right way to do yoga and I, being the questioner that I am, have a really hard time committing to absolutes. In general I don’t like saying things like “never” or “always” or “100% of the time do x”. There’s just so much to take into consideration, and so much that I don’t know.
My partner, Andre, and I have a running argument in which he says that he’s 100% sure of something, and what he means is that he’s 100% sure he THINKS it’s that. That’s not what it means to me. What 100% sure of something means to me is you’ve got a proven fact or knowledge at least that something is true, and I’m hardly ever 100% sure of anything. (But see I still won’t say never :p)
We live in a constantly changing world. Even our skeletons change through our lifetime; they’re completely new every 7 years.
But being the anatomy geek that I am, I get a lot of questions about the right way to do a pose, the right alignment, or what a pose “should” feel like.
And I can say with 100% certainty there is no right way to do a pose for every person every day of their life.
Even some of the most “basic” anatomy cues like keeping your feet parallel to each other, or externally rotating the shoulders when the arms are in flexion, I can think of a situation in which it’s not necessarily “right”. There’s going to be a lot of quotation marks in this post, I can tell. 😛
I think it’s a human trait to want to be right. I know I hate being wrong, I get this sinking pit in my stomach when I know I’ve made a mistake. It’s the worst. But the more I learn, the more I realize that I’m going to be wrong sometimes. There are things I taught for years that now I’m realizing are probably not “correct” or not ideal. (See that lack of committal, I told you I’m the worst).
For years when in yoga classes I would tell people to pull the shoulders away from their ears when their arms were up overhead (which is flexion if you’re interested). Because that’s how I was originally trained. Then I entered my 500 hour training only to find that’s not the best way to lift your arms. Your shoulders actually want, and need, to lift when you bring your arms up overhead. And believe me there will be another post about this.
I also used to teach tucking the tailbone in Tadasana and Chair Pose. Now I encourage the opposite! Most people should maintain the natural curves in their spine for both of those poses, which means not tucking the tailbone and instead allowing the pelvis to roll forward. (For more on that check out my Yoga for a Happy Back Post.)
So I’m sure there are things that I’m teaching now that are probably not “correct” or not the best way.
That’s pretty hard for me to say out loud (or write out loud). It sounds kind of like I’m making a lot of mistakes. But I’m admitting it.
I know a lot about the body. I’ve spent the past 5 years teaching yoga and constantly learning as much as a I can. But I’ll never know everything. Even if I memorize everything in the anatomy book, I can’t know everything about every specific body.
I’ve heard stories of people getting x-rays and finding they have an extra bone in their foot, or their spine, that most people don’t have. If their doctor didn’t know that how on earth am I supposed to when I don’t have x-ray vision. And to be clear that would not be my first choice in superpower — flying all the way.
But that extra bone that the doctor found might mean having to make an adjustment to a yoga pose. This by no means is meant to scare you into thinking you’ve got lots of random bones floating around your body. It’s a reminder that no one else can truly know what you feel.
So how do we figure it out? What’s the right way to do yoga?
The way that feels best for you.
That’s all I’m willing to commit to.
It’s difficult because sometimes the best way to do a pose feels hard. It’s challenging to do plank pose or Down Dog. That’s why paying attention to your body becomes so important. Recognizing the difference between a sensation that’s uncomfortable but tolerable, and one that may lead to an injury is hard. There’s no shortcut, it just takes practice.
Oftentimes you’ll need to try a pose a couple different ways in order to find the way that works best. Hopefully you can learn what injury pain feels like without getting hurt, but not always. Sometimes you might have to get hurt to learn what that pain feels like.
Now I’m definitely not advocating for yoga that causes injuries, obviously you want to be safe, but none of us will go through life without ever getting hurt. Because even if you sat on the couch all day every day to avoid any injury THAT would seriously mess up your body.
There was a big article a few years ago about how yoga could cause injuries and people freaked out and started saying how awful yoga is because people could get hurt. But if someone gets hurt playing soccer, or running a marathon, we don’t blame the sport. It means they probably pushed too hard or they simply had an accident. It happens and we learn from it.
In order to find the right way to do yoga for you, you might need to find the wrong way first.
I describe it as the “Goldilocks” place of the pose. Not too hard, not too soft. Not too challenging, not too easy. Goldilocks had to try each bed (and porridge right?) to find the right one. Sometimes you’ve got to try the pose in different ways to find the one that’s best for you.
That’s the challenging part for me as a teacher. When I stand up in front of a class, what I would love to do in each pose is ask every person what sensations they’re feeling so we can decipher together which are “good” and which maybe aren’t. But when there’s 10, 15, 20 people in class it would take the whole hour to do one pose!
It’s up to each student to do that exploration on their own.
You have to listen to what I say (or what the teacher says) then feel it in your body to decide whether it’s a good sensation for you in that moment.
I love nothing more than figuring that out with someone, because I do know a lot about the body. Oftentimes I can help find the best way to do the pose. But only if I know it’s not feeling right for you. My favorite thing is when someone comes up after class and says “hey Warrior I feels kinda crunchy in my low back” or “my shoulders pinch in chaturanga” – cause I can help with that! We try a couple different things and we can always (look at me committing to an absolute!) find a way to do the pose that benefits that person.
Recently I started teaching a few small group classes out of my home studio, just 6 people, and it’s the best. We really get to dive into the kind of yoga that I love. It’s the yoga that’s slow enough you get a chance to feel the pose you’re in, the yoga that’s challenging but rewarding, and the yoga that’s a little unique for each person.
So what’s the right way to do yoga? The way that’s right for you.
I’d love to hear how you do your yoga – let me know below!