Accessibility in yoga is something that gets talked about a lot these days. Which is fantastic! There are many people who feel very intimidated to go to a yoga class; "I'm not flexible enough", "I will be the oldest person there", "I'm out of shape" as examples of some of the thoughts that might block a person from going to a studio, and that does not even include the many other factors that might create blockage; financial hardship, single parenting, and english as a second language to name but a few.
There are many layers and aspects to the accessibility conversation that I could delve into here, but I'm going to focus on the concept of Target Areas as we know them in Yin Yoga as an amazing example of how we offer this in class, and how on a physical level, it can open up a student to regions of their body that they may not ever have felt they could access before.
What is a Target Area?
Yes I should probably explain what this is first. In Yin Yoga, we use regions of the body as roadmaps of knowing what and where we might be likely to feel the broad stretching sensations of the posture. I say "might be likely" because we also acknowledge that not everybody will feel it in exactly the same place and exactly the same way. This helps us to move away from the paradigm of measuring our experience up against the "shoulds" given in a class about what the shape looks like: "The front shin should be parallel to the top of the mat", "one days you should be able to get your heels to the floor", "the pelvis should be squared" and sooooo many more like this.
Target Areas are essentially the difference between a functional/intentional framework of exploration instead of an aesthetic framework. And for all of you who are as passionate about skeletal variation as I am, you will already be nodding your heads and thinking "yes, its is actually impossible for everyone in the room to look aesthetically identical following the yoga cues, because we all came to class with different bone variation to start with!"
An example here might be helpful to consolidate what I am saying. In Hatha yoga and Yin yoga we practice a pose that, from the outside eye, looks to be the same shape; in hatha yoga we call it half pigeon, in yin yoga we call it sleeping swan. In Hatha yoga to practice this posture, you may hear a yoga teacher give some of the following cues: "Have the front shin parallel to the top of the mat, the back leg needs to be coming straight back behind you, not on a diagonal, be sure to have the pelvis level without one hip dipping down, etc." In yin yoga, the teacher will begin by saying that "sleeping swan is a pose that intends to target the glutes and outer thigh area of the front leg. Have the front leg knee bent, and the back leg behind you, and bring the body weight down, maybe a little further to the right or left, until you can feel a satisfying amount of broad stretching sensation in those Target Areas, you might also like to have a block or bolster supporting the trunk or head."
These are just examples of how differently the two styles of yoga could introduce the intention and guidelines of this shape for the student. Generally speaking, Hatha Yoga has traditionally been focused on aesthetic alignment cues, and yin yoga focuses on the Target Area as the intention, rather than the look of the posture, making it a practice more focused on what a posture feels like instead of what it looks like.
You can find another shape that explores the same Target Area:
Here is where things get magical. If a student comes to a yin class, and for whatever reason sleeping swan is not an option for them, maybe they have a knee injury, maybe they get very strong bone on bone compressive sensations in the front hip, maybe they are breastfeeding and the pressure on their chest is too great, whatever the reason might be (and they need not even have to tell me about it), when the focus is Target Areas, we have lots of other shapes that we could try that will still target the glutes and outer thigh of the front leg:
Some other postures a student could try instead include:
Thread the leg needle.
Shoelace seated or at the wall.
All of these postures include the glutes as a major Target Area. And depending on the different physical/physiological/emotional factors a person might be experiencing, any one of these postures is a great alternative if sleeping swan is not working for them. Not to mention the myriad of ways we could use the wall, or add in props to help support the experience as well.
Which leads really well into my next point.
Using Target Areas means we are no longer focused on trying to "master a posture"
Have you had the experience of going to a yoga class, and everyone is "working on" the same posture?
Maybe it's half pigeon as discussed above, or maybe it is full wheel, handstand, headstand, there are so many postures.
It may have even been pitched as a "peak pose" that the whole class has been working up towards.
If everyone is trying to "master the posture" possibly being encouraged by those completely outdated carrot on stick sayings such as "one day you will get there" or "practice practice all is coming" and you are struggling big time, there is so much inadequacy, competition, negative self-talk, and disappointment that can arise in the mind.
