Most of us can recall a time when we’ve tried to contort our bodies into a yoga pose. Sometimes it is good to be playful and challenge ourselves. Many times, it can put us at risk for injury and prevent us from receiving the full benefits of the pose. The good news is that with some tweaks and tools, there usually is a version of the pose that works for every body.
It is important to let go of our notions of how poses are supposed to look and think about what benefits they can offer—flexibility, strength, balance, focus, relaxation or a combination of these. What do you want from your practice? This might even vary on given days. The truth is that there are many variations of common yoga poses. The trick is to choose the variation that best meets our intentions and abilities in the moment.
We gain the most benefit when we understand how to tailor poses to best fit our abilities, body types, and intentions rather than trying to make our bodies fit the shape of a pose.
For example, ardha chandrasana or half moon is a challenging pose that requires strength and stability for even the most experienced yoga practitioner. For that reason, it might not even be offered in some classes. Here are three variations that make this pose accessible to most people. Even if you practice half moon in the typical form, performing the pose using one of these variations could allow you to more fully experience its benefits.
Chair version 1—Place your lower hand on the seat of a firm chair. Your upper hand rests on the backrest of the chair. By decreasing the balance requirements, a student can focus more specifically on strengthening the legs, particularly the outer hip of the raised leg. In addition, the upper arm can assist to open more fully in the trunk.
Chair version 2—Place your lower hand on the seat of a firm chair. Lift your upper arm toward the sky. This variation is similar to chair variation 1 but adds a challenge to your balance but not as much as if you didn’t have the chair for support.
Wall variation—Use a chair or blocks under your lower hand with your back against a wall. The wall provides support and confidence to deeply experience the pose.
Chair version 1
Chair version 2
Yoga instructors, health care and wellness practitioners, fitness trainers, and athletes speak about core strength. But what does core strength really mean and why is it so important?
When we talk about core strength, we mean strength in the musculature of the torso of the body. I like to think of the core like a canister with a top, bottom, front, back and sides. Most commonly, when we think of the core, we think of the front of the container or our abdominal muscles. However, our back muscles, pelvic floor muscles, and diaphragm also play a role. The respiratory diaphragm bisects our trunk like an umbrella that attaches along the bottom of the ribcage. The pelvic floor muscles line the bowl of the pelvis. These provide structure to the top and bottom of the canister. Imagine a balloon like the ones used to twist into animal shapes. If you press into one area of the balloon, another area bulges out. All core muscles need to have a balance of strength and flexibility to work optimally and provide structure to our bodies.
When we sit and stand, a strong core helps to maintain natural spinal curves, good posture, and balance. When we move, a strong core provides a stable foundation to keep us centered, prevent falls, and prevent injuries to our spines, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Activities like gardening, household tasks, cooking, hiking, woodworking, golfing, playing sports, you name it---all require core strength.
How can we build and maintain a healthy core?
Core muscles work in unison and are postural muscles that are meant to work without conscious thought. The best way to strengthen them and encourage our bodies to activate them properly is by using these muscles during yoga and other movement practices. Cues to engage your belly, lengthen your spine, lift up on your pelvic floor, knit your belly in, and utilize ujjayi breath are examples of cues meant to encourage core engagement. With practice, you will find that this engagement carries into time off the mat as well. Tadasana, the foundation of many yoga poses, is a great and simple way to practice core engagement. Translating the core engagement that you experience in tadasana to other poses and daily activities, can help build a healthier core, prevent pain and injury, and promote optimal function.
Tadasana or Mountain Pose (also called Samasthiti or standing still pose)
An important note: Although typically described in standing, sitting tadansana can be an important part of practice as well and reminds our bodies to keep natural spine curves in sitting. Follow the same cues except center your upper body over your pelvis, rather than your feet, so that you feel the weight resting on your two sitting bones (not your tailbone). Moving your belly button forward and back until you feel centered is a good way to find proper alignment.