Back to the sixth episode “Light on the Philosophy of Yoga” with an insight into the Functional Approach and Anatomy in Yin Yoga. This teaching is offered by Sebastian Pucelle and Murielle Burellier of With Yin Yoga.
WHO ARE SEBASTIAN AND MURIELLE ?
They are the founders of the school With Yin Yoga. They have been teaching and specializing in Yin Yoga since 2011. Sebastian and Murielle teach internationally.
Sebastian and Murielle support their teaching with reliable references in modern scienceInvolved in yoga since the early 90’s and trained by the founders of Yin Yoga, Sebastian and Murielle continue to study with Paul and Suzee Grilley who highly recommend their approach to teaching.
The functional anatomical approach fits perfectly with Yin Yoga. Yin Yoga is a recent activity but has its roots in ancient Taoist and Hindu traditions. You can read the first Yogom article about a teaching by Murielle and Sebastian dedicated to the history and principles of Yin Yoga.
Yogom has also created a complete guide to Yin Yoga .
The functional approach is the opposite of an aesthetic approach.
In fact, in the types of postural yoga, all of which come from Hatha Yoga, and therefore in which asanas (stable and comfortable postures) are practiced, there are two main trends:
A current that is based on the rule of alignment and aesthetics, and a current that is not concerned with the form of the postures nor its aesthetics.
A yoga called functional is more interested in the feeling in the pose than its aestheticism.
This is what opposes these two great currents:
- The first asks, “What do I feel in the pose?”
- While the second asks: “How do I look in the pose? Am I aligned? Does the form of the asana do justice to a standard?”
The functional approach is a form of introspection by its nature, since it asks the question of how one feels in a posture.
While the aesthetic approach is a form of extrospectionsince it asks the question “How do I look? but in this case it is an external look that gives us a feedback.
For Murielle and Sebastian of With Yin Yoga, an aesthetic method, based on the asana form, is becoming obsolete. When we start studying anatomy, we realize a key concept that are skeletal variations. This notion is not compatible with the rules of asana alignment.
The notion of skeletal variations in Yin Yoga
Skeletal variations emphasize that our body is unique in every wayand this in a genetic. Our skeleton is unique and unique to us. We inherit the skeleton of our parents in particular.
Thus, the morphologies are completely different on the one hand, but also the insertions, origins and attachments of the musculature are different from one person to another.
The concept of anatomical variations in Yin Yoga
We realized that in the skeletal variations, there are also anatomical variations: some people have more muscles than others. For example, some people have a large psoas and a small psoas, and others have only a large psoas.
Everything in us is unique: our fingerprint, the iris of our eyes, our teeth. Everything tells us that everyone has been built with their own genetic heritage. When we study the anatomy closely, despite our morphological similarities (four limbs, a head…) we realize its uniqueness.
The alignment rule
The aesthetic approach based on alignment is wrong, according to Sebastian and Murielle, IF it is based on a standard.
In these currents, it is assumed that there is only one standard pose, and that until we fit into this model, we are not doing justice to the asana. All the yogi’s work in this case is then to get closer to the standard using straps, bricks, chairs or other tools.
One of the main postulates of alignment is that it helps to circulate Prana (vital energy). It is even said that it will align the anatomical, physiological, energetic, psycho-mental and even intellectual or spiritual system through alignment. According to Murielle and Sebastian, in most cases, this does not work.
The functional approach thus overturns the notion of standard alignment, the one that gives a single installation model as universal.
Sebastian points out that individual adjustment is useful when it is achieved through communication and is not imposed.
But this is not the case when it is generalized to an entire course. According to Murielle and Sebastian, this can even be dangerous for some people. The alignment is supposed to avoid the risk of injury, but this would only be true if it was adapted to the anatomical subjectivity of the person.
Three cycles of change
Skeletal variations teach us that we inherit the genetic heritage of our parents and grandparents.
This skeleton undergoes three major cycles of change: from 0 to 7 years, from 7 to 14 years, and from 14 to 21 years. It is said that at 21 years old, one reaches adulthood. At this age, the bones calcify, we will keep the shape of our skeleton. The first three major cycles are major cycles of change, but after 21 years, change is extremely slow.
Limitation in the range of movement
This is important because we realize that very few people start yoga before the age of 21. However, it is possible to change your skeleton depending on the physical activity you do during the first two major cycles (from 0 to 14 years).
This is the case for people who start dancing, figure skating, gymnastics or martial arts at a very young age. Indeed, these are intense practices, which impose stretching on the skeleton. At this age, we can modify the innate (genetic inheritance) by the acquired (our physical activity).
From the age of 14 it becomes increasingly difficult to modify the skeleton and it becomes almost impossible after the age of 21. The only thing that continues to change as we age are the cartilages in our hands, feet, nose and ears.
So if you start yoga after the age of 21, you have very little chance of changing your skeleton. This means that we will be limited in our range of motion and amplitude. The limitation will not only be due to muscle tension or strength but also to bone compression.
Bone compression is determined by the morphology of the skeleton.
