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knees and nos.

Bend the knees, I say. Deeply bend the knees. All the time, I’m saying this. Bend those knees. Take the hamstrings out of the equation. More. Cut your lower back some slack. Don’t make it any harder than it needs to be. Bend the knees. More. Find the balance between sthira and sukha. You could always, y’know, the knees? Bend them?

A curious thing happens in a yoga class. Well, several really.

1. Once you're in pose, it becomes very hard to absorb any further information. You’re often operating in survival mode, so any subsequent incoming intel – no matter how solicitous, how potentially life-hacking – is tossed into the mental bin labelled “just nope”. There is literally no further brain space for adjustments, our synapses already sputtering under the strain of recalling cues, engagement, the equality of opposites, interoception and the cruel dictatorship of respiration.

It’s not that we enjoy the frisson of flirting with a hamstring tear or a dirty weekend with a bulging disc. We simply have no additional processing capacity. Out of necessity, we start up in safe mode and stay there.

The above point is particularly true of beginners. I get that. There is – oh boy! – a LOT going on, and nearly every part of it is new to you and to your body. New sensations, new connections, new ways of orientating physically, a new experiencing of the body as intertwined with your sense of self leading, inevitably, to new emotions.

It’s hard. But eventually, as you become more familiar with how your body likes to move – its range, its frailties and strengths – you’re better able to refine, polish, add the little flourishes and instinctive know-hows that make asana a joy rather than a punishment.

This is why I repeat myself so often in class. I know that, one day, the student will find the final edge piece and have cleared enough mental space to start on the bigger picture.

2. Experienced practitioners also possess this curious inability to manifest the simple blessing of bending the knees. And that’s because, actually, it’s not as simple as it seems.

The other week, I’m ashamed to say, I snapped.

I was teaching a wonderful group of very dedicated, very experienced students. I’d demonstrated quarter-dog and half-dog. I’d explained the learning points we were exploring that day. After everyone had had several goes, I asked them to sit up. And once I had their attention, asked:

What part of 'bend the bloody knees' did you not understand?!”

While amused and exasperated, I also had genuine curiosity. This phenomenon is not a one-off – I see it right across classes. So what’s going on? I’m mindful to rephrase cues and invitations several ways – we all process language differently, after all – but maybe I was still failing my students by not communicating effectively.

A really fruitful discussion followed, and together we gathered the following points:

a) Habit

The curse of those longer-in-the-tooth practitioners. Because we’ve always done it this way and nobody’s ever said anything, we stick with the tried and tested, enjoying the relief of hanging out in our comfort zone.

b) Underdeveloped interoception/proprioception

We could have a decades-long practice and still struggle to find the necessary inner- and outer-body awareness. We think we have bent our legs, but in actuality our knees are still jammed straight (maybe with a token micro-bend on a good day). This is particularly true if, for example:

i) we're total newbies

ii) we tend to live in our head

iii) we’re neurodivergent

iv) we have a condition that sits on the hypermobility spectrum, such as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome

v) our yoga practice focuses entirely on asana with no exploration of the other Limbs of Yoga.

c) Discomfort

Keeping the knees bent can sometimes be tiring, causing our thighs to shake like a whippet going about its business. They’re simply not used to being loaded in this way. In our go-to Downward Facing Dog, the load is most likely carried by locking out joints with little or no active muscle engagement.

Humans prefer the instant gratification afforded by easy, comfy inefficiency rather than something that is ultimately more beneficial, more structurally sound, but takes longer to master and comes with a side order of oh-god-make-it-stop. Generally speaking, that’s down to:

d) Ego!

Ain’t that always the way? As one savvy student said, “You want to feel that you’re doing it right.”

We know from socials, that straight (often hyperextended-don’t-get-me-started) legs are applauded and bent knees pitied and sent love and prayers.

So even as our teacher gives us permission to bend the knees to furnish the spine the luxury of space, we deny ourselves more comfort because we want to show that we don’t need it. Comfort is for weak people, unfit people, old people and big fat babies, when we. Are. SPAR-TAAA!

So even as our teacher instructs us to bend the knees, we think she’s talking to somebody else, somebody not as *modest cough* proficient as we are, the poor, stiff fool. We want to show that we know how to do such “basic” asana “properly”. Look-at-me-look-at-me-look-at-me! We wear our poses like status symbols, external signifiers of our general, all-round excellence.

e) That corrosive inner critic

God, does it ever take a day off? Whereas (d) above is all about everybody else being a little bit rubbish and our need to point it out in order to elevate our self-worth, our inner critic takes its aim directly at us.

So even as our teacher gives us permission to bend the knees to furnish the spine the luxury of space, we deny ourselves more comfort because we want to show our inner critic that we don’t need it. That we’re not as useless as it thinks we are.

So even as our teacher instructs us to bend the knees, we think that she’s talking to somebody else, somebody thankfully not us because if we thought she was talking to us, we would curl up inside and die of shame, everything our inner critic ever said about our desperate inadequacy proven to be woefully true.

It’s a lot to unpack, isn’t it? And all this from a Downward Facing Dog.

Hands up, at one point or other I’ve been guilty of all of the above . It’s called being human, which is often a delicate and difficult thing to be. And because it's already challenging being in this weird, fleshy body and living this brief and unpredictable life, doesn’t it make sense to offer ourselves a little kindness wherever possible?

Asana, as the Third Limb of Yoga, is a ty-neee part of the discipline. It grabbed the conch here in the West when yoga first arrived from India over 100 years ago, refusing to give voice to the other Limbs ever since. But let's remember, at the risk of slut-shaming, asana is all fur coat, no knickers. Quite literally, if Instagram has anything to do with it. If asana were a breakfast cereal, it would be the one making health claims but actually having less nutrition than the box it came in.

While asana does offer the valuable opportunity to recognise how we self-sabotage, its with the other Limbs of Yoga that we're guided towards the solution. The yamas, niyamas, [asana,] pranayama, pratyhara, dharana, dhyana – together these are designed to haul us out when we've become mired in life's sticky stuff. Together, the Eight Limbs teach us how to deal with everything above – those pesky habits, our off-kilter body awareness, dislike of discomfort, our in-built narcissism, and the inner critic who sounds remarkably like our mum when she's slightly pissed and playing up to an audience.

I now have a deeper understanding of myself through insights cracked open by mindfulness and meditation, by cultivating the breath, by noticing bodily sensations, etc. Being honest, these insights have often been shocking, not always flattering, but they have proven to be a springboard to action, action that while initially more confronting than doing the same old, same old, will ultimately be the greatest act of kindness towards myself. I hope.

I'd advise anyone to start small, though. You don’t have to embark on your journey of self-exploration by sitting on top of a mountain gazing at your third eye until enlightenment* strikes. You don’t have to pay vast sums of money on luxury retreats learning specialised hand gestures while sucking river water up your bum through a straw.** You don’t even have to get a tattoo or a piercing or scream "CULTURAL APPROPRIATION!" at a dinner party serving curry.

You can start practising yoga, in its fullest sense, just by bending those bloody knees.

* The Eighth Limb of Yoga, samadhi.

** Yes, startling though it is, this is a thing. It's called Basti, a form of lower colonic irrigation and one of the six purificaiton practices that make up the shatkarma (literally, six actions. Also known as shatkriya).

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