This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.
I thought I was a realist when it came to yoga. Even though I’ve been practicing once or twice a week for about five years now—including during the darkest days of the pandemic, when I was following along with Yoga With Adriene videos in my tiny bedroom—I’ve felt mostly at peace with not being able to do all of the pretzel-y stuff the word yoga might conjure up. I’ve never been very athletic or in possession of much upper body strength, so I was proud that I was exercising at all, that the stretches felt good, and that I’d improved with time: My downward dog, for example, is not beautiful, but it is exceedingly more beautiful than it used to be.
I really want to stress how not stressed I thought I was about being “good” at this pastime. I didn’t care that my heels would never reach the ground in downward dog. I didn’t care that I had to use extra padding every time to protect my sensitive knees. So it surprised me when, one day a few months ago, a thought wandered into my mental yoga studio and plopped down onto a mat there, where it’s been sitting ever since: But why can’t I do happy baby?
In happy baby pose, or Ananda Balasana in Sanskrit, you lie on your back with your legs bent and your feet in your hands—it is so named because actual babies have been known to do it unprompted in their cribs. Happy baby is often referred to as a restorative pose, and it’s an asana frequently employed by yoga evangelists to sell potential students on the benefits of yoga: It feels good to lie on your back like a baby. Instructors tend to have students do happy baby in the cooldown period at the end of classes, in the lead-up to Shavasana (corpse pose), when everyone splays out on their mats and just relaxes and breathes for a few minutes.
When I say that I can’t do happy baby, I should clarify that I can sort of do it: The problem is that, as every yoga instructor who has ever cued happy baby in a class will tell you, your tailbone is supposed to stay on the floor in the pose. When I grab for my feet, mine comes up. It’s a difference that would probably be lost on the vast majority of observers, but I can feel it.
I modify happy baby by grabbing my ankles or calves instead of my feet. And it’s fine, only … I seldom notice anyone else needing to modify happy baby.
I had assumed that my happy baby would correct itself over time. It seemed like a cruel joke that I was so bedeviled by the one pose with happy right there in the name. And again: Babies do it. But my happy baby has stayed decidedly unhappy for years now. If I were truly a troubled tot, I would throw a tantrum over this, but I’m at least a few developmental stages past that. Instead, I finally sought answers: Why had this easy, joyful movement escaped my abilities? What is wrong with me? And could I fix it?
“I think you would be surprised,” Kelley Bauer told me when I asked her how common it was to struggle with happy baby. Bauer, whom I spoke to after coming across a blog post she wrote with the title “Ask a Yogi: Why Can’t I Do This Pose?,” is the owner of Offbeat Yoga, a studio in Missouri, and has been teaching for 10 years. She said that if a bunch of people just came in off the street, she’d estimate that only half would be able to do the pose with their tailbones down. That was comforting. Though none of those people ever seem to be in my classes.
“Happy baby is not easy to a lot of people,” agreed Sally Sherman, a professor of health and human development at the University of Pittsburgh who studies—as well as teaches—yoga. It’s true that you don’t have to look very hard online to find other unhappy babies.
“It’s actually a more complicated pose than most people give it credit for,” said Vanessa Chu, the chief operating officer at Stretch*d, a boutique stretching studio chain. “There are a lot of muscles involved in that. It’s really just that entire posterior chain that’s involved, so everything from that low back to hip flexors to your glutes and hamstrings to even ankle flexibility as well.”
As for why my tailbone tended to come up in a way that felt involuntary when I reached for my feet, Sherman explained that when there’s tightness in the hamstrings, groin, and inner thigh area, “your body will seek out that path of least resistance.” In happy baby, that means some part of the body lifting off the ground.
Tight muscles—that seemed solvable. To loosen me up, Chu recommended a regimen of her company’s patented stretches, which had names like the Knee Hugg*r, the Forward Reach*r, and the Ankle Angl*r. They weren’t too bad: The Knee Hugg*r’s instructions, for example, as seen on YouTube, tell stretchers to lie back with one knee bent and bring that knee toward their chests by gently assisting from the back of their thighs—hold for two seconds, return to neutral, then repeat 10 times on each side. Chu gave me nine of these exercises to do daily.
She also invited me for an in-person session at one of her studios in Manhattan, which I took her up on. The space looked like a cross between a massage studio and a gym, with separate areas, each containing its own massage table, cordoned off for privacy. Soon after I arrived, I lay down and a stretch therapist named Jeff Brannigan led me through a one-on-one assisted stretching session, which involved a lot of pulling and bending my arms and legs.
Never had I been so eager to hear what was wrong with me.
I was excited to get a bespoke assessment of my problem areas, and sure enough, Brannigan observed that my hip flexors and the front of my quadriceps were very tight. At one point, he had me lie on my right side and attempt to kick my left leg back. I could barely do it. “You’re kind of at a straight line now,” he told me—ideally I’d have at least 30 more degrees in my range of motion. I was rapt; never had I been so eager to hear what was wrong with me. He thought one big problem was probably that I sit too much, and it might not be much more complicated than that. I do sit too much. But so do a lot of people. And I can’t exactly stop sitting.
Though I continued to give Chu’s stretches a shot, I was by now considering another possibility. In my conversation with Bauer, she said something that really intrigued me: that you couldn’t necessarily expect to improve at every pose with practice. “There are a lot of poses that just require strength, like doing a headstand,” she said. “For most people, a headstand is something that they can work up towards.” But with other poses, “you can stretch all you want, but at a certain point, you are going to plateau. You are going to not be able to do something.”
