Friday, November 8, 2019

Customizing Poses: It's Okay to Make Things Up!

Photo of and by Sarit Z Rogers
by Nina Zolotow

Creating variations on poses and personalizing asana practice is about honoring the unique human bodies we are bringing to the mat. Bodies change from day to day (minute to minute, even!) and throughout the seasons of our lives. Honoring the body you bring to the mat today by treating your body with kindness, compassion, and ally-ship (as opposed to something to be subjugated or "fixed") is a way of practicing ahimsa (non-violence) and satya (truthfulness) together. Personalizing your practice is powerful!" —Amber Karnes, founder of Body Positive Yoga

I have a condition in both my hands called Dupuytren’s contracture. This has caused both my pinky fingers to be permanently curled. That in turn makes it impossible for me to press my hands flat on the floor or on a wall. While this has not yet had a tremendous effect on my daily life (it could get worse), it has had an effect on my asana practice. I had to give up a few poses, such as arm balances like Handstand, but mostly I’ve just adapted in various ways. And because there is no such thing as a yoga book or workshop on Yoga for Dupuytren’s contracture and none of my teachers have expertise in this area, I have just figured out how to adapt my poses. Here are some of the ways:

  1. I observed that the curl is less extreme if I keep my fingers together instead of spreading them apart, so I keep them together when I can.
  2. For poses where my hands need to be flat on the floor, such as Downward-Facing Dog and Side Plank Pose, I fold the edge of my mat over and place my palms on the folded mat and my fingertips on the floor. My teacher suggested that I try a wedge, but that actually didn’t work for me because I couldn’t get the right slant to my hand due to the curve in the tendon of my palm. 
  3. For poses where I place my hands on a block, I only put the heel of my hand on the block and hang my fingers off the edge. Or, if there is not a lot of weight dropping onto my hands, I just use my fingertips.
  4. For poses where my hands are on the wall, I just use my fingertips.
I came up with all these variations in my home practice by experimenting and seeing what worked for me. And this isn't the first time I've gone through a process like this, like there was that period when I had a frozen shoulder and could barely move my right arm. It has been so empowering to come up with my own solutions that enable me to keep my practice going and to know if the future brings other physical changes I'll be able to adapt and adjust. 

I decided to write about this because I know that many yoga practitioners don’t realize that it’s okay to make things up! There is this yoga myth, which some teachers even promote, that the yoga poses are ancient and perfect and you should never do them differently than the way you were taught. But the truth is that most of what we do in modern yoga was “made up” by innovative Indian teachers in the early 20th century, including Krishnmacharya and B.K.S. Iyengar. And many current teachers make up pose variations as well. After all, we all have different body types and physical issues, so there is not just one way or even just three ways to do a given pose.

For example, Amber Karnes has come up with her own two-step process that she uses in any pose where her larger body is feeling "crunched or squished." Here are the two steps:

Step 1: Take up space by widening your foundation (your feet and/or hands) and making room for your body.

Step 2: Make some space by moving "stuff" out of the way. For example, if your belly is compressed against your high, smooth it to the inside of your leg. 

Accessible Yoga teacher Carey Sims, who teaches chair yoga to seniors,  says, “I made stuff up all the time! With my main population it’s an integral part of the work." When I asked him if there was a particular pose or variation that he had made up that he was particularly proud of, he wrote:

"I was recently teaching spinal extension with a group of seniors and created a pose/movement I now call Skydiver Pose. I asked my students to imagine someone who has just jumped out of an airplane but has not yet pulled the cord on their parachute. We hinge from our hips and lean forward in our chairs, gently arch the thoracic spine, and sway slowly from side to side like we are skydivers flying in the air. Sometimes we even look over our shoulders and give each other a thumbs-up. Things like this are playful and effective."

Of course, when you are making up variations, it goes without saying that you should consider which positions and movements are safe for you and/or your students. But, yes, if you’re a teacher who is teaching a group or an individual, know you are free to make things up that you think might be helpful. And if you are a practitioner who is not a teacher and you practice yoga at home or want to practice at home, know that you, too, can experiment to find how to make the poses work for you. While it’s wonderful to find an Accessible Yoga teacher to help you find a way to practice yoga, there’s an awful lot you can do on your own. You can make yoga accessible to yourself!

In my next post, I'll provide some suggestions for how to come up customize your poses.

Nina Zolotow is Editor in Chief of the Accessible Yoga blog. Formerly, the Editor in Chief of the Yoga for Healthy Aging blog, Nina is a yoga writer as well as a certified yoga teacher and a long-time yoga practitioner. She is the co-author with Baxter Bell of Yoga for Healthy Aging: A Guide to Lifelong Well-Being and co-author with Rodney Yee of Yoga: The Poetry of the Body (with its companion 50 Card Practice Deck) and Moving Toward Balance. She is also the author of numerous articles on yoga and alternative medicine.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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