The myth of symmetry

“A good marriage between the left and right side is what we are looking for - not symmetry.” - Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains.

"Symmetry and balance are very different. Symmetry is man-made. Balance is all that we find in nature, but it's not symmetrical." - Leslie Kaminoff, author of Yoga Anatomy.

For a long time, I practised with the awareness that my right side is different from my left. Looking for guidance on this, I was often told to keep practising in a “balanced” manner and the body would “even itself out”.

After more years of practising making sure that I worked equally on my left and right sides, waiting for that symmetry to manifest, I found, instead, that I developed a painful hamstring injury. Sometimes it was so bad I could not even sit still on a chair without feeling pain.

I started to question the advice I was given and, the more I studied anatomy and understood about the body and all its connections, the more I was convinced that working evenly on both sides and expect differences to even out is, simply put, a myth.

We all have (or most of us, luckily) two eyes, one mouth and one nose; however, they are positioned in a slightly different way which makes us recognisably unique. The same thing happens with our bodies. Bones, limbs, organs and all the rest of it are positioned in a slightly different way: we are not like the bodies pictured in anatomy books. 

This is also true for the left and right sides of the same body: they are not symmetrical, like in a book. Your right hip joint, will not be exactly the same as the left, you were not created with a ruler. You write better with one hand, have one dominant eye, and your nervous system works differently when comparing one side with the other. In short, symmetry doesn’t exist.

With the help of several experienced therapists, I started to unravel why my body moves the way it does, creating tension in some areas. Exploration - using breath and subtle movements - allowed me to deeply feel the nuanced sensations arising whist moving, study how my left and right sides differ, how they relate one another and how they work together.

Working towards having a good balance - and by that I mean freedom from pain or tension - means NOT to work evenly, but on specific areas and in specific manners. If my right gluteus feels contracted and creates tension in the whole the hip and lower back area, why would I not take this into account while practising? We need to make sure that we address our differences in order to function well as a whole.

I’m certainly not advocating for dropping working on both sides of the body and concentrate only on what feels troubled, but I believe that we need to focus a lot more on our differences so that the body can find an overall equilibrium.

When we step into a yoga class, the teacher (myself included) directs people through postures held on the left and right sides for the same amount of time. In a general class, this is necessary as it is not the appropriate occasion for the teacher to explore with each student their individual differences and give directions for a specific focus - which can be done on one-to-one session instead.

However, it is important for all of us to be aware of our body works, so that, as practitioners we can address differences at home or modify the instructions we are given in class; and as teachers, we should direct students towards self enquiry and exploration in order to make their practice unique to them and there more useful. Because one size does not fit all.