Bauer said studying anatomy helped her understand this, and she encouraged me to look into the work of Paul Grilley, a longtime yoga teacher and one of the founders of yin yoga, a slower-paced style that involves holding asanas for longer periods of time. When I spoke to Grilley, he told me about an epiphany he’d had in the late ’90s. “I was practicing yoga for 20 years, with a good knowledge of basic muscle and joint physiology and stuff like that,” he said. “But then, after 20 years, it was still obvious to me that it’s easy for some people and harder for others. And the idea of ‘Work harder, do it longer, do it faster, do it slower,’ none of those things worked. That’s when I became aware of skeletal variation.”
For Grilley, skeletal variation is a kind of skeleton key. When he is training other teachers, he likes to start by showing them real human bones, examples of the same body parts in varying shapes and sizes. He also has some bone photos posted on his website: “They graphically display why no two people will ever do yoga poses the same way,” reads some text above a photo of two different left hip sockets. You can stretch and strengthen your muscles, but you are kind of stuck with the bones you have.
As obvious as the idea that we all have different skeletons seems, I’m embarrassed to say I had never really thought about it before. Corina Benner, a Philadelphia-based yoga teacher who has studied with Grilley, explained it to me this way: “When we walk into a classroom or a doctor’s office and we see a skeleton hanging there, we have an unconscious belief system that ‘That’s what I look like,’ ” she said. But those skeletons are made in factories. “They’re probably modeled after male skeletons, with their narrow hips,” she went on. “They’re exactly the same on the right and the left.” But somehow we see them “and we think, ‘That’s what I look like.’ ” I tried to picture myself as a skeleton, but she was right: All I could picture was that factory model, which would probably excel at happy baby.
When I told Grilley about my ambition to do happy baby the right way, he made no bones about his disapproval. “What you’re describing is called yoga-rexia,” he said. “You think doing the poses is important. What’s important is how it affects your body.”
Right and wrong, easy and hard: These were flawed concepts. “Perfect poses are an accident of the shape of your bones,” Grilley said. “It’s like being proud that you’re tall.” Never mind that there are plenty of people who seem to be proud of exactly this.
To Grilley’s point, though, even bonified experts can have certain poses they struggle with. While I was on the phone with Judith Hanson Lasater, an accomplished yoga teacher, physical therapist, and author, she attempted to get into happy baby and keep her tailbone down. She couldn’t. “I’ve been doing yoga for 53 years. I’m very flexible. I can do the splits at age 75 and all of that.” (Since we spoke a few months ago, she’s turned 76—and she can still do the splits, she confirmed.) She figured her issue with the pose was that her trunk is long and her arms are short—and in her opinion, if I hadn’t done happy baby by now, I probably wasn’t gonna. It was true—the stretching exercises were not yielding any noticeable improvement.
I was coming to terms with the idea that I might never be able to do happy baby properly, but I wondered why none of my yoga classes had ever really talked about skeletal variation or the importance of proportions. It might have saved me a lot of grief.
Benner, the Philadelphia-based teacher, agreed that this was an issue. “For me, the difficulty or the damage is when the student says, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ and the teacher says, ‘I used to be like you. And then I just practiced four times a week, and I became a vegetarian, and I got all these crystals, and I did all this past-life regression work’—which is great, I’ve spent a lot of money on those pathways. But that’s not necessarily going to make your body different.”
For a hot minute, I fantasized about getting an X-ray, something I could point to definitively and say, “There! That’s why I can’t do it.” But I looked into it, and it turns out you can’t just walk into a doctor’s office and get an X-ray—probably for good reason. Grilley has a series of tests he likes to apply to students to help identify their limitations. On Zoom, I did a bunch of poses for Benner, but we couldn’t quite isolate the culprit.
One reason is that happy baby involves a lot of moving parts. The femur bone alone can move six different ways. Benner pronounced my ankle flexion decent, deemed my arms to be on the short side, and noted that I had “a lot of facility with external rotation, but not so much with internal rotation.” In the end, she declared my skeleton “perplexing.” “I can’t pinpoint exactly what’s preventing you, but I think it feels like it’s something about your arm length, and where your hipbone is,” she said. (For what it’s worth, I tried to measure my wingspan to get a read on my arms, but it seemed pretty normal.)
I wasn’t offended at being called “perplexing.” Everyone likes to feel special—maybe I was a medical marvel. When I asked Benner if I was particularly perplexing, or if everyone’s skeleton contained untold mysteries, she stopped to think for a moment. “I think everybody has their own charms and challenges, let’s say.”
I also probed Sherman, the professor, for her opinion on what might be holding me back, and she said, “We might have to dissect you in order to really get an accurate assessment of that.” That is to say, I would probably never know, and maybe I should just let it go.
For the average yoga practitioner, “we don’t want them to have a goal of a pose; we want that goal to really be overall health and also just how people feel,” she said. “I mean, if you were saying, ‘I’m having back pain that could be related to my tight hamstrings,’ which is not uncommon, that would be one thing, because your quality of life is being impacted. I don’t think your quality of life is being impacted by you not being able to do happy baby in a perfect way.” She had me there.
It reminded me of something Lasater said: “The asana is not the yoga. It’s the residue it leaves in your nervous system that is the yoga.” My nervous system had to learn that a perfect happy baby just might not be in the cards for me. So even though my tailbone is no closer to the ground now than it was when I started, you could say I’ve gotten a lot better at yoga. Not that I care about being good at yoga.