Principles of Practice: Alignment and Action
In its modern iteration, humanity has fallen out of alignment with nature. Restoration of our relationship with the natural world is imperative for our own health and the health of the planet. The disciplines of Yoga and Ayurveda were formulated by ancient Rishis and Seers who were deeply aligned with the wisdom of the natural world. Even in our modern era, it is possible to access and benefit from this ancient knowledge. The human body is the access point and the vehicle by which we too can align ourselves with, and benefit from, the wisdom of nature. By attuning our senses and intellect to subtle energies we are able to navigate our way into the depth of the human soul. We learn to recognize our authentic selves, to receive the blessing of our one true life. With dedication to the study and practice of yoga – on and off the mat – we can heal ourselves and the planet.
From a physical perspective, alignment simply refers to the relative placement of the parts of the body. Consider how the foot bone is connected to ankle bone connected to the shin bone, etc. It is helpful to begin with the idea of anatomically correct alignment which is a template for efficiency. The body is an extremely complex system and in its natural state is a vehicle designed for strength, flexibility and longevity. With few exceptions, humans are born with the potential for health and long life. Infants and toddlers subconsciously learn patterns of movement and alignment from their adult caregivers. The examples they imitate often represent habitual physical misalignment which often lead to suffering and illness.
Structural alignment is an expression of relationship between the axial skeletal structures (spinal column, skull, rib cage) and the appendicular skeletal structures (arms, legs, pelvis with exception of sacrum). The pelvis holds and protects the organs of reproduction, digestion and elimination. The rib cage holds and protects the large vessels, the heart and the lungs. Fascia, muscles, tendons and ligaments hold all of this together. The design of the spinal column provides a place to delicately balance the weight of the skull, as well as a point of connection for the pelvic bones and rib cage. Most importantly the spinal column provides a safe conduit for vital information in the form of nerve impulses to flow through the spinal cord – to travel between the brain and the heart and to and from all of the organs (living communities of cells) in the body. Anatomically correct alignment provides space for all of this and is the foundation for health of the whole body.
Awareness is often the first step on the journey to better health. With an understanding of the natural design of the human body, what the parts are used for, how they are put together, a vocabulary of anatomical terms and landmarks, along with a few key points of instruction you can learn to set your alignment correctly, not just in any yoga pose you decide to learn, but in all activities of daily living. Improved functional alignment leads to better efficiency in life, and better health.
Action can be generated consciously or subconsciously. Learning a new behavior often requires a great deal of concentration. With repetition the behavior becomes habitual; it does not require conscious thought. It is possible to live one’s life acting out of habit, completing required mundane tasks and accepting roles culturally or socially assigned. This level of action can become dull and devoid of emotion. The challenge that yoga provides is to bring more consciousness into our everyday existence. To act consciously from a place of alignment – mentally, physically and spiritually. Action becomes “the physical manifestation of our own power of will and intention” (Keller, 2005).
In order to begin to understand how to consciously act with nature to bring our bodies into alignment, a lesson in the anatomy of muscles, tendons and ligaments may be needed. This level of knowledge may enhance the ability to sense on a subtle level what is going on in your own body. Subtle sensory experience is one of the gifts of nature that is easily neglected when we allow our subconscious mind to direct our lives. Subtle sensory experience allows us not only to align our individual bodies (internal environment), but allows us to align with nature and the world around us (external environment).
It may be helpful to familiarize yourself with the following concepts:
Skeletal muscle tissue – voluntary muscle tissue attached to bones and composed of long thread-like cells that have light and dark striations
Tendon – collagenous fibers that connect muscles to bones
Ligament – collagenous fibers that bind two or more bones to a joint
Actively participate in movement;
Contain sensory nerves that transmit information about joint position to the spinal cord and brain
Joint – articulations; they act as junctions between bones
Agonist – prime mover; Synergist – assists prime mover; act on one side of joint.
Antagonist – acts on other side of joint to smooth and even retard movement in question
Standing Poses: the foundation of yoga asana
When practicing yoga asana in the style presented by Yoga and Health, it is normal to experience sensations such as heat, burning, or quivering in the belly of the muscle (which is generally located between two joints). On a scale from 0 -10, discomfort that you rate below 5 can be explored. Stay in the pose, bring focus to breath and alignment and observe how the sensation changes. If the level of discomfort is 5 or greater, come out of the pose. Check that the breath is slow, deep and even. If the pain resolves, you can move into the asana once again moving slowly, mindfully attending to each cue given. If pain persists, consider consulting your health care professional. Asana, when done correctly does not create pain in the joints. It does not create numbness, tingling or pain with a shearing quality.
