Bent or straight legs in downward dog, which is best?

My answer is: try it both ways, see how it feels for you. For some elements of yoga alignment I’m as fastidious as they come. Ask my students; they’ll tell you just how boring I am about where the front knee is in Warrior 2.

Elaine comes to my Thursday evening class and often mentions her tight hamstrings. I could see her last week looking uncomfortable in downward dog. Clearly straightening her legs and trying to get her heels back onto the mat. Somehow I could see the stress of this travelling all the way up the back of her body and limiting the movement in her shoulders.

I told her it was okay to bend her knees and not to worry about the perfect idea of downward dog with the legs straight and the heels on the mat as most of us don’t achieve this and it can be an unrealistic goal for many. As soon as the knees are bent, the hamstrings are released and so they can then often lengthen at their other end; where they attach to the pelvis. This can reduce strain in in the lower back, in short, making downward dog feel better and easier.

Hesitant at first, as she had been told by another teacher to have straight legs, Elaine tried it. Obviously different teachers have different cues and different beliefs about poses, so I advised her to try it both ways and take whichever felt more accessible for her, her shoulders more able to open, her lower back more released.

I’m not a huge fan of the yoga-pose-shoulds, instead into what feels good and right for each individual person. There’s nothing wrong with having a picture of where to aim in a particular pose, but to hold oneself in an uncomfortable version of a pose because it’s believed to be more accurate is a mistake in my opinion. Keep an open mind, take the adjustment, try a version of a pose that you never have before. You will often be pleasantly surprised.

 

What yoga does for me

I really needed my yoga practice on Sunday morning. I don’t know if it was a side effect of blubbing for most of Adele’s set at Glastonbury on BBC2 on Saturday night but I woke up emotionally frazzled. Nerves jangling; sore and vulnerable.

I knew I needed to do my yoga practice. I don’t need to tell anyone about the known physical benefits of yoga, commonly touted and discussed. What we think of as yoga in our western society actually is just the asana or the poses. In fact, that is only one branch of the eight limbs of yoga.

The longer I practice and the longer I teach the more I realise how far reaching a practice it has become for me. The easiest way that I can explain it is that it tethers me. When I’m feeling shaky and un-grounded, vulnerable and open, nerves on show, sensitive and at risk, yoga is my sanctuary.

I can’t even explain why it helps me in this way. I can’t tell you how it does what it does. I roll out my mat and I breathe and I do poses. I try poses that I can’t do. I feel frustrated. I do poses with ease that I couldn’t do in the past and I feel elated. I spend time with myself and somehow doing that goes around all of my tent pegs and taps them firmly into the ground, stopping my tarpaulin from blowing away in the breeze. I feel calm and whole and grounded again; stable and strong.

Why am I called the Unlikely Yogi?

There’s a lot of yogi stereotypes, especially in the age of the uber-celebrity yogis found on social media. Whether you believe that yogis or yoga teachers are kombucha-drinking, mala bead-wearing, om-chanting hippies or the skinny, leggy, jet-setting acrobats who publish their practice on Instagram every day, I am none of these things.

A few of the reasons I am an unlikely yogi is that I like wine and cocktails. Even bacon sometimes. And chips, definitely chips. I see 5am occasionally, but usually on the way home, not because I’m getting up to greet the sun.

Also I’m 41. I can’t get either one of my feet behind my head nor stand on my head long enough to take a selfie. I’m short and most definitely a little chubby.

I love yoga. I love my practice and now that I teach, I love that too. I start each day with a cup of hot water and lemon. I practice whenever I can and read endless books about yoga and yogic philosophy. I even dream about yoga sometimes. I work hard at my practice and at my classes, hoping to inspire others to commit to making yoga part of their own life and ultimately create their own practice. I meditate and I have a lots of crystals. I even chant OM sometimes, albeit extraordinarily out of tune.

But on balance, I still think I’m an Unlikely Yogi, but I hope that my clients find that my ordinariness makes yoga approachable and not unattainable.