Funny bones and happy babies: Acceptance

Last weekend I taught a yin workshop at BAYoga Studio in Berkhamsted. We did happy baby pose and I suggested to students that they took hold of the inside of the soles of their feet, allowing their knees to relax towards their armpits.

Happy baby pose
Happy baby pose. Image courtesy of

Afterwards, a friend in the class mentioned that it feels much better for her to take hold of the outsides of her feet. Holding the insides made her shoulders and chest feel restricted. “That’s odd”, I thought. Trying it at home, my shoulders and chest felt open, no problem. And then I thought about my hips. I have very open hips so my knees are wide enough apart to allow for my shoulders to relax in the space between my knees. Her hips aren’t quite as open as mine and so by holding the outsides of her feet,  her chest broadens and she feels the benefits of the pose.

This got me thinking about different people’s bodies and how we approach poses. Not too long ago, someone asked me whether I could get my heels down to the mat in down facing dog. I said yes and they looked amazed. But is that due to having super stretchy hamstrings or just because of the way I’m built?

Perhaps my hamstrings have lengthened somewhat through practice, but getting my heels to the floor has never been hard. It’s surely got more to do with the fact that that I have a wide range of movement in my ankle joint due to the shape of my bones.
Likewise, I’m restricted in movement in my wrists. When I stretch my hand backwards, it hardly comes back. So when I try to do handstands, I need to place the edge of a cushion or a wedge between the heel of my hand and the floor to lessen the angle and pressure on my wrists.

The elbow of Katharine Wener
The elbow of Katharine Wener

Take my sister’s elbows as another example. She hyperextends through her elbows meaning that when she stretches her arm out, palm facing up, her elbows bends beyond 180 degrees. There’s no pain, it’s just how she’s made. When she practices yoga, some of her poses might look a bit odd. Ok, so she may never make it into a book of beautiful yoga poses (sorry Katharine, I still love you), but it works for her.

It’s just how we’re built and we need to work with the body and bone shape we’ve been given. We might feel a need to strive to create the ‘perfect’ pose, but for many of us, our bodies can’t do certain things because of ‘compression’ i.e. the range of movement we can achieve due to the shape of our bones and also how they meet at joints.

Regardless of how many hours of practice we put in, we can’t change this. It doesn’t mean that her pose is ‘better’ than yours, it’s just different and yoga teaches you about gratitude and acceptance: accepting where you are in your practice and more broadly who you are as a person.

If this sort of thing interests you, check out Paul Grilley. He talks a lot about anatomy. His DVD ‘Anatomy for Yoga’ is rather good too.

Teacher training: The anatomy of a yogi

This week my teacher training has been all about bodies! I have certainly learnt a lot about my own.

Revelation of the week number 1:
First of all, at dinner the other evening I was sitting next to Laurie from Saint Louis, US. I was attempting to free a lychee from its red hairy casing by digging into it with my thumbs. “Oh my goodness! We have the same thumbs!” exclaimed Laurie.

Laurie and I with our thumbs
Laurie and I giving a thumbs up.

Now anyone who knows me will know about my ‘special’ thumbs. I’ve grown up with my loving father calling me ‘stumpy thumbs’. As a result, I’m on first name terms with most of the staff at Childline. But Laurie’s are even stumpier than mine. She tells me that our thumbs are technically called ‘toe thumbs’ and that there’s loads online about them. Even the Hollywood actress Megan Fox has them. Apparently one in every thousand people have them and girls are disproportionately affected.

Revelation of the week number 2:
This week we’ve had five days of Michelle Lam teaching us anatomy. She’s Hong Kong Chinese and must be about 4ft 10in. I feel like a giant next to her. When she gives you a private treatment session she turns into a ninja inflicting levels of pain that make you cry for your mum (according to Philip, an American grown man with too many injuries to name).

The learning experience has been very practical and we’ve all been demonstrating poses up in front of the class. Michelle then asks everyone what they see. The list has been endless: weak core strength, disengaged bandhas, wonky shoulders, pathetic muscles, flat feet, knock knees… total body assassination. And then the marker pens come out and you really are left black and blue.

Philip was observing the action of my sacrum by drawing dots on my lower back. He couldn’t work out what was going on. Michelle to the rescue… I have an unstable pelvis on both sides! Not a sacro-iliac problem as previously thought! This means I have very mobile hips and I have to engage my mula bandha and all my leg and buttock and abdominal muscles to stay stable. I also have incredibly tight hip flexors (psoas and iliacus). Lucky me.

Back bends – particularly sethu bandhasana (bridge) and urdva dhanurasana/chakrasana (wheel) – have been causing me pain this week and I’ve felt a bit fed up with my lower back, my sticky-out ballet dancer’s feet (I’ve never danced), and my externally rotated knees. But as big Michel says, who cares if you can’t do certain poses. We just have to deal with the body we’ve got at the moment. It’s not to say that we won’t be able to do those poses in the future. My damn ego’s getting in the way.

Revelation of the week number 3:
Doing my sun salutations in the morning, when I’m in down dog and then I jump through to bring my feet up to my hands, I’m managing to tear the skin on the bottom of my big toes. Some people make holes in their mats, I make holes in my feet. It’s due to a (current) lack of flexibility in my toe joints.

Natalie says to me, “Oh I used to do that! You need superglue!” For my mat?! “No, for your toes!” Cue a trip to 7 Eleven and it’s the best tip ever. Supergluing your skin is ingenious.

These are my bodily revelations from week two. As Michelle would say, the take-home messages are:
1) All the best people have stumpy thumbs
2) I have an unstable pelvis to rival Elvis
3) Ignore the packaging for superglue. It ain’t just for wood, metal and plastic.

Om shanti.

(Read about last week on my teacher training)