Yogaland platitudes like, “Practice and all is coming” are really comfy words to live by, but what do they actually mean? Personally, I find them problematic because I think they bypass the importance of critical thinking and questioning what we’re learning, practicing and teaching. Is it enough to just keep practicing? Doesn’t it matter what and how we paractice, too? Platitudes lull us into a type of submissive conformity.
Practice (or doing something a lot and with total dedication, even) is not the only determinant of how ‘easy’ something will feel over time, whether it’s right for you, or whether you’ll be able to to do it at all. This is especially the case when it comes to poses that demand extreme end range of motion from your joints. A lot of the asanas fit this description, like rotated side angle pose (see video below), lotus pose, slowly piking up into handstand, and splits pose. Even something as seemingly simple as getting your hips to your heels in child’s pose can evade the most ‘advanced’ practitioner depending on their body shape.
Bone length, proportion and shape, joint structure and soft tissue morphology vary widely from student to student. This variation matters in our relative ability and facility to make certain shapes.
Excerpt from my online course Structural Variations of the Hip Joints showing the common femoral torsion angle femoral retroversion. Learn more here.
Now don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to practice awkward poses that ‘don’t fit you well.’ Investing in the process, (rather than the goal) and being open to everything it teaches you, I think, is one of the best lessons our ‘impossible’ poses present. Rather than a path where all is coming, though, you set out secure in never arriving. Investing in the process is so hard, because it means we must see value in our perceived successes and our failures. Meanwhile, the allure of fancy poses can lull us into a goal-oriented attitude set on pose attainment. Especially when we’re told that all we need to do is just keep practicing them…
But what happens when the pose doesn’t happen and we get impatient? Often times, overzealousness leads to injury, especially with poses that explore extreme end range. I’ve heard my fair share of stories about a student’s first time ‘getting into’ lotus (as though it were a pair of jeans?) also leading to their first meniscal tear. They didn’t feel the tear in the moment, but rather, they heard it. You see, cartilage isn’t well-innervated. Therefore, injury to cartilage doesn’t always hurt right away. Injury to cartilage is more likely when forcing end range joint positions.
Side note: Poses don’t actually exist. Only the utterly unique individuals practicing them do.
I think the promise of ‘practice and all is coming’ means we might fall into a mindset of “Dang it, I’ve been at this a really long time and I’d like a return on my investment!” Impatient, one-pointed focus is not a recipe for the types of strategies that modern movement science tell us are important for building balance in our systems. Progressive overload is an adaptive process whereby consistent, gradual loading leads to increased tissue toughness. This requires process-oriented patience. Learning steps to progress your range of motion and your strength in controlling that range slowly, over time would be a better strategy than, say, trying to ‘get into’ splits pose every day. Additionally, load variation requires us to regularly head off the beaten track of how we typically pattern movement through our bodies. Varying the load means that we regularly load our bodies in ways that may seem unrelated to the pose or skill we’re working on. For example, if you’re working toward piking up into handstand, you might want to also learn how to progress your pull up practice. This way you’ll keep your wrist and shoulder strength more balanced in both pushing and pulling from the overhead position. This will add to your tissue’s tolerance for stress and decrease the likelihood of injury. Just like your body craves a balanced food diet, it craves a balanced movement diet, too. #varytheload
Both yoga and biomechanics teach us that we must let go of ‘getting into the pose’ and make the process the goal. In this way, we become adaptively more resilient to the stresses that life on and off the mat demand. We learn more about ourselves each step of the way, too. If the pose feels awkward, maybe that’s okay. I have a lot of awkward friends. I am probably some people’s awkward friend. We don’t have to feel comfortable around each other all the time to learn and grow from each other.
Maybe the phrase should be, “Practice and some of what you think you are doing will yield the results you seek and some of what you are trying to understand will be made clear. The rest may remain a mystery to surprise you later or simply keep you guessing for years.” The trouble is, this would never work as a platitude. It’s too long and it makes no guarantees. “It will all be worth it in the end.” Or “It was meant to be.” Now those are platitudes. They lull us so nicely into mindless faith, which is comfy.
But is it practice?
Is it practice to simply do as we’re told without questioning it? To me, that doesn’t sound like practice. It sounds like obedience. And if obedience is practice, then what is our practice actually teaching us? What is it preparing us for?
What if we could set aside our need for everything to work out neatly and nicely in the end and for all of our choices to have been the right ones? What if, instead, we used our practice as an invitation into the messy state of ambiguity and the oft-inconvenient habit of critical-thinking? I believe that this type of investment is the kind you must make if you are seeking to use yoga, or any practice, as a tool for self-transformation. And as Ghandi would say, and of course lots of yogis would quote, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Think about it.
I get really passionate about why body proportions matter in the asanas – a topic of frequent discussion and exploration in the Yoga Tune Up® Level 1 teacher training I’m leading this July in NYC. Learn more here.