Bringing Personal Wisdom into Yoga Practice

The picture above this article may look pretty, but what is happening in the inside of my body in that photo is anything but. I’ve changed and grown a lot since that photo and I am better for it. Here’s what happened and why you may want to learn about yourself, too.

I remember asking my teacher about the alignment I was being asked to maintain to get into Urdhva Danurasana (Wheel pose). My intuition was screaming that it wasn’t right for my shoulders to do what I was being asked to do, and my shoulder would pop and click as I entered the pose, each and every time. She assured me that my shoulders just needed opening because they were gymnast shoulders, and they needed to be adapted to a yoga practice. If I was dedicated and committed to the work, then it would come naturally to me one day.

In retrospect, the whole exchange makes me giggle. There is no such thing as a gymnast shoulder versus a yoga shoulder. A shoulder is a shoulder, and the only variations are in the individual body as compared to the task at hand, and each individual is different. Different life experiences, different strengths, different vulnerabilities, and different structure. That’s common sense—we all know we’re unique. How could I forget that?

How could I have checked my intuition and body awareness at the door, surrendering my intuitive self-knowledge with it? Well, I did it for many reasons, but the big, glaring one is that I bought into the idea that there was a way for my body to do what it was being asked to do. I believed that if I worked hard enough, was perfect enough, then at the end of all of that effort, perhaps I would find some ease in my body and some peace in my mind.

I was looking for a way to deal with my mind and all its struggles. That’s what brought me to yoga and, in that seeking state, I forgot that I am unique. I forgot that I already have the answers. I forgot that I am my own best teacher so long as I trust myself and make skillful and personal choices. The only thing I needed in order to bring peace to my mind was the acceptance of my already existing perfection as a person, composed of things that are both shadow and light—I just needed that reminder.

Because of my gymnastics background, I bought into the alignment model and the external visual positioning of the poses as important. I learned to teach that way as well. I was heavily invested in learning anatomy and mechanics, but I failed to remember that my students were individuals, too, and that my job was to facilitate a space in which they could make choices through personal experience, allowing them the personal responsibility to choose what was wise for them no matter how unique that choice was in comparison with everyone else.

I was excellent at progressing most people in poses. I excelled at getting the room to look just right. I was known for my ability to articulate the how-to’s of alignment. My students, for the most part, were the picture of yoga pose perfection. To the viewers’ eyes, the classes looked like a yoga video shoot—well, except for the few people who couldn’t do what I had asked, but I rested in the assurance that, with hard work, they’d get there, too.

Then, the day came when all of the intuitive warning signs that I’d ignored and allowed to accumulate came calling. I did Happy Baby, jammed my knees to the ground and dropped my tailbone as I’d been taught to, flipped over to Child’s pose and then entered Downward Dog and could no longer straighten my knees. Searing pain shot down my left leg and up to the back of my head. Within minutes, I left class in tears.

What followed were three debilitating months of nerve pain, two relapses, and three years of deconstructing everything I’d believed so that I could build it all up again in a better way.

I had to learn about hypermobility, functional range of motion, the imbalances in my body, how I related to the shapes in classes, and—the biggest lesson—how I related to the alignment and the cues I was being asked to follow. I learned that I didn’t fit in the box I was trying to shove myself into. In fact, no one did—not a single one of my students.

I learned what it was like to be the student in the room who can’t do what’s being asked of them, who can’t make it look like the picture, and, most importantly, what it is like to be in a class where there’s no alternatives given to what the rest of the group is doing. I learned what it was like to be the odd person out, and I learned how alone that made me feel.

I vowed and continue to vow to ensure that my students didn’t have to experience the injuries and isolation that I encountered. I have made a promise to teach differently and to accommodate for all body types, all abilities and vulnerabilities. I choose to teach in a way that allows each individual to visit the deepest layers of their experience and individuality, and to explore their bodies and minds in a personal and profound way. What makes teaching in this new way so incredibly worth it to me are the moments of self-acceptance that the students and teachers come to.

It starts with looking at the philosophy and history of yoga, because context is everything. If we’re going to practice yoga, then we need to talk about yoga as a philosophy. Through group discussion, activities and exercises, we explore what a yoga practice is and what it’s meant to illuminate, making the esoteric philosophy something that is tangible and applicable through personal experience.

We then move to the body, and discuss nervous system states, hypermobility, and each body’s unique structural tension/postural line and skeletal positioning. After we’ve covered the deepest layer, we begin to work outward, learning the functional range of motion in every joint region of the body. That functional range is then compared to each student’s personal range of motion, which always leads to lightbulb moments that I just love. We redraft the poses that are commonly taught in classes to fit within people’s functional range, and we toss the ones that aren’t working for people and create alternatives that serve the same purpose.

It becomes apparent why certain things that students have been attempting just aren’t meant for them, and now they know why and can adjust themselves safely and appropriately in classes. Teachers can also help their students make better choices when they have this information. What’s amazing is that every single body can do things that can make others oooohhhh and ahhhhh, and every single body is also limited in some way, which levels the playing field and allows everyone to see that we are all unique and perfect just as we are. When students see that about themselves and others, there’s an acceptance that I’ve seen happen that is absolutely breathtaking.

The discoveries students make about their bodies and minds and the potential longevity these realizations allow for in their practice make me so happy each and every time. The students deserve to know how amazing they are for all that they can do, and for all that isn’t meant for them, and their grace in accepting that.

You’re unique, and what if there wasn’t anything about you that needed fixing except for the thought that somehow changing something would make you more perfect than you already are. What if it was all worth keeping, just as it is? This is my hope for all of my students.

Find out about upcoming programs with Alexandria Crow at Kripalu.

This article was originally published on Alexandria's website,