It’s just what our brain does habitually – we compartmentalise things to help us understand them quicker and more easily. Male or female, teacher or student, client or therapist, like or dislikes… our brain is like an automatically filing system that instantly allocates a set of terms on objects or situations we come across in order for us to comprehend it.
Many of us learn to practice yoga or were introduced to them, during teacher training, as families of asanas (poses). We group them by their type – standing, seated, lying down, inverted – and then by their functions – forward folds, backbends, arm balances, twists and inversions, and through categorising, it has made it easier to understand these postures, what they do and where best to put them within a Vinyasa sequence.
Compartmentalising is a quick way to help us come to conclusions and decisions so it’s undoubtedly a useful tool, however when our brain gets stuck with these compartmentalised concepts, it ends up becoming counterproductive, discouraging a creative form of thinking and restricting a more adaptable and versatile approach towards applying these tools, which are meant to assist us in the first place.
I talked about Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Fold) in one of my recent posts. In the story, I presented 2 different ways of performing the pose that are commonly seen in the yoga studio and asked if anyone felt that one alignment was more correct than the other. The moral of the story however, were that both alignments are equally correct. It just depended on the results you were hoping to achieve out of the pose.
So for this post, I thought I’d return to Paschimottanasana again to make my point. It’s a pose that many people struggle with, typically because of tight hamstrings or a stiff lower back. The toes become a sort of a goal and you see practitioners trying so hard to reach it, heaving and edging themselves forward with quite limited results. The tightness in the hamstrings or lower back become so much more apparent in these moments.
In several of my classes recently, I’ve got students to do Uttanasana instead. With a bit of cueing and instructions, you instantly notice an increased range – they fold deeper, the fingers dangle closer to the toes and many report a sensation of release across the spine and at the back of their thighs. However, most fail to notice that they are essentially performing Paschimottanasana, except their on the feet. They compartmentalised the situation – the goal is to touch their toes in a seated forward fold – when in fact, they are closer to their goal (of reaching the toes) than they realise.
How is it that their range increases so easily with just a switch of position? It stems from the concept of kinematic constraints. A body with no restriction is free to move in any direction, but when we restrict motion from any of the movement planes – top or bottom and front, back or sides for example – it leads to a limitation of movement in other planes. In Paschimottanasana, the entire lower body is fixed to the ground, which instantly makes it more difficult to fold forwards. When we switch a person to standing, only the bottom is fixed to the ground while the rest of the body is free to move, hence why he/she’s able to reach further towards the feet in Uttanasana.
In the end, none of the above matters so much, what’s more important is to have that freedom of mind and thinking. If you see a student struggling so hard to reach for the toes in a Seated Forward Fold, maybe it’ll help more to offer him to stand and fold instead? Our minds are alive and we can start to look at the poses in a more dynamic manner to help us achieve the results we hope to bring to the person.
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Hongyi the yogi
Full-time yoga teacher & trainee yoga therapist in London. Eager to share, eager to learn!