And probably, your skeletal variance, physical structure, proportions, age, gender and so on have not even been mentioned as factors that could be influencing your ability to "master this pose."
Target Areas completely change this situation!
Target Areas allow us to focus on the regions of the body as places we want to access and feel sensations in, rather than the shape that the body can make.
It takes the focus away from what is often completely unrealistic goals, to your body, just as it is, and offers you a whole menu of optional ways in which you could try accessing those regions of the body.
One of the most satisfying experiences I have as an instructor in a yin yoga class, is seeing a whole room full of people trying completely different shapes with the intention of exploring the same region of their bodies; whether it is the lower back, the spine, or the hamstrings.
Why not take this approach over to Hatha Yoga?
A back bend is a backbend, no matter what else you are doing with the body. Your body can only fold/bend/rotate where it can, because of the shape of your bones at your joint articulations. So whether the shape is bow pose, cobra, full wheel, bridge, your spine can only extend where the bone shape allows for that extension (typically where the thoracic meets the lumbar or where the lumbar meets the sacrum, sometimes both of these places).
The more force you apply to that directional movement, the more that fold will deepen, until you get to a hard compression point (which will be different for every single person!) This is why some people feel a hard compressive pinch very early in a backbend, and why others can fold their spine to the point where it looks like it has a big hinge shape.
From a functional perspective, if you were to examine a posture such as full wheel in the way that we examine yin yoga postures, you could say that the main target areas of full wheel include: the shoulders (flexion), the lumbar spine (extension) the hip joints and hip flexors (extension) and the quads and glutes (muscular contraction).
If a student had a really challenging time practicing full wheel, maybe because they meet compression really early in their shoulders during the movement of flexion, or their hip flexors are really tight and they feel tensile restriction during hip extension, why not offer them some options of other postures that explore the same target areas?
In this instance, I would ask the student, which of the full wheel target areas do you want to focus on? If they said the lumbar spine, I don't see any issues with offering them a different backbend, one in which does not put them in a shape that creates painful hard compression in their shoulders.
Examples could be some from the list above: cobra, bow pose, bridge pose, or even supported bridge pose using a block under the sacrum. This hopefully shifts the focus away from any personal story they have about not being able to do full wheel, instead, focusing functionally on what full wheel does to the body, and finding another pose that does the same thing to the body, but in a posture that is more agreeable for their skeletal variation.
For the vinyasa flow teachers reading this, I can hear you thinking about how hard this would be to do in a fast paced class and how difficult it would be to offer that many alternatives to your students. I happen to agree with that! It would be really hard. But I also think that there is lots of room in yoga to start slowing down, and returning the practice to a much more attentive and one on one focused practice as it was in its origins.
If the mega trainings of yoga teachers in the 90's and 00's has taught us anything, its that the stock standard scripts of "the safe alignment" of each posture, only work for some bodies, and the others just try and figure it out, or experience a lot of pain and discomfort trying to get their body to create a shape that their bones will never be able to accomodate, thinking that "one day my body will just open."
Is it possible for us to return to a more posture by posture practice? What if we focused on the target areas of the body as the intention, rather than the pose itself? If for example you were focusing on flexion of the spine, could there be several different postures you could do in order to flex the spine? You would probably need to be in the shape for a while (which I think is how the practice of Iyengar structures its classes? I am not an Iyengar teacher so forgive me if this is not correct).
How different might the psychological experience of the student be if the teacher were to say that the next posture in the class intended to externally rotate the hips, and you could choose from Buddha konasana, frog pose, half pigeon or warrior 2? Is that too much? Maybe you could keep it floor postures or standing postures depending on the stage of the class.
These are just some of the thought I have about how the concepts of Target Areas could be beneficial for our more aesthetically inclined styles of yoga - I would love to hear about your thoughts on this - please do leave me a comment below!
I honestly think that Target Areas are an incredible way to shift the paradigm of yoga away from the glow of being able to do a certain posture, and back to the student and their body, just as it is, without creating any extra stories of indecency or not being good enough.