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May 2, 2024

Do You “Need” the Poses You Avoid the Most?

Yoga teacher gently encouraging a student to enter into an arm balance

This post may very well become part of a series. The theme of the series would be “things we heard in yoga that we took as factual, but no longer believe to be true.” Today let’s examine the phrase:

“The yoga pose you avoid the most, you need the most.”

This phrase offers terrible advice. 

And yet, the idea has circulated in the world of yoga for at least the three plus decades I’ve been practicing. I was reminded of the concept thanks to an Instagram post that quoted it recently, and a flood of thoughts poured through. Allow me to share here.

The phrase assumes the speaker (the yoga teacher) has some wisdom greater than the practitioner’s body, it overrides the unique needs of an individual, it elevates shapes (asana) over other limbs of yoga, and it segregates asana from the other limbs. 

Plus, the concept is ableist:

a·ble·ism

/ˈābəˌliz(ə)m/

noun: ableism; noun: ablism

  1. discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.”a person with a disability can struggle with ableism”
Definition from Oxford Languages

I’ll break down all of the invisible, negative facets of this concept, but first, let’s talk about what it possibly might get right.

The Truth

The idea that we avoid what we need most (specifically in asana) is commonplace enough in the yoga teaching world that it is likely also a phrase that *I* thought true or have said myself in my early years of teaching. 

So let’s first look at what threads of truth might be within. 

Avoidance. You can’t avoid it. 

It might be true that some yoga practitioners avoid poses that could benefit them.

For example, handstand and arm balances are scary for many. That fear may be partially unfounded (simply scary because the orientation of your eyes and body is so different) or completely logical based on an honest self assessment (awareness of an unstable shoulder, for example). It depends. 

If one has the basic physical capacity for handstand and safety measures in place, facing the fear of handstand by practicing might inspire a practitioner to face fear in general. 

It could inspire someone to take action in other areas of life where they have been avoidant. (I have experienced this). There is a parallel concept in psychotherapy and neurobiology called “Exposure therapy” which gradually exposes patients who have PTSD, phobias or other challenging mental aversions to the thing that they avoid (1). And it works!

But as you can imagine, therapists working with the concepts of exposure therapy have a few thousand more hours of evidence-based training and licensure, and typically only work one on one with people, unlike most yoga teachers and settings.

So, potential new life vibes unlocked. However, this is a big “IF”, dependent upon a physical action then transferring to other, less tangible areas of life, and not experiencing the reverse, reinforcing consequences, if, for example, the student falls out of a pose.

Is the squeeze worth the juice?

Some poses are hard simply due to muscle demands. For example, one might avoid bending the knees deeply in chair pose because of the muscular effort. If your thighs are shaking, that can be uncomfortable despite being a safe, normal response to long muscular holds. 

Shaking — or regular old muscular effort — is not bad, but for many, it doesn’t feel good. 

Should yoga practitioners shift their perception and come to love muscular effort? That might be worthy.

But is that the point of practicing asana?  And why would a yoga teacher choose to teach that?

Pain / Injury / Skeletal limitations

Many yoga poses are, frankly, uncomfortable, or might hurt. 

Some people are naturally able to backbend or vice versa. Others are naturally able to do the splits. 

Others are naturally unable to touch their toes. 

We know that anatomic and physiologic variations exist human to human. Layer on top of that, injuries inevitably come with life. Between injury and natural limitations, it is only honest to admit that many yoga poses are never going to be easy, comfortable or tenable for many yoga practitioners

Yoga teachers will not always know if there is a physical limitation, nor will students. Yoga teachers simply do not have the physical examination skills, practice time or scope of practice to assess this for every student. 

Omniscience

How could a teacher know whether or not a pose is scary for a student, safe for a student, or if a student’s discomfort is due to their physical limitations vs. desire to avoid working hard?

They can’t.

With the possible exception of a private lesson in which students and instructors are in constant communication and some assessment time is built-in, the instructor would not know.

To pretend otherwise — and to say a phrase like “You need the pose you are avoiding” is to pretend that you, as instructor, have some omniscient knowing. Or an authoritative domain over the student’s psychology and biology. 

That is an arrogance. And playing omniscient guru in this way can lead to dangerous power dynamics. 

Override

Is it not mixed messaging to say a phrase like “Listen to your body” followed by “you need the pose you are avoiding”?

“Listen to your body”, although an imperfect cue, and often a verbal crutch on the part of an instructor, is intended to leave space for a student’s introspection and self awareness. 

If an instructor uses “Listen to your body”, then says something like “You are avoiding the pose you need the most”, they are contradicting themselves.

Ableism

One’s ability, or disability, is not always visible to the outside world. 

Pose hierarchies, and top down pose prescriptions, are particularly dismissive of the disabled — whether the teacher knows of the disability or not, whether the disability is visible or invisible.

Authoritative instructions can leave a trail of shame or feeling “not good enough” in students.

Elevates asana above other limbs of yoga

There are 8 limbs of yoga. Asana is just one of them. Other limbs, like the yamas and niyamas, include restraints like “non-harming” and observances like “self study”, “inner exploration”, “focused Concentration”, etc. 

By focusing on a pose that a student may be avoiding for any number of reasons, you ignore many of the philosophical tenants of of yoga, such as: 

  • Ahimsa, non-harming, may be broken when forced into a pose.
  • Svādhyāya, self study, which could also be interpreted as self awareness, is overridden with the idea that someone else knows what you need better than yourself.
  • Santosha, contentment, is impossible if always striving for the next thing, the next pose.

Yoga is a full package.

The philosophical tenants are not intended to be a build-your-own buffet, but integrated in to the physical practice. (And there are many incredible philosophy teachers who can speak to this more eloquently than me).

But the poses can, and should be chosen wisely. Students deserve input and occasional nudges and tremendous encouragement from teachers.

But the greatest teacher is the one within.  If you listen closely, you may unravel your own — very legitimate — answers about why you shy away from certain poses. In the process, you get to develop a greater respect for your own boundaries and needs.

That seems like an excellent yogic outcome.

References

  1. Hamlett GE, Foa EB, Brown LA. Exposure Therapy and Its Mechanisms. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2023;64:273-288. doi: 10.1007/7854_2023_428. PMID: 37532963.

2 Comments on “Do You “Need” the Poses You Avoid the Most?

Mark Holden
May 28, 2024 at 10:05 am

Fantastic article, really helpful. Underlines the fact that as teachers we are so influential and therefore we need to be very aware of our language and our cues and how our words are likely to be interpreted by our students.

Reply
Dr. Ariele Foster
May 28, 2024 at 12:11 pm

Thank you. That’s definitely the intended message!

Reply

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