TADASANA: Mountain Pose
Tadasana is an appropriate name for this pose. Tada! Sounds like a celebration of accomplishment, such as a great work of art or creativity. Evolutionarily, and even biologically, standing upright is a really big deal! Can you remember your transformation from a crawling infant to a standing toddler? I invite you to take a few minutes and just imagine what it was like physically, mentally and spiritually. This pose is the foundation of all asana. A key principle is to find Tadasana in every pose. When you are able to apply that principle in your practice, you will have a true understanding of action and alignment.
Instructions provided are verbal cues to aid in recreating the template, form or structure of the Asana.
Unless there is a specific instruction about how to use the breath, simply allow the breath to be smooth and even.
Stand with the feet hip bone width apart; press into the soles of the feet; lift and spread the toes; feel the arches of the feet and leg muscles become activated
Lower the toes while maintaining the arches and the muscular action in the legs
Bring up a gentle squeeze in the buttocks; this movement aligns the pelvis so that it is not tilted forward (anterior) or back (posterior)
On the out breath, draw everything in towards the center – shins in, lift floor of pelvis with muscular energy up towards the belly; engage front and side abdominal muscles; shorten the distance between lower edge of breast bone and pubic bone; these actions stabilize the spine and help to enhance energy
Maintain the muscular energy in the legs and torso as you allow the breath to be smooth and even in and out of the chest
Allow the shoulders to relax away from the ears and squeeze the shoulder blades together on the back; spread the fingers, activate the hands and arms,pug the top of the arm bones into the shoulder complex, again hugging everything in towards the center
Lift through the crown of the head, sense a lift and even separation of each of the seven neck bones (cervical vertebrae)
If you are interested in a deep exploration of yoga muscle anatomy, I recommend the book Yoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff. As a matter of example, I will share his description of the key structures and joint actions for the asana (Kaminoff, 2007).
Key Structures: Intrinsic and extrinsic foot muscles, quadriceps, iliopsoas, piriformis, abdominal wall, diaphragm Joint Actions: The lumbar, thoracic and cervical curves are in mild axial extension The ankle, hip, shoulder, and wrist joints are in their neutral positions, midway between flexion and extension The arches of the feet are lifted and connecting with the upward lifting action in the pelvic floor, the lower abdomen, rib cage, cervical spine, and the top of the head The shoulder blades are dropped onto the support of the rib cage and connect with the downward release of the tailbone and the grounding of the three points of contact between each foot and the floor
My point is, there is a lot going on just standing up – sometimes it truly feels like a real accomplishment. For me personally, finding Tadasana in my daily activities, with awareness of breath and alignment is one of the most important and ongoing practices of self-care. The more consciously I breath and hold myself the happier I am. No matter what crisis I might be currently managing.
The Shoulder Joint
Tadasana provides an opportunity to experience the axial skeleton in dynamic stillness; standing up in the world. From that strong and stable base, we will explore aligned action of the arms and shoulders (part of the appendicular skeleton).
The amazing shoulder joint – the area where the clavicle, scapula and head of the humerus all come together. In terms of action in the world, the shoulder joint makes it possible for us to use our arms and our hands effectively and efficiently. The complexity of the shoulder allows for efficient movement whether standing, sitting, lying, or dancing a west coast swing. The bones that comprise this joint are held together by tendons, ligaments and muscles. The shoulders and upper arms are capable of abduction, adduction, protraction and retraction, upward and downward rotation, external and internal rotation, flexion and extension.
For this pose, we will focus on sensing the mobility (or habitual immobility) of the shoulder joint, the use of compensatory movement to accommodate for decreased mobility, and the relationship between the shoulders, arms and torso. Because “one at a time” is often more effective and enjoyable, we will begin with Quarter Moon.
Find Tadasana (execute all of the dynamics practiced previously)
Raise the right arm to shoulder level (abduction)
Turn the palm up, raise the arm as high as you can (flexion) without bending the elbow; lower the arm down to the side and turn the palm down; continue mindfully to raise on the inhale and lower on the exhale turning the palm up and down as you go; notice the relationship between the head of the humerus, the scapula and the clavicle); eventually you will be able to raise the arm alongside the ear without compromising the elements of Tadasana; repeat on the other side
With the right arm flexed overhead at the shoulder joint, hug the top of the arm bone into the shoulder socket, activate the muscles that extend from the upper arm all the way to the fingertips; lengthen the side body, and stretch laterally to the left; inhale, lift and lengthen, exhale reach more deeply to the side; return to the center; notice what feels different from side to side; repeat with the left arm
Allow the breath pattern to be smooth and even; allow the abdominal muscles to remain active to hold the spine in neutral alignment, and feel the rib cage expand and contract with each breath
Continue to explore the movement pattern in the first two frames, one side at a time. Breath in as you raise the arm, breathe out as you lengthen and stretch to the side.
