Understanding your spinal curves goes a long way toward helping you comprehend the needs of your yoga practice. In yoga, we try to diminish the curves of the upper and lower back by moving the spine closer to a neutral position. An example of this ( when done correctly) and the blueprint for just about every pose to follow is Tadasana, Mountain pose.
When you understand your spinal curves, you can look at every pose with a new level of awareness—to see if your approach is correct. You want to support and protect the body so you can have longevity in the practice. For this to occur, some basic knowledge of the spine is essential.
Your neck and lower back have the greatest range of motion in the spine and share the same curve —called Lordotic. The neck has seven vertebrae (C1-C7), and the low back has five vertebrae (L1-L5). These are the parts of the body that give the most. In yoga, we often overuse these areas to compensate for lack of mobility in places such as our thoracic spine. An example of this (as shown in the video) is Cow pose. You can feel and see how much your low back drops toward the floor and how much your neck can lift toward the ceiling. Injuries will occur in the low back if you don’t protect it properly engaging your glutes and core.
The mid- upper back, known as the thoracic part of the spine, shares a curve with the sacrum/coccyx area. The thoracic has 12 vertebrae, (T1-T12), and as we all know simply from everyday life, our range of motion is limited here. I often encourage students to look down in poses so they can eliminate the flexibility of the neck curve. That gives them the opportunity to see the illusion of thinking the opening is coming from the thoracic; in reality, it’s made possible by the flexibility of the neck.
The sacrum connects the spine to the hips and has five fused vertebrae. The key word here is “fused”— which is why pulling your navel to the spine and engaging your glutes to gain support and stability for the bigger body parts is so important. When this support doesn’t occur, we start to create too much movement in a joint that should stay fixed— resulting in SI instability. In short, most poses should resemble CAT pose in the low back and the glutes should be engaged to help take the load off of the low back.
Unfortunately, I often see people overusing their neck and low back because those are the parts of the body with the most range of motion making them easy to access incorrectly.
I suggest that you spend time with Cat and Cow. Don’t just simply rush through them. Take time in each one, and apply this knowledge. Can you feel how the neck and low back share a curve? Can you notice in Cow pose how far your low back can drop toward the ground, and how much your neck can lift? Have you noticed what happens when you push the floor away to transition from Cow to Cat? As the upper body rounds, the gaze drops. As the gaze drops, the navel pulls to the spine. What you do to the neck curve, the low back curve will duplicate. I encourage you to try your practice with these curves in mind. Are you bringing the spine into neutral in your practice? Are you overusing the neck and low back? Explore your patterns yogis!
Plank is one of the most important and fundamental poses of the yoga practice. You must understand it before attempting more advanced postures like a handstand. In theory, Plank seems relatively easy if you’re able to connect the dots and understand what came before it. Sadly, everyday I watch people end up with unnecessary wrist, shoulder and back pain due to misalignment.
So, what knowledge should you have prior to Plank? If you broke down the key components, it would be to pay attention to what the hands, knees, glutes, and low back are doing. All of these parts play critical roles in building the pose correctly. Keep reading for key alignment tips and watch the video here!
1. Come down to all fours and put yourself in Cat Pose. Notice where your gaze is in Cat—and keep it the same in Plank. Notice how the navel is pulled to the spine as you push the ground away to create Cat. Keep that action and remember it when you get ready to extend your legs.
2. Test out the hands by looking to make sure your thumb and index finger are not lifting. Your whole hand needs to be flat to the mat. I can’t tell you how many injuries happen because the hand is not firmly rooted here.
3. Transfer of weight needs to stay in the fingertips, not the heel of the hand. Test this out by lifting the heel of the hand enough to put a pencil underneath. This will feel impossible if you lost Cat pose and are not back in Cow. Check yourself!
4. Assuming the above steps are happening correctly, extend one leg back, followed by the other. Remember to lift your knee caps to your quads.
5. Engage your butt.
6. For extra credit, turn your toes under. Feel the engagement in the legs and around the pelvic floor.
So there you have it! Plank pose is the first time you are placing weight on your hands and extending the legs while involving the whole body. Remember to always extend from the center (your core). Get the glutes involved by engaging them. They are the stabilizers of the body after all!
Spring is here and the time for new beginnings is upon us. From a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) perspective, living in harmony with nature is ideal for preventing disease and perpetuating optimum health. In this season, we move from a time of restoration and inactivity to one of rebirth and expansion—which is represented by the wood element. The key energetic organ systems for spring are the Liver and Gallbladder. These organs are essential for regulating numerous systems in the body, the smooth flow of Qi, as well as detoxifying the body. Due to the important role of storing and distributing the blood in TCM, the Liver and Gallbladder rule over the body’s tendons. The tendons get very little blood circulation— which means the slightest deviation in blood flow can affect them significantly.
