If you struggle with a particular asana, your yoga teacher will typically encourage you to keep practicing the pose itself as well as a number of complementary exercises that build strength, flexibility, and stamina. In my experience, the general belief seems to be that, with enough effort, anybody can perform any asana. Consequently, depending on your level of self-discipline, you either practice with a vengeance or avoid the respective pose until you’re put in a situation where you absolutely have to get it right, like the 200 Hr yoga teacher training (smile). In my case, one pose I’ve always struggled with is Salamba Sirsasana I (headstand supported on the forearms).
Sirsasana is a pose where the serratus anterior, rotator cuffs and deltoids contract concentrically to rotate the scapula upwardly and stabilize the shoulder joint, while the triceps brachii contract eccentrically to resists elbow flexion. To relieve pressure in the neck and elongate the spine, one should also activate the spinal erector and multifidus muscles close to the spine. In layman terms, you should push your forearms into the ground until you feel your head slightly lifting off the mat.
I am able to get into Salamba Sirsasana II (Tripod Headstand) with relative ease and feel fairly comfortable in the pose (despite its complexity, Sirsasana is considered a resting pose, so it’s important that your body is able to relax in this position), but Sirsasana I has always been a losing battle for me. No matter how forcefully I press my shoulders away from the ears and the forearms into the mat, my neck is still compressed and the pose feels extremely uncomfortable. I’ve been putting that down to lack of shoulder and triceps strength and while yes, those areas could definitely benefit from strengthening, they serve me quite well when it comes to Sirsasana II, so something just doesn’t quite add up. At the same time, during the YTT I noticed that, while many of my peers could comfortably place the heel of their palms on the ground in Dandasana, my palms couldn’t touch the floor without my compromising the length in my spine. And so, one day I suddenly thought of examining my body proportions and I noticed two things. Firstly, my shoulders are very narrow, so even with the best effort to broaden the shoulders in Sirsanana, there’s just not a lot to work with. Secondly, I have relatively short arms, a long neck and an oblong head, so if I bend my arm and bring my triceps next to my ear, my elbow is below the crown of my head. By a simple logical deduction, it’d be pretty hard for me to avoid compressing the neck in Sirsasana.
Then I wondered whether I’m a freak of nature or there might be other yogis out there facing the same issue, so started browsing the net for related posts. Alas, I came across quite a few interesting articles on the impact of body proportions on proper (and comfortable) asana execution (after all, according to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali verse 2.46, comfort is an important aspect of asana practice).
In a nutshell, my research rendered two main points:
- If your arms are relatively short in relation to your waist, you will benefit from the use of blocks, straps, or boosters to help “extend” the arms in asanas that require reaching for the floor. So, in the case of Sirsasana, for example, you could place your head on the mat but your forearms on folded blankets to artificially “create” length in the arms or you could place a block behind your head to the same effect. When it comes to Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose), your short arms may not only present a challenge in achieving the desired spinal arch but may also cause considerable pressure in the lower back, since your spine and arms are farther from the floor. To resolve this, you could rest your palms on yoga blocks instead of the floor.
- If, on the contrary, your arms are relatively long compared to your waist, you may need to bend your elbows slightly in asanas that originally require straight arms in order to maintain proper alignment.
Back to my Sirsasana nightmare: I tried using a folded mat under my forearms and, while I am still struggling with the pose, at least it doesn’t feel like my head is being pushed into my trunk and my neck is about to snap, so the solution is effective in my case.
This incident has prompted me to reflect on how props are generally perceived in yoga classes. In my observation, they’re often equated with a temporary crutch to be used while working on improving strength and flexibility and there’s a certain stigma attached to them, which causes some students to force themselves into misaligned asanas and risk injury rather than use a prop. Perhaps our thinking should shift to viewing props as a permanent fixture for those of us who need to compensate for less than ideal anatomical proportions. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that one should stop striving for improvement. I believe that hard work and discipline are essential to mastering asana practice, but your skeletal structure is something you can’t really change. As a yoga student, I hope to see more teachers guide struggling students through working with props to make up for less than ideal skeletal structure in addition to encouraging them to keep practicing in order to build strength, flexibility, and stamina. As an aspiring yoga teacher, I intend to undertake further research on how proportions impact certain asanas so that I’m able to advise my future students accordingly.
Chrissy Carter, Headstand: A Practice, https://chrissycarter.com/headstand-a-practice/
Illonka Michelle O’Neil,For All My Yogis With Short Arms, https://www.yogiapproved.com/yoga/why-i-use-yoga-props/
Nicole DeAvilla,Helping Students Master the AsanasPart 2 of 3: Proportion (or, How to Teach Your Students Not to Look Like the Picture in the Book), https://www.expandinglight.org/free/yoga-teacher/articles/general/helping-students-master-the-asanas2.php
Peg Mulqueen, Size Matters, https://loveyogaanatomy.com/size-matters/
Stephanie E-R.Y.T. 500,Dirgha Kala: A Study of Light on Yoga, Proportion Matters,http://dirghakala.blogspot.com/2014/08/proportion-matters.html