Your Body is Not Perfectly Symmetrical. Neither Is Your Yoga Practice.
This article originally appeared on Yoga Journal
It was during a recent eyebrow threading session that I finally understood something about my body that had been bothering me since I began to practice yoga. As I stressed out to my esthetician over a rogue portion of my eyebrow that would not match the other side, she blurted out, "Our two sides are like sisters. Not twins."
That single sentence changed everything for me.
In the early years of my practice, I was convinced that the goal of yoga was to be entirely symmetrical on our right and left sides. I thought there was something wrong with me when a pose felt different on one side than it did on the other. I constantly worried that my body was "broken" or that I was hopelessly misaligned.
I remember waiting after class one night to ask my teacher to check on my Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose) because of how disparate my sides were, although I chicken out at the last minute. I couldn't understand why I would almost fall asleep when I was folding forward over my right leg, it was so comfortable. But on my left side, I could hardly bend forward at all let alone get comfortable. It felt like someone was sucker punching me in my hip.
I became infatuated with symmetry. If a teacher forgot to cue a pose on the second side, I would sneak it in when they weren’t looking or linger after class and take the pose. I also started to obsess about ensuring I alternated which hand was on top when I interlaced my fingers behind my back or which leg was on top in Padmasana (Lotus Pose).
When I started teaching in 2008, I realized how different we are not only from person to person, but from side to side. As I learned to look at my students' bodies for safe alignment, I couldn't unsee everyone's differences--including my own. Everyone had something that appeared differently on one side than the other.
So when she made that comment about our sides being sisters rather than twins, everything clicked. Maybe our rights and lefts aren't meant to be exact replicas of one another.
Are Humans Meant To Be Symmetrical?
"In the grand scheme of things, we likely won’t be perfectly symmetrical," says board-certified physical therapist Dr. Leada Malek. "Although most people have the same amount of muscles on each side of their body, the number of muscle fibers may vary and even bone shapes may vary."
This is why leg length discrepancies are incredibly common, with one recent study estimating that 90% of the population has one. Or why Yin Yoga teacher Paul Grilley is so adamant about educating teachers and students alike on the diverse shapes of our femur bones and their corresponding hip sockets and how that dramatically affects our hip mobility, especially in poses like Garudasana (Eagle Pose)
Instead of focusing on trying to get our two sides perfectly even, says Dr. Malek, we should acknowledge how disparate our two sides really are. These differences are only problematic and need addressing if they cause pain or inhibit functionality and movement.
Embracing Our Asymmetry
Yoga teacher Andrew Pyo believes that focusing on symmetry can perpetuate tendencies within us that are antithetical to the deeper intentions we are trying to bring to yoga asana (postures). "Without a sense of detachment from the outcome, the idea of symmetry may foster an unhealthy obsession towards perfectionism, leading us to feel 'less than,'" says Pyo, who teaches a popular Iyengar-influenced flow class at The Well in New York City. "This can potentially become an obstacle to deeper observation and learning about ourselves," he says.
These days, I continue to work on my non-dominant side, but rather than trying to make it perfectly match its sibling side, I have come to accept that things will always be a little different on my left than my right. Sometimes it's weaker, like when I'm practicing Vasisthasana (Side Plank). Other times, like when I'm in Pigeon, it's tighter. All of it is okay and normal.
I still work to make my asymmetries less glaring, but I understand that the path is not to try to do every pose the same way or hold it the same length of time. In fact, when I began to honor the differences between my right and left was when they began to be more closely aligned.
And I remind myself that there are actually a lot of cool things my left side does that my right does not, like carry my kids constantly so my right hand is free to accomplish everything that needs to happen in a day.
Our differences are also what makes us uniquely us, says Pyo. "(Asymmetries) are little pieces that contribute to our individuality. What’s important during yoga asana is to notice and observe our habits and imbalances, which ultimately help to inform and reveal who we are,” he says.
4 Ways to Honor Your Body's Asymmetries
Here are several things you can start doing in your yoga practice to honor your asymmetries (and potentially make yourself more symmetrical in the long run):
1. Stay in a Pose for Different Lengths of Time on Each Side
We can get so caught up in making things "even" by ensuring we remain in a pose the exact same length of time on each side, we might actually perpetuate our asymmetries. Consider tailoring your holds to what each side of your body needs.
For example, stay in a standing pose, such as Virabhadrasana 2 (Warrior 2 Pose), a little longer on your left side if you need to build more strength in that leg. Or linger in Pigeon Pose on whichever side needs a little more stretching.
2. Practice Poses on Your Left Side First
Do you always lift your right leg first in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and start your standing poses on that side? Try your left side instead. Even rolling onto your left after Savasana at the end of practice can be a way to change things up--and not just physically. Energetically, the left side of the body is associated with the ida nadi, which is our energy channel associated with the yin-like, feminine characteristics in each of us.
One way to do this is to practice Chandra Namaskara (Moon Salutations). Unlike traditional Sun Salutations, which ask you to step back to Plank or jump back to Chaturanga, this sequence incorporates Low Lunges, where you step your right leg back first, meaning your left leg is the first side you work on.
3. Change Your Alignment to Honor that Side's Differences
I spent years trying to get my thighs the same level in my Warrior poses and my shoulders equally as open in asymmetrical backbends, like Ardha Dhanurasana (Half Bow Pose), in which you bend only one ankle at a time. What would often happen as a result is my differences would become even more pronounced and my weaker or tighter side was perpetually playing catch up. Now, I pull back on my stronger or more open side just as much, if not more, than I spend time on my less-dominant side.
For example, in Virabhradrasana I (Warrior 1), I've begun to shorten my stance on my right side, but lengthen it on my left to help accommodate psoas tightness differences.
4. Work the Entire Mat
A way to embrace your imbalances is to explore your different sides. Rather than always facing the front of the mat, turn your body (or your students' bodies) to face the back once in a while. Pyo uses this sequencing tactic to avoid linking multiple standing poses together on a single side, which he refers to as "hip loading" and can lead to fatigue.
He recommends practicing one pose on one leg facing the front of the mat and then turning around and doing an entirely different pose with your opposite leg forward. For example, he might take students from Warrior 1 on the right leg facing the front of the mat to Warrior 2 with the left leg forward facing the back of the mat, then back to the front for Warrior 3 standing on the right leg to Triangle with the left leg forward facing the back. With this approach, he finds it easier to ensure that students are holding poses evenly on both sides.
RELATED: How to Create a Mandala Yoga Sequence (To Take You From the Front to the Back of the Mat)
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