When I first learned about Skeletal Variation from Bernie Clark in 2012, I was appalled at how I had been previously cueing poses in my public yoga classes. It took another 4 years to integrate and change how I approach Postural Assists, Cueing Language and How to teach new teachers the implications of Skeletal Variation whilst helping them learn how to cue postures.
So, what is Skeletal Variation?
Photo from yintherapy.com
It is the understanding that we are each unique, both in the length of our bones and the “fit” and shape of our joints. It means that some of us will never be able to do circus style backbends because the shape and space between our vertebral bones will stop us, not our lack of flexibility.
Now there are a lot of implications to consider due to the understanding of skeletal variation. For instance, how do we explain to a class of 40 students that they need to find their correct alignment by feeling? Previously, a cue like, “bring your knee directly over your ankle” in a lunge was standard cueing practice. What if turning your knee joint out a little is better for certain students natural bone structure? And then, we all have poor postural habits, so is the student being served by what feels better or is their skeletal alignment being served? And how is a teacher to figure that out without doing an assessment? And how do teachers help students to figure that out? We will answer this in a moment.
Another area that can be problematic is Assisting. If you visually look at a students posture and decide where you think it should be, you can shift it and then find out that they have back pain in the posture you’ve put them in. Was the “assist” correct for them? How do we figure out what is a good, healthy “opening” and what is an unhealthy stress on an unstable joint?
Paul Grilley, Yin yoga founder first introduced the idea of Skeletal Variation into the Yoga Teaching Community. And he explains the tension-compression theory to help us figure out if the restriction we feel is a result of our bones compressing – that is, the bones are as close together as physically possible or if it is a result of fascial tension- that is, the flexibility or the range of motion of the tissue.
If a student finds compression, it means that the bones have gone as close together as they can thereby informing the student that that is their maximum capability for life. If however, the student feels tension, it means that the myo-fascia can “lengthen” further. Understanding where one feels tension and compression will help you determine what is going on, whether the pose is beneficial or not.
For example, if you are in a seated wide-legged forward fold and you feel pain or discomfort in the inner thighs, chances are you are experiencing tension. But if in the same pose, you feel pain in the outer hips, chances are you may be experiencing compression.
What do we do now and what does this all mean?
We cannot be dogmatic and use universal alignment cues! Not even for Mountain pose/ Tadasana because everyone’s “neutral” is different. Some peoples posture looks incorrect but you cannot know that unless you can see the shape of their bones.
We are that Unique.
Our bones grow in spirals and in standing how the head of our femur/thigh bone is shaped will inform how our hips, knees and, feet will stand with the least amount of effort. Our fascia is so intelligent it will find the most efficient posture to support the shape and fit of our bones. However, the fascia can change over time if you have repetitive movement such as craning your neck to work on a computer or your phone. Your fascia will re-organize to use the least amount of effort. So what standardized healthy habits can we create in group movement classes for the individual?
A Note on Awareness & Understanding
Realizing that after puberty, our bones cannot get longer, we can accept the end-point capability of our bodies. Our myo-fascia (muscles) cannot lengthen further than the length of our bones. We don’t have to feel bad about not constantly “progressing” or not being “flexible enough.”
Skeletal variation allows us to find acceptance. It’s the Acceptance that we are all different. Unique. And looking at a posture from the outside is not serving our students. We must educate students to feel from the inside if the pose alignment is right for them. We need to find some standard cues for our public classes that are fluid, flexible and take different skeletons into account. In my experience, cueing from the joint can be useful, and not being rigid about alignment can help. Also, I ask the student after I’ve adjusted them, how does that feel? Or where do you feel it? This gives me a feedback loop to understand their skeleton and/or mindset better.