Skeletal variation is a term popularized by Paul Grilley, the founder and developer of Yin Yoga.
It means that every single person has a unique bone and joint structure, which in turn, can make some yoga, poses easier and some poses more difficult than others depending on one’s unique structure. Some poses will be non-accessible to certain bodies regardless of how much yoga they do.
This does not mean we don’t try yoga, it means that some of us will find it easier.
Understanding our body’s limitations informs us of the endpoint of our flexibility.
When you understand how and where to sense the difference between bone-to-tissue (compression) versus the muscular resistance (tension), you will begin to know what the sensation in your body is revealing to you about your bone structure.
The million-dollar question here is:
How do you apply the concept of skeletal variation to yoga students during a public class especially, in terms of appropriate cues and assists?
For example, many teachers cue to: “Bring the knee over the second toe when in lunge and do not allow the knee to go further forward of the ankle”
This particular cue caused my knee to remain in pain (torsion) for long periods of time with a load. (Yes 20 breaths is a long time to be uncomfortable in your knee joint with weight bearing on it).
This cue does not take into account the variations of lateral and medial bone structure in the knees, pelvis and ankles. (Known as Valgus and Varus in the knees)
Although there are many reasons for the front knee turning in or out in a lunge, some of which can be corrected and some of which do not need to be corrected, I have finally discovered my alignment and it is not the generalized cue above. My bones naturally turn out at the knee joint (valgus) and my knee is happier and healthier when my foot is turned out, in a pronated position as well.
For some students, there could be tight or weak muscles and ligaments that prevent the knee from arriving “on top of the ankle”.
I have met many a yoga teacher who demanded that I press my knee directly over my foot even after I expressed it was painful for my knee.
*We cannot be too hard on yoga teachers because many have been given false confidence in cueing “correctly” by authoritative teachers rather than by someone who has trained in anatomy.
In fact, Yoga Alliance only requires 20 hours of anatomy in a 200-hour training. Realistically, that can only cover a basic overview and introduction of the body. It is a great task to integrate anatomical understanding into each pose. Physiotherapists spend five years training in physical therapy using many yoga poses.
To add to the mix, the old pulley systems model of anatomy is often being presented. New research on fascia is changing how we see movement in the body. To learn more about this go to (What is biotensegrity?)
Here’s the important thing to remember as a yoga teacher:
Every single person’s body is different
So we cannot look the same. It must be a felt sense in the body that is driving the depth of a pose.
So how do you find a universal cue to get into a pose for a class of 20 or 60 students?
Although there are benefits to modern yoga, creating a universal cue for something that is unique is one of the pitfalls of modern westernized yoga. The traditional yogic model was passing the teachings from teacher to student.
In western postural yoga, we have a list of universal cues that we learn from a 200 hour training or from teachers we’ve been to. However, until you understand how unique you are, your skeletal variations, you are bound to make mistakes unwittingly and with the best of intentions on students.
Generally, you are best to cue for a benefit you are trying to offer and be flexible and suggestive in your cueing. I often give two or three options in each pose. Always reminding the student to not go into a place of pain. (Leave that to the physiotherapists!)
~If you want to strengthen the quadriceps, giving the student the option to bring their knee forward of their ankle in lunge will target that strength development.
~If a student has knee problems- arthritis or weakness, giving them the old knee over the ankle cue will be sufficient.
As for assisting, many teachers still try to put a student into alignment based on how they “look” versus how they feel. Whenever I assist physically, it is gentle. And I ask; “How does this feel? Is there any sensation in your knee joint?”
You need to know the reason for certain postural conditions before you make suggestions to a student and this is a conversation. (Which can be hard to have in a public class). Is it compression? (your end range) Is it tension? (Muscular engagement that you can build?) Is a knee orientation originating from the person’s pelvis mobility? Does the student suffer with tight bum muscles?
Yes, even verbal assisting is a conversation (thank you Bernie Clark for teaching me this) not just in yin yoga but all physical yoga.
I spent five years dissecting the cues I had learned and practiced as a yoga teacher, determined to be mindful of what I was actually offering.
Skeletal variation and its implications is a teaching that I share in the 200 hour trainings now, so that the teachers going forward are informed, making yoga physically accessible and open to all types of bodies.
If you’ve been teaching for a while, do expect to go through the stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, acceptance. It is hard to do the personal work and let our old (comforting) models go.
I could write out cues here that would be mindful of skeletal variation however, it is an understanding that must be understood by knowing the possible variations for someone’s posture. You will come across the exception to all rules in anatomy.
As is often said in our 200-hour trainings, when you start teaching the real training begins!
To learn more about how to integrate skeletal variation into your yoga teaching, contact me for a private or come to training! Also check out Bernie Clark’s books such as “Your body, Your yoga”.
This is a secondary blog post to my first one on “The Impact of Skeletal Variation on standard cueing”