Just as the leaves begin to grow and the trees sprout their buds, so, too, must we start to move our bodies. Not with a crazy push or bursts of energy, but with a gradual flow in order to activate, cleanse, and lubricate tissues as we revitalize them from the slumber of winter. Twists and binds can help massage the tissues to moisten and purge accumulated debris—similar to the way you would flush a dry rag with water and wring it out before using it.
As the body becomes more fluid and supple, the flow can increase and began to expand its boundaries. Just as rain showers flow through the trees and help form new growth, we can start moving the energy and shifting our bodies and minds to new heights. The color of spring is green—which keys you into the kinds of foods that can support your body in this season. Green foods such as broccoli, cabbage, wheat grass, kale and sprouts can help the liver function and support the smooth flow of Qi and blood. When the liver is not functioning properly and the flow of Qi is disrupted, we experience the rise of emotions such as anger, frustration and depression. The opposite is true as well; when these emotions are minimized, the liver again functions effectively. Movement is vital at this time to keep the mind relaxed and the Qi flowing.
Stoke your Inner Fire during the spring practice by bringing your body into balance through detox, fluidity and flow to maximize the potential for growth and expansion. Let this attention to your practice help active the energy of renewal, creativity and wellbeing during this season. If you’re recommitting to your practice, try 5 Days of Movement instead.
Bloom well Yogis!
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get students (and at times teachers) to understand the importance of lifting their kneecaps. Coming from a gymnastics background, you learn at a young age what functional anatomy feels like in your body—by virtue of an insane amount of repetitions. You understand that your practice must be built on a strong foundation. There’s no way you can flip on a tiny beam without paying attention to the little details—such as the role played by the feet and kneecaps. If you’re looking for longevity in your practice, correct approach and a strong foundation are key.
Last week, we focused on understanding foot placement. Once that understanding has occurred, we can then progress to kneecaps. The best thing to do is practice by yourself, as shown in the video.
Sit down on your butt with your legs extended forward. Lift your kneecaps up towards your quads. When done correctly, the heels of the feet lift off the floor and the quads are engaged. When done incorrectly, the feet don’t lift and the quads are soft.
Sometimes students find it hard to lift their kneecaps; it might take practice using the fore-mentioned technique. Unfortunately, students often misunderstand this cue and hyperextend their knees. A hyper-extension is when you “lock out” the knee by pushing it back rather than lifting it up. This is not healthy for the knee joint and doesn’t allow you to use the bigger muscle group (the quads).
If you suffer from hyper-extension or knee pain, you may find it helpful to put a little bend in your knee as you rebuild this part of the body.
Lifting your kneecaps is something that needs to be learned at the start of the practice in something like Mountain Pose—and it must continually be practiced and understood in poses such as Plank and Triangle. This way, as your practice progresses into balancing postures (such as Warrior III) and inversions (such as Handstands), you clearly understand the role played by the lower half of the body.
Have you ever noticed how you feel in different seasons? Both mentally and physically, we tend to respond to the environment around us. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is based on this concept. It’s rooted in the observation of nature and the unique dynamics to which nature adheres. No season is a more perfect example than winter.
During winter, the temperature is colder and the days are shorter. In response, nature slows down. Animals hibernate, plants and trees grow more slowly, elements become more dense and damp. Every living thing turns within to nurture itself.
In the theory of Yin and Yang common to Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter reflects the utmost yin quality. In TCM, we’re taught to heed the environmental conditions in order to live in harmony with nature. Activity should slow, rests should be extended, and food should come from dense nutrients—perhaps stewed over extended periods of time.
The organ most correlated with this season is the kidney. The kidney houses the body’s original “Qi” (basis of energy). It also stores “essence,” which is the dense form that produces bone marrow and spinal fluid. This correlation makes it is easy to see why the kidney is so important to brain health and bone development in TCM. In addition to being the body’s primary source of yin, the kidneys serve as the “ming men fire” or “gate of vitality.” This gate lies deep between the two kidneys—opening their yang dimension. An equal representation of both yin and yang makes the kidneys truly unique.
The winter is a great time to support the kidney and its related functions. While good nutrition, hydration, and keeping the low back warm and protected during winter are all important, Yin Yoga is an excellent practice to support the kidneys physically.
Yin Yoga’s sustained holds stimulate tendon, ligament, and bone health. Its slow and prolonged movements are in harmony with winter’s yin character, while the active breath helps stoke the inner ming men fire to balance the kidney’s yang attributes.
In that light, Yoga for Relaxation would be the perfect addition to your winter regimen—and help keep you in harmony with life.