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What’s Normal Range of Motion?

range of motion

ROM of Major Joints

And how does understanding range of motion help us in our Yoga practice?

Have you ever wanted to get into an intermediate or advanced class and been told that you had to be able to do Lotus Pose, or do Upward Bow with straight arms? I’ve never been a fan of this type of classification, partly because it takes into consideration only one small part of a person’s Yoga experience. This type of classification not only ignores one's body/mind connection, but it also denies the reality of the wide range of variation among people’s bony structures.

Reality is, some people will never be able to rotate their femur bones to the position necessary for Lotus Pose because of the depth and orientation of their hip sockets—not because of their muscle flexibility. Same with Upward Bow. Depending on the shape of one’s coracoid and acromion processes of their scapulae, some students’ humerus bones will hit these bones before the arms come to vertical. These people will never be able to do Upward Bow with straight arms. Again, this has nothing to do with flexibility. It’s structure. A Yoga student could be enlightened and still not allowed in an “advanced” class because he/she can’t do Upward Bow with straight arms!

Even though asana practiced is associated with being bendy, too much flexibility is actually as much a state of imbalance as being too stiff. Our joints are designed to move within a healthy range. Those parameters are different for different people, since we’re all built differently. This is why it’s not at all helpful to compare yourself to the person next to you in class.

All About Balance

As I age, I’ve become much more interested finding balance for my body than I am in practicing fancy poses. For my naturally flexible body, balance comes from stabilizing my body—building strength in my core and my limbs—and creating cohesion. Since my range of motion is out of the normal parameters, balance for me is to contain flexibility. For a person born with a stiffer body, balance comes from increasing range of motion.

Finding balance in your 30s is very different from finding balance in your 50s. As our bodies change, and as we become more aware over years of practice, we can learn to adjust to the changing nature of our bodies and minds. In 32 years of practice (and counting!) this is what makes it endlessly interesting for me. We’re always changing, and yoga has the capacity to adapt to where we are as long as we’re willing to listen.

Longtime Yoga teacher Cora Wen published a great, informative article on realistic range of motion. Whether you practice or teach (and hopefully if you teach you do both!), look at this article again and again. Assimilate it and truly understand it. The quality of your practice and your students’ health depends on it!

About Charlotte Bell

Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

10 thoughts on “What’s Normal Range of Motion?”

  • linda

    "yoga is all in the bones" -- Paul Grilley

  • Charlotte

    I agree! In addition to Cora's article, all Yoga teachers should have a look at Paul Grilley's photos of bone variations. Here's the link: http://www.paulgrilley.com/index.php?option=com_phocagallery&view=category&id=2&Itemid=30.

  • Cora Wen

    Thanks Charlotte and Hugger Mugger!

    This is such a BIG topic for me, especially as I dont have average ROM, and could have suffered severe debilitation if I had not discovered how important anatomy is. It helped me develop another angle of Svadhyaya ;)

    Glad to share what I can

  • Charlotte

    Thank you for continuing to educate us all! I don't have average ROM either and early in my practice I did extreme poses simply because my body was capable, and I'm paying for it now. Ah, hindsight ...

  • roselil

    Why would you want to be in an advanced asana class where they practice variations of lotus if you are not able to do the basic lotus yet? Isn't this just asking for injuries? And why do you think enlightenment is taught in asana class anyway?

    Sometimes it makes great sense to state some prerequisites, such as asking students to be able to do a certain asana, in order to have a more homogeneous class to teach. What is wrong about the fact that some students are more flexible or stronger than you are, especially if you are enlightened and they are not. Just let them have their fun doing handstand variations and lotus in pincha mayurasana stuff while you work on the stuff you feel challenged to work on.

  • Charlotte

    Thanks for your response. I agree that it is important to set parameters when you plan to teach classes that might cause less strong or flexible people to be injured. Perhaps a more practical way to define the nature of a class is to label them as "Lotus Variations," "Intense Backbending," "Intense Inversions," etc. rather than "beginning," "intermediate" or "advanced." That way people could avoid the classes where they would be left in the dust and those who want to go further could enjoy the poses they love.

    My question is more focused on classifying people as beginning, intermediate or advanced based on what their bodies can or can't do. For example, there are many beginning students whose structures may allow them to practice Lotus or Upward Bow easily from day one. This does not mean they are "advanced" yogis. (I was born with a body like this, so I can attest to the rudimentary level of my understanding when I started 30 years ago, even though my body was willing and able!) There are also people who have strong, longstanding practices whose structures may not allow them ever to practice Lotus or Upward Bow. This does not mean they should be consigned forever to beginning classes.

    I don't think enlightenment is taught in asana classes! I don't think enlightenment can be taught. My point in saying this was that a yogi could have a very serious and committed practice, perhaps a practice that includes other "advanced" poses and variations—for example, a person may be able to stay in Headstand for an hour, but be unable to do Lotus—and that person would still not be allowed in an advanced class because of his/her limitations in Lotus.

    Classifying people as beginning, intermediate or advanced based on what their bodies can or can't do does not seem helpful to me on several levels. It creates divisions that do not recognize the depth of a person's practice, and it reinforces the idea that asana is about performance. It also causes people to judge themselves and others based on factors that are often outside their ability to control. There are plenty of ways to adapt poses for those whose skeletal structures will not allow them to achieve a full pose. That is why acknowledging the infinite variations in human structures is so important.

    I agree that if I had a body that couldn't do Lotus Pose, I would be happy to avoid a class that focused on this. If I had a body that couldn't do Upward Bow or handstand variations I would avoid that class as well. There's nothing wrong with one person being stronger or more flexible than another. It is, in fact, reality that different people will have different individual strengths. My intention was to point out that everyone has different strengths and levels of flexibility based on their structures. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. But it is important that we as teachers understand this so that we do not try to force people into poses they are structurally incapable of doing. It is important that we see each person as an individual with unique qualities, and that we nurture and encourage these qualities.

  • [...] action is just as important as Leg action to run fasterTo run faster - believe it or not - the arms play a significant role in sprinting and speed developm...n the whole body is in sync, and the arms dictate that action. The role of the arms is to stabilize [...]

  • Ed

    Dear All. What is old school yoga? Is there a generic Hatha Yoga sequence? Is Iyengar Yoga old school? Is Ashtanga Yoga old school?

    • Charlotte Bell

      Hi Ed, Good question. There have been so many varying traditions over the millennia, that it would be hard to pin down a single one as the definitive "old school" yoga. Some of the traditional practices look nothing like what we consider yoga to be today. If you're interested in learning more about the actual tradition of yoga, Mircea Eliade's Yoga, Immortality and Freedom is a great place to start--very dense, but full of incredible insight into the multitude of practices that were considered to be yoga and the many philosophies that influenced the development of yoga. One thing this book does is help you realize that there are many ways to define Yoga.

      The more recent definition of "old school yoga" is generally considered to be a slower, non-trademarked Hatha-based physical practice that is done in silence (no music). Any style of yoga that comes from a teacher who studied directly with T. Krishnamacharya is considered to be "old school." With the exception of Ashtanga, most old school Hatha Yoga is not based on a set sequence. The practice was intended to be more individualized than most of the more recently invented styles are capable of being. (If you have 50 people in a room going through a fast-paced sequence it's pretty hard to give a whole lot of attention to individual modifications.) Does this help?

  • Ed S.

    Dear All, Serious question. What is old school yoga? Is it a generic set of Hatha Yoga sequences? Is it a subset of Iyengar Yoga? Is it Ashtanga Yoga?

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