No trace in the traditional writings
If we study the traditional writings around yoga, going back to the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Vedanta, the Mahâbhârata, the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, the Yoga sūtra of Patanjali… and especially the Hatha Yoga pradipika (from the 15th century) which is the traditional book on Hatha Yoga.
In all these texts, according to Sebastian, there is no mention of any notion of alignment.
So for millennia of practice, there is no notion of alignment. Indeed, this one is modern and everyone has adopted it without question.
A recent concept
The concept of alignment appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga had three great students: T.K.V Desikachar, Pattabhi Jois and B.K.S. Iyengar. The latter three have developed three different schools. We know Pattabhi Jois for Ashtanga, T.K.V Desikachar for a more traditional therapeutic yoga and B.K.S. Iyengar for a yoga that is more based on an iron discipline and an anatomical understanding. These last three were very successful and it was a time when yoga was spreading around the world.
That’s when the lineup came in. Before that, yoga was practiced by only a few people. Even in India where yoga is taught in school, but where true yogis are supposed to withdraw from the world and have a spiritual approach. At that time, the industrial world was developing and so was the consumer society, which made yoga subversive.
Yoga began to be known in the West, and began to find success there. That’s when we started to do trainings for yoga teachers, and some of them started to make a living from it.
Standardization of yoga
From that moment on, there was an economic interest, and people started to commercial approach to yoga.. The question then arose as to how to teach groups.
Until then, the tradition was that yoga was taught from master to student, generally with one master for one, two or even three students. The teaching was individualized.
But in the 70’s yoga was standardized to fit the society as it was. Large yoga schools such as Yogaworks in Los Angeles, in the late 70’s began to write manuals on asana patterns. However, the approach was to spread yoga to a wider public, and in a quick way. The individual therefore takes a back seat and we are only interested in the group.
Yoga has become somewhat of a victim of its own success. It has gradually become a global and fashionable phenomenon. This is how the alignment rules were created, which thus have their origins in a commercial approach.
The concept of compression points in Yin Yoga
Sebastian shows us anatomical pictures of the skeleton, but they are not similar to the anatomical plates that can be found in an anatomical atlas. In an anatomical atlas, the drawings show us a perfect symmetry of the skeleton, and make us think that this form is universal.
The reality is completely different: Sebastian shows us a picture of two real ponds. On one of the pelvises, we observe what is called the coxofemoral joint. We can see that this one is much more in the front unlike the other basin. On this second one, there is even no coxo-femoral joint: it is not seen from an anterior view because it is further back.
This difference totally changes the way we can do an abduction of the legs, like a splits for example.
The person who would have the coxo-femoral joint further forward will be stuck at some point when they open their leg outward. This is because the head of the femur, in the joint, will at some point meet the wall of the acetabular fossa: this is called a compression point.
As for the other person, who has the acetabular fossa more towards the back, he will have much more amplitude when he spreads his legs to make a large gap. Indeed, this one has no restriction in the movements. So this person has the potential to make a big splash.
We are talking about potential, because before touching the compression point on the bones, it is necessary to work on the muscle tension.
Two forms of movement restriction
There are two forms of restriction in our movements:
- Muscular tension is inherent in the body: The promise of yoga is to work on this tension through stretching and asanas that allow the muscle to become more flexible and lengthen its fiber. This reduces muscular tension, and if you exercise regularly, it disappears. To know which tensions keep coming back: if we stop the routine, the body will shorten by a mechanism of shortening of the tissues which is intrinsic to the body. Only a regular session does not give this shrinking mechanism back into the body. This tension is due to the musculature and the connective membranes.
- Bone compression. This one will restrict us once we have virtually evacuated the muscular tension, this is what remains. This tension is due to the shape of our bones. However, the shape of the bones is different from one person to another.
Let’s say the two people whose pools we saw start yoga at the same time. After three years, the person who has the acetabular fossa more forward will be stuck in his gesture. Indeed, his ultimate restriction will be bone compression which will happen much faster than the other person who has much more potential. This person will be able to progress and go even further in the gesture.
It has nothing to do with the intensity of the sessionAfter a while, when you get rid of the muscular tension, you will reach a point where you cannot go any further in the movement. Because when the bones are in contact, you can’t go any further. This is true for all joints, especially those of the hips and spine. Each joint has a compression point.
The alignment of two different morphologies is impossible in the same way
Sebastian presents us with another example of skeletal variations: this time it is two femurs.
We will focus on the neck and head of the femur. On the picture, the femurs are posed in the same way but there is a huge difference. These two femurs have a 30° difference in orientation. The head of the femur engages in the acetabular fossa. There are therefore only two parameters of skeletal variations at hip height: the orientation of the acetabular fossa (towards the ground, towards the side, towards the front) and the location of the acetabular fossa (more towards the front, more towards the side…).
It is impossible to line up the two people in the example in the same way. And if you can do that, these two people will not feel the same way. One will feel extreme discomfort, and the other will feel almost nothing.
