Monday, July 21, 2014

Thoughts on how to modify postures

Bianca Machliss from Yoga Synergy in a spinal lengthening posture that could substitute for balasana.

What can you do if you cannot get into balasana, child’s pose?  This was a question posed by a teacher this week. 

It is a good question for students to ask themselves as well and not just for balasana but for any posture you encounter.  Students are teachers as well—of themselves.  And, below, when I talk about teachers, I mean teachers with a certificate and teachers in self-practice (which is all of us!).

One useful way (not the only one) to start this exploration is by thinking about the interaction between characteristics of the:
  • ·      Person;
  • ·      Environment;
  • ·      Pose.

The person characteristics might include things like why the person has come to class, injuries, capacities, limitations, and motivations.

The environment characteristics might include things like the teacher (e.g., lineage, skill, experience, philosophy), nature of the class itself (time, number of people, style), the equipment, and the setting.

The pose characteristics might be things like the anatomical and physiological purpose of the pose, along with the actions and joint positions. 

Starting from thinking about these three elements, in responding to a question about what you might do if a person cannot do balasana, you could begin by thinking about what are the requirements of this posture and whether the person has the strength and available movement to move into and out of the position safely.

If not, then you could move onto thinking about how to assist them.  What you do to assist them should always depend on the reason you have for bringing them to that posture.

I start from the assumption that the pose is in the class at that particular moment for a that the teacher can articulate, and that reason is not simply to be in a particular pose for its own sake.

Thinking about balasana, that reason could be something as simple as to provide a place to rest from movement.  It could be for a specific anatomical or physiological purpose.   It could be for a very mundane reason.  For example, I have been occasionally known to instruct students to take a comfortable rest position (could be balasana but could be something else) when I have needed to find a tissue and blow my nose!

As teachers, you want to know what your reasons are.  It will help shape your decision making if you come across problems. 

For example, if you simply want to insert a rest break then you may not need balasana to do that.  Assuming you want a rest break to be comfortable you might want to just find a comfortable position where there is no strain or stress and you can recover the breath if it has been lost. 

As a new teacher I had somehow been lead to believe (or, more correctly, lead myself to believe since we all make choices) that balasana was mainly a rest pose.  So if I felt there was a point in the practice that people might need to rest, I would put suggest balasana.  Then I realized through observation that balasana is not a restful position for many people.

However, because my aim was to encourage a place of comfort in which to rest I then started to instruct people find a comfortable position for a few moments rather than guide them to balasana.  This could be any position that they found comfortable. 

Of course, I could have (sometimes did) go and give props out, but if you need a mountain of props to be in a posture I tend to steer clear of that option.  Also, it is generally my preferred option to find a way your body can be somewhere by it’s own active efforts rather than have to rely on external supports.  That is not to say props are not useful or meaningful.  [Note, these are environmental characteristics of the teacher and nature of the class, which all impact on decision making].

The thing is, the solution is derived from the intention, in this case to provide rest.  You can either find another way to help people rest or you can ‘prop them up’ in balasana so that it becomes restful.

But what if your reason for the pose is about its anatomical and physiological purpose?  Maybe you want to do balasana (or another posture) for its anatomical and physiological benefits.

Here again, you need to be clear that you know what these are. By knowing this you might find another posture that can meet those aims.

In a pose like balasana, essentially a forward bend, you gain length in the back body. This can lengthen the structures on the back of the body that might be chronically shortened or compressed.  Fresh blood can then be drawn to those structures, including the organs closer to the back body.   You also create some compression on the structures of the front body, particularly around the pelvis and abdomen, which might help firm them and push blood away.

For students I have frequently seen that the problem in coming into or remaining in balasana tends to be not with an inability to lengthen the back body.  Instead it is usually about the other aspects of positioning in the posture associated with the ankles, knees, and hips, which may be placed into extremes of movement not experienced in daily life or not available to the particular person. 

While you could well say that you want to use balasana to stretch out the front of the ankles or stretch out the back of the hips (which can be tight and limit moving into the full posture) my question would then be to ask yourself if your main aim is to stretch out the front of the ankles is there not a better or more effective way to do this?

What I am pointing to here is determining what is the main anatomical and physiological aim you have for the posture?  Is it to lengthen spine or lengthen front of ankles?

For a stiff person balasana might not be the best option for either of these aims.  Again, you could prop the person up to help with one of these aims.  However, you could also try to find alternative poses that meet those aims.

If you want spinal lengthening but the person’s front of ankles are too tight then put them in an alternate position that does not stress the front of the ankles.  This could be cross-legged while folding forward or diamond sitting while folding forward or paschimottanasana with bent knees.  If need be it could be standing folding forward or downward dog.  There are many spinal lengthening postures to choose from.

If your main aim is to lengthen the front of the ankles then you could be practicing other postures to assist with this that do not require the amount of plantar flexion that a typical balasana does.  Maybe high kneeling or a kneeling lunge?

I think the thing is to be clear that the pose you have selected is, overall (given the characteristics of the person, the enviornment, and the posture), the pose that best meets the aim.  This means you need to have a clear aim in mind and be able to analyse postures and the person in order to find the best fit.

While balasana is an example here, this reasoning applies to other postures as well. 

Being clear on your aim or reasons for a particular posture, being able to determine a person’s available safe movement, and being able to analyse the essential characteristics of postures from an anatomical and physiological standpoint will really help here. 

Importantly, it helps to try and distinguish between what might be called primary aims and lesser aims, as well as to determine what are essential requisites of a pose. 

In the balasana example, stretching the front of the ankles would be a lesser aim in my classes and if I had to choose between that and spinal length I would go for the spine.  That means if a person with tight front of ankles presented themselves I might choose an alternative posture that did not require them to stretch out the front of ankles so fully since having the front of ankles very long (plantar-flexed) is a required position. 

If you are in a class, your teacher should always be able to answer such questions about the purpose of a posture and should have good skills in analyzing requisite joint positions so they can guide you to appropriate postures.  If in doubt, always be sure to ask.  I learned a lot from having great teachers and, in particular, through the applied anatomy and physiology course run at Yoga Synergy (yoga 

Hope this brings some food for thought or further discussion.

Happy and safe practicing!

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