The Connection Between the External Form of Pose and the Benefits the Posture Creates
Lauren Cahn asked another great question and it took me a while to get to it but now, here it is.
YC Said: Thank you so much!! Now I have something interesting to explore in my next practice!
Oh! And now I have a follow-up sort-of question. Maybe you could write a post about this: the external expression of a pose, like what you see in a photo or in the mirror, versus the actual action of a pose that you feel in your boy. Discuss.
My reply: Excellent. It is always nice to have new things to explore which is ultimately where practice leads us. And as usual your questions and inquiries are deep and there is more than meets the eye to them.
The complicated thing about form is that there are several issues at stake here. In any pose there are a variety of ways of doing a posture that will be useful to a practitioner. Different angles cause you to work or open different areas of the body. So any one person can do several different variations of any posture. An easy example is that a standing forward bend can be done with the hands holding the elbows and the arms hanging, the legs could be straight or bent; you could have your palms flat on the floor, again the legs could be straight or bent; you could have your hands holding your big toes, they could be under your feet from the front, from the side, from the back of the heel; whether the legs are straight or bent the feet can be together or apart. I could keep going. There are variations with one hand behind your back or both. The more you look at things the more different angles you can give.
This is mainly concerning arrangement of limbs and spine. Within any of those variations there are positions where you could be in a good alignment where your body is getting good healthy work that will strengthen and open or you could be creating unwanted stress in certain areas unnecessary to the movement and work of the posture. That unwanted stress could be minor and therefore not such a big deal. This would merely represent a lack of awareness of the most efficient way of bringing your body into the posture. However, repetitive stress like this can, over time, cause cumulative damage, so, hopefully the practitioner learns to improve his or her form over time so that the body is not wasting effort in ways that are counter productive. Then there is the kind of unwanted stress that is bigger and more damaging. That is the stuff that you need to look out for first.
Now this second aspect of form could be categorized as ways of finding good alignment and avoiding damaging alignment within any of the variations of a posture.
And then there is the individual practitioner to be considered. Different people have different bodies, different shaped bones, different joint structures. I think I will talk about genetics and flexibility for a moment, which has to do with joint structure to some extent. Some people walk into their first yoga practice never having done anything like yoga and are quite flexible in many directions. They never worked on it. It just has to do with that person’s body type. There are others who practice for years and feel they can never get past a certain degree of flexibility no matter how much they work on it. Some people are stronger and can do postures that take a high degree of strength without much effort. Some cannot hold certain postures for very long because of their lack of strength for that kind of work. A certain amount of this can be changed and a certain amount of your inherent body type is just what you were given.
Now most of us would be more flexible than we are if, during the years from when we were around 10 till we were around 20, we were doing a considerable amount of movement that required a high degree of flexibility. The reason this is the case is that somewhere between those ages most of us experienced what we could call growth spurts. When your bones are still growing, if your bones grow really fast and you are not doing movements that require certain ranges of movement, you start to loose those ranges of movement in the joints. The bones grew but the joint capsules that surround the joints and prevent movements beyond a certain range don’t necessarily change much if you are not moving the joints in those directions. If your bones grow really fast and you do not continue doing movements that require a certain range of flexibility, it is almost like your joint capsules, your ligaments, which hold your bones together, shrink wrap around the joint. If you don’t do a certain range of movement your body does not know you need that range of movement and by the time our bones have stopped growing, the body pretty much thinks that the movements you have been doing are the ones you need. So a person who spends the years during which the bones in their body were growing the fastest, doing something like sitting in a chair, at a desk, reading, writing and doing schoolwork, might end up with something like chair length hamstrings.
Some of this can be changed but the kind of opening that happens in yoga postures or the kinds of assisted stretching that happen in a lot of yoga adjustments is not the most intelligent method of stretching the connective tissue that keeps your joints stable. There are joint mobilization techniques that can precisely stretch joint capsules in particular directions but I would not recommend a yoga practitioner or teacher to mess with this stuff unless they are well trained in the techniques and know what they are doing. This is also not something you can do to yourself. But joint mobility is not really something you want to mess with too much anyway.
Now you also have the length and shape of the bones. One person might have long legs and a short spine; another might have long arms and a short spine; long legs and short arms, or short legs and long arms. A person might have a long upper leg and short lower leg; a long lower leg and a short upper leg; a long forearm and a short upper arm; or a short forearm and a long upper arm. Things like this will affect the way the external form of a posture appears to someone who is looking from outside.
The length and shape of the posterior spinous processes can play some role in determining how much mobility the thoracic spine has when moving into hyperextension (back bending). Of course there are a lot of other things that could come into play as well.
The shape of the upper part of the thigh bone can play a great role in movements of the leg in abduction, adduction, external rotation, flexion and extension. The angle of the femoral neck in relation to the ground, it is usually somewhere close to a 45-degree angle to the femoral shaft, but can be closer to parallel to the ground or closer to vertical. As the shaft goes from the greater trochanter towards the pelvic structure there is also an angle. Sometimes the greater trochanter is lateral and posterior to the hip joint, sometimes it is directly lateral to the hip joint and sometimes the greater trochanter is lateral and anterior to the hip joint. This angle will determine a certain amount of range of movement in certain planes as well. And how long or short the shaft is will also determine a certain amount of range of movement because a longer shaft, while not being as strong and stable is more mobile since the trochanters can move farther in more directions before coming up against the bones of the pelvic structure.
(I am re-reading this and you need to look at photos of several different femurs from several different angles to get what I am trying to say above. I wish I had the graphics to lay out.)
The shoulder girdle is more complicated and sometimes there are similar things at play that cause one person to have greater or lesser ranges of motion in all planes. An example is that one person might be able to reach the arms up higher than another before the shoulder blades start elevating, creating tension and doing funny things.