Maintain alignment of the low back, hips and legs as you notice movement of the arm in relation to the side body and shoulder complex (top of the arm bone, shoulder blade and collar bone)
Once your shoulder joint feels warm and lubricated, and your arm muscles are elongated (no more than a slight bend at the elbows with the arms stretching over head), you are ready to move on to Half Moon, illustrated in the last two frames
ARDHA CHANDRASANA (Half Moon)
Find Tadasana – Connect the soles of the feet to the ground and activate all of the muscles in between (shins in, thighs spiraling out, hugging pelvic floor and buttocks muscles up and in, front and side abdominal muscles engaged, shoulder blades active on the back body, sternum lifted, neck long, reaching up through the crown of the head)
Raise both arms to shoulder level; turn palms up; reaching from the shoulder blades to the finger tips; bring the arms in line with the ears
Lengthen the left side body and laterally stretch to the right noticing the gentle compression of the right-side body
Focus on the natural steady flow of the breath; breathe in – lift and lengthen; breathe out – draw shoulder blades down and back; press the hips to the left and reach the torso to the right
Stay in the pose as long as the breath is smooth and even; then come back to center; notice what feels different from side to side; repeat on the other side
I have been practicing yoga (and bedside nursing) for 39 years. I know from experience that these simple movements are foundational for strength, flexibility, and endurance. My recommendation is that you practice these poses twice a day every day until they become part of your habitual movement pattern. That is how yoga becomes a lifestyle, instead of a passing fad.
A strong and flexible upper body is the foundation for all arm balancing poses. Upper body strengthening with yoga postures (asanas) and yoga breathing (pranayama) leads to greater cardiovascular and respiratory health.
Adho Mukha Vrksasana or Downward facing tree pose. Notice the elements of mountain pose.
That's me. Second from the left. I did not master my first hand stand until I was 50 years old.
The Pelvis and Hip Joints
The pelvis is at the very center of the body’s design. It is the connection between the spinal column and the legs. Among other activities, it accommodates sitting, standing, walking and balancing. It is comprised of a ring of bones, which along with muscle and other connective tissue provides a home for the reproductive organs, the bladder, and the large intestines. In Latin, the word pelvis means basin or shallow bowl.
The pelvic bone is comprised of three bones – the lilium (ilia, ilio, iliac), the ischium (ischia, ischio, ischial) and the pubis. These three separate bones become fused together by the time a child reaches the age of puberty. The three bones merge together at the center of a deep depression called the acetabulum, which in Latin means little vinegar cup.
The left and right pelvic bones are joined together in the front at the pubic symphysis. In the back, the pelvic bones connect to the sacrum at the sacroiliac joint. These joints are comprised of cartilage and ligaments. These joints provide stability as well as very slight movement and shock absorption.
The hip joint is basically the connection between the head of the femur (ball) and the acetablulum (socket). On the surface of the the acetabulum is an added piece if cartilage called the labrum (Latin for lip) which provides a more stable connection between the two bones. The ligaments which connect the two bones are strong and dense and are integrated with the joint capsule itself. These design characteristics provide both strength and a wide range of motion.
This photo is a pelvic Xray. The head of the femur within the acetabulum is visualized. Note also the shape and grooves of the top of the femur. Many tendons and ligaments connect here and cross over and through the pelvic structures. On plane Xray, structures that are dense (such as bone) will block most of the x-ray particles, and appear white. Structures containing air will be black. Muscle, fat and fluid will appear as shades of gray. You can also see the ischium and pubic bones as well as the space between which is cartilage. In the bowl of the pelvis, within the large circle of bones, you can see circular shades of light and dark which is the large intestine.
The possible range of motion of the femur as it connects into the acetabulum includes flexion (forward) and extension (back); abduction (away from midline) and adduction (towards or crossing midline); and internal or medial rotation (turns in) and external or lateral rotation (turns out). The actual degree of movement depends on 1) genetics – the actual shape and angle of top of the femur; 2) personal history lifestyle, habits and activities and 3) health history. (Please refer to the Joint Freeing Series for exercises to increase joint mobility
The images below are from the classic and time honored yoga text Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar. The traditional yoga asanas can be considered archetypes ~ the original pattern or model from which all things of the same kind are copied or on which they are based; a model or first form.