If the role of the alignment is to help the body to circulate Prana, this will be true for the person who is comfortable. For the other, the compression will be much too strong and it will disturb the natural flow of Prana in the nadis.
Skeletal variations within the same body
There are skeletal variations within the same person, between the right and left sides.
Moreover, Sebastian specifies that the symmetry of the body does not exist. A person is never symmetrical, even when working an area to achieve symmetry. We all have one leg that is slightly shorter than the other for example. This means that the level of the pelvis will tilt a little more than the other one and therefore we have a shoulder lower than the other one and so on.
For the asymmetry of the bodies is not seen on the youngest?
This is due to the quality of the connective tissues. One of their functions is to connect one part of the body mechanically to another. These are the fascia, ligaments, synovial joint capsule and cartilage. It is these connective compositions that will compensate for the asymmetry. When we are young, these tissues are very elastic, due to an important supply of water and blood.
As we age, we lose our ability to retain water in our tissues. The young tissues are well soaked in fluids, which allows them to compensate for the asymmetry. This can be seen as we start to age: the asymmetry intensifies.
Indeed, what makes a fabric more flexible and adaptable to stress is the liquid that flows through it. A baby is almost 80% water at the molecular level. An adult comes in at 70% and an elderly person at 60%. This is due to the hyaluronic acid that attracts and retains water in the tissue.
Maintain our connective tissue
Nevertheless, it is possible, especially with a regular yoga session, to maintain our connective tissue to avoid worsening the asymmetry.
This will be true especially if passive traction is applied to the connective tissue. Why passive? Because from the moment there is a muscular contraction, the joint is closed and thus we have more access to the connective tissue.
We have seen that this one is the opposite of the aestheticism, of the form.
The position of the feet and hands
The least important thing in Yin Yoga, according to Sebastian, is the way we put our feet and hands. This is subjective to each and every skeleton.
Forcing people to fit into a standard that they are genetically and anatomically unable to do will not facilitate the flow of energy in the body, on the contrary.
For example, in the head down dog position, some people will need to open their elbows outward to release the compression at the shoulder and have a greater range of motion for example. But if a teacher forces that person to bring the elbows in, the person will have to bend the knees because the forced compression will have to be expressed somewhere else in the limbs. Compression in the body is bound to be expressed in one place if we try to correct it.
The axis and the basin
The most important thing in yoga, according to With Yin Yoga, is the axis and the pelvis.
Everything starts from the axis: when we study embryology, we notice that a fetus is formed by a trunk and buds (which are our limbs). The way in which the bones of the fetus grow is through a mobility of spirals. This gesture is the one that opposes the least resistance in space Everything natural has a cyclical forward spiral (flowers, stars). The body therefore grows in a spiral, which is why there are so many differences in the skeleton.
Forcing people into movements they cannot perform can turn them off of the practice. Yoga teachers often have the best of intentions, but these are based on their own subjectivity: “If I can do it, so can you. The teacher may also think that his or her feeling in the postures is the same as that of his or her students in the same postures.
The functional approach replaces alignment with what are called target areas. This is what makes an asana “functional”. In this case, the anatomical function of a posture is to define the muscle group that will be used.
Paul Grilley, Murielle and Sebastian’s teacher and anatomy expert, has defined ten myofascial groups (muscle groups). Five of these groups are located at the top of the body from the torso, and five are located at the bottom from the pelvis.
Five lower body groups:
- The quadriceps
- The hamstrings
- The adductors
- Hip flexors
These groups can be targeted through the asanas. For example, if you want to target the quadriceps you can do the saddle position. If you want to target the hamstrings you can target the position of the track. For the buttocks, it will be the lace position. Concerning the adductors we can do the dragonfly position. To focus on the hip flexors we can practice the dragon position.
Each position will solicit a specific muscle group: this is the true function of the asana.
Five upper body groups:
- The rectus abdominis (which can be stretched by extension movements)
- The obliques that can be stretched by rotation and lateral flexion movements)
- The quadratus lumborum (which is a specific muscle) can be stretched by forward flexion with slight lateral mobility, as well as by rotation and lateral flexion movements.
- The erectors of the spine (which are long muscles along the spine). They can be solicited by a forward bend.
- The upper muscle group (consists of 19 muscles that move mainly the arms and shoulder blades). The largest are the rectus abdominis, pectoralis major, trapezius, etc.
A liberating approach
Thus, there is no need for alignment as long as we know why we are doing the asana. The angle doesn’t matter, it’s the personal experience that counts. What is interesting is what it feels like to hold the position.
This approach is very liberating because it invites us to rediscover our ability to connect with the body. Moreover, it will emancipate us from an external instruction to be followed mechanically. This approach emphasizes personal choice and inner communication. It puts the uniqueness of our carnal envelope at the center of the asana. Thus, it is yoga that adapts to us and not the other way around.
Yoga mainly seeks two things according to Sebastian: truth and liberation. For him, closing oneself in a fixed dogma does not allow in any case to reach these objectives.
Sebastian concludes by saying that he believes that all forms of yoga are good, but that it depends mostly on the relationship you have with your body and the teaching that is given.