So now that we got that information out, the external form of a posture, even if two people are doing the same basic variation, is often going to look a little different from person to person. A person with long arms, short legs and a long spine doing the variation of Urdhva Dhanurasana where you are trying to get your feet and hands closer to each other so that the apex of the arch in the posture is the abdomen and lower back, would look different in the pose than a person with long legs, short arms and a long spine in the same variation.
So the external form is a very superficial and imprecise guideline to use in looking to quantify what a person will feel in a posture.
The simple information about the benefits of the postures that I generally give, and this is very simplistic, is this:
1) Back bending postures generally work the back of the body and gently open the front of the body. As a general statement, the work in the back of the body is more prevalent than the opening in the front of the body, but the postures can be done in a way that emphasizes the opening in the front of the body or deemphasizes the work in the back of the body.
2) Forward bending postures open the back of the body and gently work the front of the body. Here too, as a general statement, the opening in the back of the body is more prevalent than the work in the front of the body, but the postures can be done in ways that emphasize the work in the front of the body or they can be done in a way that deemphasizes the opening in the back of the body.
3) Movements in the lateral plane, whether lateral flexion or lateral extension, generally lengthen one side of the spine more than the other and as a result open aspects in the shoulders, the hips and pelvic structure as well.
4) Rotations are a little more complicated than the previous three movements of the spine. There are sets of muscles that are lined up at 90-degree angles to each other and at 45-degree angles to the ground throughout the torso. Examples are the internal and external obliques and the internal and external intercostals. There are also sets of muscles in the spine that line up like this. When you twist, one set of these muscles will shorten helping you twist while the other set will be stretched by the action. The rotational force also stretches the external fibers of the intervertebral disks (anulus fibrosus), which also line up at 45-degree angles to the ground and 90-angles to each other. So just like the intercostals and obliques one set gets stretched, but cartilage is non contractile so the set of fibers that is not stretched is merely put on slack rather than shortened.
5) In yoga there are also postures where you lengthen the spine. The ones that are interesting for our purposes are the ones where you lengthen the spine while flattening the natural curves of the spine. Postures like Ardha Uttanasana where you lift the chest and flatten the spine while keeping your palms or, more frequently, your finger tips on the ground, getting ready to jump back to chaturanga. Downward facing dog is another posture where you are straightening your back and flattening the curves of the spine. The work of flexing at the hip joints, and flexing the lumbar spine to flat, while extending the thoracic spine, to flat, takes work in the thighs, the hip flexors, the abdominal muscles, and the spinal extensors of the upper back all at the same time. And if the legs are straight it could lengthen the hamstrings, depending on the angle of flexion at the hip joints.
All yoga postures, and really any movement we as humans can do has to have at least one of those movements of the spine mentioned above. But those ideas of what benefits come from each of the movements of the spine, are really generalizations and when you add things like a bind of the arms or a rotation in the hip joint you add more things to consider.
Here too, the simple way of expressing things is that if you change the way you do a posture you will change the benefits you receive from that posture. So there would be ways of doing a pose like Urdhva Dhanurasana that would emphasize extension of the lower back, the mid back or the upper back; you could do it to emphasize a kind of work in the inner thighs; you could emphasize the extension in the hip joint; you could emphasize the movement of the shoulders and arms.
If the alignment of a posture is useful to the person the pose will probably look powerful and effortless at the same time. If the person is struggling, gripping, creating stress on particular joints that should not be in play to such an extent, the posture will probably not look as graceful; it will not look as elegant or as powerful. The person will not look quite as happy. The analogy that I would use is that a great gymnast makes what he or she is doing look easy, effortless, almost like they could do what they are doing in their sleep. A pretty good gymnast does all the same movements but you can see more of their effort and so it does not look as powerful, as deep or as graceful. The extra effort, the effort that was not necessary, is a reflection of alignment that could be improved.
So now once you are in a posture in a way that is useful to your body the information given above might give a very simplistic guideline to help you understand some of the physical benefits you might feel but every person is different. One person might feel one set of muscles working and another might feel completely different muscles working to create the same basic movement or posture; what joint capsules are being stressed and pulled taught would be different from person to person; what joints come into play might be different as well.
Then, there are the deeper benefits underneath the physical effects, the work and actions of the postures; what I am talking about is how the physical postures affect the underlying energetic and emotional levels of the system. Since we are all a little different this too is complicated. General tendencies here are that back bends are energizing and expanding and forward bends are calming while eliminating waste. But back bends can be done in ways that are relaxing and vice versa. Side leans are sort of calming even though they are expanding and rotations are sort of energizing even though they move waste out of the system. Again, how you do the postures can cause you to get different underlying effects than what I just described as general tendencies.
It is interesting to me that, as I practice and think of my practice as an exploration rather than trying to fit my body into specific shapes, and as I am using my body and exploring the way my body works in my physical practice, over time, I have felt my body change so much. Poses that used to feel one way to me might feel very different now. So rather than say anything too specific about the underlying benefits of practice I will say that as I go deeper into my own personal practice, this is where the juice of my physical practice seems to be: the awareness of what is happening in my body while I am doing. I feel like the shapes are tools you use to help put yourself into positions where you can experience something about your body on that day that you are doing your practice. If you are present to the Now of the particular practice you are in, and content with yourself as you are, something magical might come up as a result of your experience in the postures and with the breath. But, as I see and feel them, the postures are not really specific shapes to put your body into. Instead they seem to be templates or archetypes for exploring certain types of work. This work is sort of liquid and changeable. As your body changes your experiences in the postures change and the postures can be adapted to your current needs.
So go and explore what your experiences in the postures are and I would love to hear the results of some of those explorations: the euphoria or the stillness that you feel in a pose; the power of the release or the energy of the work.