With this in mind, the goal of the Yoga and Health curriculum is to study the archetypes of traditional yoga poses from various traditions (Iyengar, Desikachar and Kripalu primarily) and to adapt these poses to what an average westerner can effectively and safely perform. With years of steady practice, closer and closer approximation to the archetype will be discovered.
With Utkatasana (Chair pose) we will explore the connection between the axial skeleton and our hips and legs. The joint actions to be explored are flexion and extension.
With Uttanasana (Forward fold) we will explore the balance between flexion and extension.
With a beginner Virabhadrasana (Warrior I pose) we will deepen the exploration of the hip joint finding strength and integrity within an asymmetrical posture; one leg will be in flexion while the other in extension in relation to the hip bones. The extended leg will also require a bit of an external rotation to secure the integrity of the pose.
UTKATASANA: chair pose
Figure 1 Find Tadasana Bring up a gentle squeeze in the buttocks to align the pelvis (not tilted forward or back) Place the hands on the hips, or bring arms to shoulder height in front Engage the core (front and side abdominal muscles) Pay attention to the energetic connection between the lower edge of the sternum and the pubic bone These prompts help to maintain alignment in the spine that preserves the natural curves (cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral) Figure 2 Bend the knees while also hinging at the hips and track alignment from the ASIS through the knees to the toes Maintain the normal curve of the low back by pulling navel back towards spine and maintaining a steady distance from the lower edge of the breast bone and the pubic bone Breathe ~ Maintain awareness of your entire body as you breath and experience sensation ~ Breathe into those areas that feel constricted and allow just a bit of softening ~ Notice what feels loose or wobbly; re-establish connection to the earth and to your core, drawing even those parts in towards the center Figure 3 Maintain a neutral spine and hinge forward at the hip joint Use care to maintain a neutral alignment of the spine as you continue to engage core Notice that you are able to sit more deeply (be sure that you are tracking alignment ASIS, center of knee, toes) With arms at shoulder height, be sure to engage top of arm bones into the shoulder socket squeezing shoulder blades together on the back, align energetically from the shoulder blades to the palms The whole body is active, energetic, prana flowing Figure 4 As you sit deeply in the pose, turn the palms in, plug the tops of the arms into the shoulder girdle, squeeze the shoulder blades together, reach the arms up and back to the ears, and keep the spine neutral Engage from the shoulder blades to the palms activating muscular energy Engage the core narrowing the distance between the lower Breathe deeply using ujjayi breathing to power up the pose To release from any of these variations, simply lower the arms and straighten the legs returning to Tadasana. Close your eyes, notice the breath and notice sensation
Utkata means powerful, fierce, uneven
This pose strengthens ankles, knees, hips and shoulders and evenly develops leg muscles. It provides a stretch for the low back and tones the abdomen. Full expansion inhalation strengthens the chest.
Practice with caution if you have imbalance, severe osteoporosis or profound weakness. Use particular care if you have inflammation or injury of ankles, knees, hips or shoulder. As always, stop practicing the pose if it creates pain in the joints.
UTTANASANA: forward bend
Figure 1 Tadasana and place your hands on your hips Engage muscular energy from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head Root down from the waist to the soles; rise up from the waist to the crown Breathe in. Lengthen from the base of the spine to the top of the head Figure 2 Hinge at the hips ~ squeeze the elbows together and lift the shoulder blades away from the rib cage (this will help to prevent rounding the thoracic spine) ~ aim to bring the torso parallel to the floor Figure 3 Bend the knees to go deeper ~ press the lower abdomen and thighs together ~ breathe and connect with the stability (Sthira)and comfort (Sukha) this pose can bring fold over hinging at the hips with a neutral spine until you can go no further Figure 4 Round over allowing head to hang heavy and arms to relax ~ place hands on the floor or on a block to ground the pose ~ legs are active and provide stability ~ gravity is working on the spine ~ vertebrae to separate relieving compression on the inter-vertebral discs ~with each inhalation lengthen the legs from the soles to the hips ~ with each exhalation compress the abdomen and chest towards the legs ~ connect with the natural easy flow of the breath Figure 5 Slowly roll up on an out breath beginning with the lower spine~ set each vertebra one on top of the other ~ stop when you need to breathe in and continue to roll up on the out breath ~ the head is the very last part to lift Close your eyes. Breathe easily and notice sensation in your body.
Benefits include relief of stomach pain and menstrual cramps. It tones the liver, spleen and kidneys; promotes a calm mind and attitude; a great counter stretch for all standing poses, lengthens the thoracic and lumbar spinal muscles and hamstrings; promotes freedom of movement in the pelvis and hips.
