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!
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.
4 KEYS TO FOOT PLACEMENT IN STANDING POSTURES
A common misalignment I see in yoga is incorrect foot placement. If not learned correctly at the foundational level, the issue will follow you around in both standing and balancing postures as well as inversions. Incorrect foot placement will lead to hip and knee pain which often goes unnoticed until later, when serious and irreversible damage has been done.
So what is the correct foot placement? Looking at this as a general rule and not a case-by-case basis, I would say that anytime your feet are on the mat, they should face the front—not the common heels in—toes out Charlie Chaplin stance I often see. Hip distance apart (rather than the classical feet together) is a better choice for Westerners—especially if you suffer from sciatic pain and tight hips and hamstrings. When both feet are on the mat in a pose such as Tadasana, the balance should feel even across the feet—without leaning too far forward or too far back. This balance will shift depending on the pose you are doing.
For today’s key tips and video, we will focus on foot placement in standing postures such as Triangle, where the front foot and the back foot perform different tasks. Please pay special attention to number four.
- Have your front foot face the front of the mat as described above.
- As a general rule, you should be able to draw a straight line from the heel of the front foot to the middle of your back foot.
- Pause and explore your practice if you have tighter hips and hamstrings. Take Triangle Pose again but this time draw a straight line from the front heel all the way to the back heel. Does having more space feel better for your body? If so, do your standing postures this way until you gain more mobility in the lower half of your body.
- A common misalignment with long term consequences that I see is not having the back foot turn inward enough. When you look back, you should be able to see all of your toes facing forward. To put this very simply, let’s say you’re doing Triangle pose with your right foot forward. The toes of your left (or back) foot should be facing the front left corner of your mat. The popular (and incorrect) choice is when your toes face the back left corner of the mat. If this misalignment is not fixed, you could end up ripping your groin apart!
Watch the tutorial on YouTube here!
Today we are examining hand placement, which plays a major role in the foundation of the Yoga practice. Keep reading for key alignment tips and don’t forget to watch the video!
Poses that require you to have your hands on the floor will either help build your practice correctly or will end up injuring your shoulders.
I often see students try to do more advanced postures like the beloved handstand without understanding the placement of their hands—giving them zero chance of balancing upside down. Let’s start at the beginning of the practice-focusing on understanding what we’re asking of the physical body-and build upon that. Keep reading for key alignment tips. Continue reading 5 Key Tips to Hand Placement in Yoga