Learning to accept and love our bodies as they are is no easy feat, even for the healthiest and most able-bodied people out there. Media and the heavy influence of our image-based culture has created a pressure for us to look a particular way, and in the context of yoga, be able to “perform” certain asanas in an acrobatic and/or Hercules-like manner. The truth is, for every person who is able to practice an outwardly beautiful natarajasana, with their arms over their head, reaching for their back foot, there are a thousand more who have difficulty balancing on their leg, let alone have sufficient hip extension to grab the lifted foot as the leg flexes. But is one version of the posture better than another? Certainly not.
The practice of yoga encourages a dissolution of the ego, so that we can truly feel into the present moment without attachment or aversion, including an acceptance of where our physical body is in that time and space. It is thus a great practice for feeling that our physical limitations are not limitations at all, but instead an experience from which we can feel empowered to find space and strength, be it physical or mental, where we are at any given time.
The following are a few common physical limitations and alternative postures that will help you to feel embodiment and empowered.
Tight hip flexors
Tight hip flexors can be the result of too much sitting and not enough stretching. They can be one of the causes of lower back pain.
How does it show up in yoga practice: Tight hip flexors can make it difficult to have a longer stance in your lunges. They can also make it difficult to flex the hip (think of how the hips are used in crow posture, or standing wind-relieving pose).
Lizard pose can be torturous for someone with tight hip flexors. A great alternative is anjaneyasana with the hands on the front thigh instead of the arms above the head. Gently press the thigh down and forward as you draw in through your navel and open the chest. Stay here for a few breaths, place your hands on the mat, and slide the back knee a few centimetres towards the back of the mat, and return the hands to the front thigh and remain for a few breaths. Repeat a third time.
Rotator cuff injury
The shoulder is a ball-and-socket joint like that of the hip. Unlike the hip socket however, the shoulder socket is shallow, allowing for greater movement of the arm, but making the shoulder joint less stable.
There are 4 muscles that make up the rotator cuff, and it isn’t uncommon that one or more of them are underworked, and as a result, weak. This weakness leaves potential for impingement and potentially, tears.
How does it show up in yoga practice?
The widely-popular vinyasa practice is weight-bearing, meaning much of your body weight loads the shoulder joint. If there is an existing injury, this can be potentially harmful. It also means that likely practicing postures like plank pose, chaturanga dandasana, and essentially all inversions are not good.
Healing a rotator cuff requires building strength. Placing a light amount of weight on the shoulders can help with this process. And since practicing chaturanga dandasana is not the best option for a practitioner with a rotator cuff injury, a great alternative is to a standing plank and standing push-up against the wall.
Standing in front of a wall with your hands at shoulder height, and your body mostly vertical from the heels up towards the crown. Start by pressing the hands firmly into the wall, and lightly externally rotate the shoulders. Keep your elbows as straight as you can as you press into the wall. If you feel okay doing this, consider hugging the upper arms together (start lightly).
As you become more comfortable practicing “A”, you can start to work into a push-up like action, by bending the elbows to a degree that works for you without causing any strain. Make sure that elbows are drawing in and down, as though they are pointing towards the floor. When you have bent your arms to the degree that works for you, press into the hands to re-straighten the elbows bringing you back to the starting position.
The knee is a hinge joint that primarily moves forwards and backwards through flexion and extension, however, when the knee flexes more than 10 degrees it can do internal and external rotation to a slight degree. Albeit slight, this rotation during flexion means the knee joint is vulnerable. When the joints above the knee (hip joint) or below the knee (ankle joint) have tension, it is transferred to the knee itself, and if there is any rotation, it puts the knee in a precarious, and potentially harmful, position.
How does it show up in yoga practice: An injured knee can affect yoga practice in a few ways, usually when the knee is in flexion. Add external rotation to the hip, such as in pigeon prep pose, and the knee can feel tight or painful. A knee injury can also make it challenging to place the back knee down in anjaneyasana. And depending on the injury itself, child’s pose and hero pose (seated and sleeping) can feel impossible.
Not being able to do a posture a teacher has called out that the rest of the class is doing can be frustrating and discouraging. So when a teacher says pigeon prep, and you have a knee injury, bringing yourself into deer pose is a great alternative. It is also a great pose in general as the front hip is in external rotation and the back hip, internal rotation. And of course, once the other side is completed, both your left and right hip have gone through both external and internal rotation.
It is handy to have a towel/blanket, and cushion or bolster nearby in practicing deer pose. From bound angle pose, take your left leg back behind you and position the leg with the heel closer to the buttock, or further away. Feel into what is comfortable for you. If the front knee feels sensitive, you can elevate it with a bolster underneath it. You can also draw the front heel closer towards the front of the left hip. If the hips are really tight and you feel yourself leaning towards the right, sit on a block.
While deer pose is used as a yin posture, it acts as a great alternative to pigeon prep helping the practitioner to feel a mild to moderate release in their hips.
If deer pose is also causing difficulty for the knee, try sucirandasana/thread the needle pose. Lying on your back with both soles of the feet on the floor, bring the right ankle above the left knee, creating a figure-4 shape with the legs. Between the triangular space of your legs, bring your right arm through and the interlace the fingers on the back of the left thigh. Keep both shoulders and the back of the head on the floor, take a breath in, and exhale bend the arms gently pulling the left leg towards your chest. The right leg is in external rotation and flexion so make sure to flex the right foot to stabilise the ankle and knee. Be conscious of engaging the right thigh as well.
Yoga is a healing practice, but when a physical limitation keeps you from accessing particular postures, it can be frustrating and sometimes discouraging. But for every limitation, there is a modification or an alternative that can be practiced, and that sometimes can require a bit of creative thought. Each posture can be thought of to have a classical/conventional appearance, but equally each posture can be broken down making it accessible by people of all physical abilities.
If you have physical limitations, it is helpful to work with an experienced yoga teacher to determine great modifications and alternatives for you. Remember that when you come to these alternative postures (and your yoga practice in general), the breath is paramount, helping to keep you grounded and present. Use these moments to feel compassion and acceptance of where you are at that particular moment, feeling embodied in your postures, and empowered physically, mentally, and spiritually.