Should you put your foot over your head? Should you use no, 3 or 5 blankets in shoulderstand? Should you bend your knees in a forward fold. If you do not practice yoga, you may be wondering why in the hell we’d put our foot over our heads or we’d stand on our shoulders.
When we see limber, young white women on the cover of the yoga magazines in fancy poses and colorful tights and tops, we get the impression that this is yoga. It may be for them, but may not be for you. It’s always frustrating to hear that people do not try yoga because they are too stiff or have bad balance, as if touching your toes with straight legs is “yoga”. Perhaps you try the poses in class and wonder why you have such difficulty. You may become discouraged or force your body into painful poses or quit yoga all together.
Let’s talk about what is “normal” flexibility? There’s a term “range of motion”. It’s the measurement of the movement around a joint. It takes into consideration the ligaments, tendons, muscles and bones associated with the joint. A healthy joint should have good range of motion and move in all directions permitted to that joint For example, the range of motion of your elbow is about 50 degrees. Try this. Hold one arm straight ahead of you. Bend your elbow to bring your hand toward your head. It’s considered normal range of motion for your hand comes about as far as your ear (90 degrees would bring your hand to your shoulder). If you’re interested in the range for other joints, see the reference below.
Knowing what is normal is helpful in yoga because it gives you a gauge of where we should be heading. This depending a lot, of course, of whether there is an injury or other restrictions. If you have a “normal” range of motion, then you should be quite happy. But, I usually see students struggle mentally and physically because they don’t look like their yoga teacher or neighbor even though they are within a healthy range of motion for that particular joint.
Going beyond normal range of motion can have consequences. We are seeing labral tears in the hips of yoga students who are overdoing hip stretching (see link below). What about shoulderstand? The normal range of motion for the neck in flexion (chin toward chest) is 50 degrees. When doing shoulderstand without props, the neck is being pushed to 90 degrees of flexion leading to a flattened cervical spine. So, if it’s painful to do shoulderstand without props you are probably very normal (see Mary Richards and Lizzie Lasater’s video below).
Having a balanced body with good range of motion in all joints is important. Lifestyle, like sitting or having poor posture, can affect your range. Improving the movement of your joints will take some time as you stretch the tight areas. You will find some or a lot of discomfort as tight fascia, muscles and ligaments regain their more natural position and allow more movement in the joint. Patience, consistency, patience, good instructions and more patience is required. If you’re curious about your own range of motion you can assess yourself or contact a physical or yoga therapist. I refer to Mukunda Stiles book, Structural Yoga Therapy. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/199515.Structural_Yoga_Therapy
It’s understandable to push ourselves to achieve a shape, even though it’s not optimal for the health of the body. I’ve done it and I do it. But, I challenge my body with respect and knowledge, rather than aggressively pushing and forcing. There’s a difference. Hopefully this has given you a starting point to begin to think about what is normal for you.