Every time I start a class, regardless of whether the audience are my regular students, new students or any ratio of both, I always remind them of two things: 1) to engage the deep core alignment of the body and 2) to choose the modification that best suits them.
Let me explain the “core”.
The core of the body isn’t limited to the superficial or surface muscles of the abdomen. To go beyond and activate the deep core muscles, the ones closest to the skeleton, in yoga means the activation of the bandhas or locks which correspond to the muscles of:
Soles of the feet and ankles (Pada Bandha)
Depression of the palms and wrists (Hasta Bandha)
Perineum (Mula Bandha)
Solar Plexus (Uddiyana Bandha)
Around the neck (Jaladara Bandha)
Thinking of it anatomically, what we want to activate is what's called the Deep Front Line of the body; a collection of deep muscles and soft tissue that run deep in the body from the feet up to the tongue. You can watch an anatomy clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zK-MZ2fjXA
Activating these muscle groups not only strengthens and tones our muscles from the inside-out but also brings our joints into their natural alignments. This brings us into a deeper mindfulness of creating stability first, making our practice much safer to prevent and even correct injuries.
From this stable foundation, we can now build strength and flexibility from the inner body. But this is achieved over time and must not be forced, that’s why we modify. We come into and express yoga poses to the extent that our body, mind and emotions are prepared to give at any given time. As long as the bandhas are activated, we can pull back or move forward that sliding scale of modifications or expressions of any asana or yoga pose. If the body isn’t ready to go into the full expression of, let’s say…Trikonasana (Triangle Pose), it’s best to lift the torso higher and align/activate the deep core muscles rather than collapsing the torso down, hyperextending the knees and overly twisting the top arm just to satisfy our ego.
Force-fitting our body into what we think a pose should look like will only give us stress and injuries. This is not to say we shouldn’t challenge ourselves. By all means, find your edge and see if you can push it farther away, so there’s always a goal to achieve. But once the deep core activation starts disengaging, pare back the pose to the point where the deep core can be re-engaged; that then becomes your new edge. What’s more, you’ve fit the pose to you – what you need and what you can benefit from - not you to the pose.
Choosing to modify is also very psychologically and emotionally empowering. To know how your body is functioning - its capabilities and limits – opens the door to knowing how our non-physical aspects are faring. This connects us to a very deep, very present awareness of ourselves.
Without over-analysing, ask yourself:
What emotions come up when we challenge ourselves or pare it back?
What judgements or acceptance or analysing is happening in the mind?
Are we going deeper into the pose in response to a genuine challenge and courage or is it the ego?
Is it genuine self-knowledge and safety that keeps our poses shallow or is it fear?
Using the pared-back modifications in yoga helps replace the ego with the sense of being present in the moment; this can give a profound sense of peace within us. Then when we get to the deeper variations, there’s a sense of readiness and courage along with that peace.
So, when next you’re on your mat, modify and come into your asana (poses) gradually and deepen incrementally.
Presence over posturing – liberating for the mind, calming for the heart, safer for the body.