Use particular care in practicing this pose and stop if you experience any unpleasant sensations due to spondylolisthesis, herniated disc, hamstring tear or lightheadedness.
If you are treated for high blood pressure, or if you have low blood pressure do not remain with your head down very long and return to standing very slowly.
VIRABHADRASANA I: warrior 1
Come to the front of the mat and find Tadasana ~ place hands on hips ~ press elbows back, squeeze shoulder blades together and activate the back body Step back with the right leg extending and externally rotating at the hip and place the sole of the foot onto the ground ~ it will be turned out 30 to 45 degrees in order to accommodate a neutral (forward facing) pelvis Energetically connect the sole of the right foot to the right buttocks activating the muscles in the leg Bend the left knee so that it is in line with the ankle Track the left heel towards the right instep, drawing everything up towards the center activating all of the muscles from the waist down to the feet Stay here a while and breath ~ explore the feeling of both stability (sthira) and comfort (sukha) Interlace fingers and place the hands behind the head at the base of the skull just above the cervical vertebrae – open the elbows wide ~ gently press the head into the hands as the hands support the head ~ stay here for a few breaths ~ notice sensation Lift out of the waist and reach the sternum up towards the sky creating a gentle backward bend ~ notice the movement in the back body at the lower edge of the rib cage ~ stay here for a few breaths Extend the arms up from the shoulder blades to the tips of the fingers ~ turn the palms towards each other ~ energetically connect the scapula to the palms and reach the arms back towards the ears as you maintain a neutral spine You may place the hands in temple pose to create a strong boundary within which arms can extend even more ~ stay here for a few breaths To come out of the pose, lower the hands to the hips or to the heart in Anjali mudra, and step the right foot forward Repeat on the other side
Effects of the asana according to BKS Iyengar in the text Light on Yoga: In this pose the chest is fully expanded and this helps deep breathing. It relieves stiffness in the shoulders and back, tones up the ankles and knees and cures stiffness of the neck. It also reduces fat round the hips.
Many yoga asanas are steeped in the mythology of India. The following is an excerpt from a Yoga International article about the story behind Virabhadrasana:
THE MYTHOLOGY OF VIPARITA VIRABHADRASANA: WHO WAS VIRABHADRA? The story of Virabhadra is a classic warrior tale in that it reflects the struggle between truth (atman or "higher self") and the ego. In this tale, Lord Shiva takes a wife—Sati—but her father, Daksha, does not approve of Shiva's bizarre, renunciate ways. (Shiva spends time in cemeteries and wears a snake around his neck, after all.) To demonstrate his disapproval, Daksha throws a party and does not invite the newlyweds. Sati becomes enraged and goes to the party alone to defend her love of Shiva, but her father cannot surrender his opinion of Shiva; his distaste for their coupling remains. In retaliation, Sati decides to sever her relationship with her father and her family in general. She even decides to leave her body (which is a yogic way to say "die"). She announces this to her father, leaves the party, goes deep into meditation, and builds an inner fire (agni) that is so strong she eventually spontaneously combusts. Grief-stricken, Shiva tears his hair out, and from that hair he manifests Virabhadra to slay Sati's stubborn-minded father. Virabhadra quickly fulfills his purpose; he arrives at the party and decapitates Daksha. But after the deed is done, Shiva feels sorrow and regret. So, he absorbs Virabhadra back into his body, goes to the party (that by now is most definitely over), and restores life to Daksha. When Daksha's heartbeat returns, his perspective has shifted; he, too, feels regret for his ways. From then on, he calls Shiva "Shiva Shankar," the kind and benevolent one. In the end, Sati also comes back to life by re-incarnating as Parvati (another goddess and wife of Shiva). THE STORY AS METAPHOR When Virabhadra kills Daksha, one could say the warrior represents an aspect of the higher self that manifests to slay the human ego, represented by Daksha. Then, when Shiva brings Daksha back to life, he reminds us that inner work isn't as simple as destroying the parts of ourselves we don’t like. Instead, if we extend compassion toward the stubborn, harmful sides of our self, we can invite them to soften and relinquish control. Through our warriorship, we can befriend, rather than admonish, our egos. We can accept ourselves, even the aspects we wish to discard—every part.
https://yogainternational.com/article/view/stand-strong-in-your-true-self-the-mythology-and-practice-of-reverse-warrio accessed 8/22/2020
I hope that you will explore the poses explained in this short article. These basic poses continue to be a part of my daily yoga practice and the principles apply to every physical activity I engage in.
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