I do not like to admit that my body has limitations. More to the point today, I don’t like admitting that my body size has limitations. It bothers me less when it’s a matter of insufficient strength or muscle flexibility because in my experience, those are factors I’ve been able to build over time. While exercise has been able to alter my body composition somewhat, it’s actually tended to be in the form of adding muscle — and therefore mass. In terms of reducing overall size, that is not my body’s natural inclination.
So first, I had to accept the fact that my current body size does not really seem to be negotiable, at least not by healthy means. And I’m not really into using unhealthy means to try to negotiate with my body.
And so gradually, I’ve also had to accept the fact that arm binding generally does not serve me in my practice. My spine is flexible enough to allow it easily, and my shoulders (barring random stiffness or an early morning practice) are generally cooperative. That said, my arm length compared to my relative girths — of my arms, of my torso, of my hips and thighs — are such that arm binds cause compression and grating in my elbows. Additionally, my upper arms, ass, hips, thighs, and a good portion of my abdomen do not squish, meaning there is not a lot of give in them. My arm joints have to take the brunt of it. Double plus ungood.
But — and this was the first thing I had to get the fuck over — arm binds are very often included in the “advanced versions” or “fullest expressions” of poses: extended side angle or triangle or half lord of the fishes. But part of having an advanced practice is cultivating wisdom. And continually straining my elbows so I could reach my arms around my ass and clasp them behind my back is not wise. Binding certainly does offer me some physical benefits, but ultimately, those benefits are not worth the injurious pain I feel in other parts of my body.
But that — binding’s benefits — is the second obstacle I had to figure out, which was actually a little trickier. Because, depending on the pose, arm binds do help me to work deeper into my hips and hamstrings and to twist deeper into my spine and open my heart center, it would have been a lot harder to tell myself to just get the fuck over those experiences. (The hip and spinal aspects are incredibly helpful for managing my pelvic pain, and the heart opening might actually be crucial to living with my PTSD.) Moreover, I do not think it’s wise to tell myself to give up on something beneficial to me, no matter how my body’s broadness gets in the way.
I spent the better part of a year frustrated with this and with myself. Sometimes I’d bind when I knew it would hurt me, then get mad at myself for being too large to bind comfortably. On the flip side, sometimes I’d refrain from an arm bind when parts of my body really wanted that deeper action; then I’d get mad at myself for being too large to bind comfortably. In classes and even with instructional DVDs, I started to get secretly relieved each time arm binds weren’t offered as an option.
Eventually, in my self-guided practices, I started to explore. What I wanted were positions that opened my heart and freed my spine (including the hips and hamstrings that attached to it) without wrenching my arms around in painful positions in order to achieve that. After a number of experiments, I rediscovered reverse namaste (of which holding opposite elbows is a common modification). Additionally, I discovered that it was an excellent personal modification for when I wanted to arm bind but could not do so safely.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting this is an appropriate modification for everyone. Not only does it require as much spinal flexibility and pelvic openness as arm binding does for me, but it also requires more core strength and stability than any arm binding I’ve ever tried, essentially because my torso is not supported by or bracing off of my arms in any way. It is tough, but it’s tough in a way that’s uniquely suited to and that works with my body instead of tough in a way that fights against it. I can’t ask for a wiser practice.