5 Alignment Cues You Need To Know About – Both On & Off Your Mat
In this 2 part series we’ll look at the 5 alignment cues and associated energetic actions essential to your yoga practice both on & off the mat.
When attempting to correct your posture in standing or seated positions there are 5 key postural cues that need to be addressed for the spine, pelvis and scapular to be aligned correctly and to promote adequate load transfer between these joints. These 5 postural cues are also fundamental in postures performed on the mat in order to achieve ideal alignment and here’s that phrase again ‘adequate load transfer’.
Before we investigate these 5 key elements, lets first look at what exactly we mean by ‘adequate load transfer’ and why it is important on & off the mat.
When we take a step forward and our foot makes contact with the ground like in standing poses, ground reaction forces travel upwards from the ground into our feet and are transferred through the joints of our feet, to our ankles, knees, hips, pelvis, sacrum and then up to the spine. These forces continue transferring up the spine through each spinal articulation all the way to the base of the skull. When these joints are ideally aligned in their ‘neutral’ position, the energy from the ground reaction forces is absorb minimally by the load bearing structures (i.e the cartilage, IV discs, meniscus) and most of the energy is transferred up to the next joint in the kinetic chain with energy being dissipated along the way.
When these joints are not neutrally aligned, additional energy is absorbed by the load bearing structures (cartilage, IV discs, meniscus etc) and they ultimately suffer increased wear & tear. This is called failed load transfer and is associated with accelerated degeneration and overuse injuries.
Many of us learned when we were very young to ‘sit up’ or ‘stand up straight’ to correct our posture. This overly simplified postural cue has lead many to develop the habit of ‘rib flare and excessive lumbar lordosis, both of which do not involve a neutral alignment.
So let’s look at these 5 key postural cues and also the language used to describe them in yoga classes.
Start by lying on your back on the floor with your knees bent and soles of your feet flat on the floor.
- Adopt a neutral pelvis
If you imagine your pelvis is a bucket of water and you don’t want to spill any water from the bucket. Place your fingers over the bony prominences at the front of your pelvis and your thumb over the bony ridge at the back, tilt the bucket forwards and backwards a few times to get a sense of the water spilling out the front when you tilt it forwards or out the back as you tilt it back. Find what feels like the halfway point between these two positions where no water would spill out. In this position the sacro-iliac joints have an even amount of contact between the two bony articular surfaces, allowing for adequate load transfer.
Posteriorly tilting the pelvis in Utkatasana (chair pose) as in the pic above, can increase the shearing forces at the sacroiliac joints (SIJ) and the lumbar spine joints (posterior intervertebral discs & Z joints), especially if there is a lack of passive ligamentous restraint and/or muscular support.
The bucket analogy is one you may have heard your yoga teach use. Other cues used to encourage a neutral pelvic alignment include:
- ‘Lengthen your tailbone down to the floor’
- ‘Tuck your tailbone under’
The cue that encourages you into a neutral pelvis will depend on the pose you’re in and also your individual posture type. For example in Tadasana (mountain pose), a person with a naturally posteriorly tilted pelvis such as in sway back, will need to ‘lift their tailbone away from the floor to find neutral, whereas a person with anterior pelvic tilt or tight hip flexors will need to ‘tuck the tailbone’ or ‘lengthen the tailbone down to the floor’.
- Activate your Transversus Abdominus (TA) muscle:
The TA muscle is an important spinal stability muscle. When it contracts it draws inwards towards the spine like a corset. Activation of the TA is best achieved when the pelvis is in neutral so the order of postural correction cues is also a worthy consideration. When the TA is activated it not only supports the spine in its neutral curve allowing for adequate load transfer, but it also absorbs energy from ground reaction forces or external perturbations to the spine. Thus reducing the energy absorbed by the load bearing structures of the spine (IV discs, cartilage) and ultimately reduces degeneration or ‘wear & tear’.
Common verbal cues for activating the TA in yoga class are:
- ‘Imagine the two bony prominences at the front of your pelvis were to draw towards each other’ or
- ‘Engage your mula bandha’ or
- ‘Draw in through your navel’
- ‘Draw your belly button in towards your spine’
- Align your rib cage over your pelvis
When we think back to the old postural cue we are first taught as a child to ‘stand up straight’, this is where a lot of people learn bad habits both on & off the mat. When we think of ‘standing up straight’ without paying attention to the alignment of our pelvis and spine, we tend to flare our rib cage backwards and over extend the lumbar spine. In standing, this is often called the military posture as it is commonly seen in army soldiers when they ‘stand at attention’.
The most common cues used in the yoga classroom to correct this alignment faux par include:
- ‘soften down through your front ribs’
- ‘maintain your rib to hip connection’
Adopting these subtle postural cues within your yoga practice will go a long way to ensure you protect your spine and pelvis from excessive strain. Unfortunately for many of us achieving a neutral alignment is not as easy as simply cueing certain movements, as years of sitting at computers with slumped posture has led to muscle imbalances to develop. These muscle imbalances and movement pattern dysfunctions need to be addressed to allow our bodies to move comfortably in and out of a neutral alignment. Although sitting can cause similar types of imbalances to develop in most people, we are all slightly different in our underlying structure and the movement compensation patterns we develop can vary. A skilled yoga therapist can help you correct these muscle imbalances and movement dysfunctions, by conducting a thorough assessment and prescribing postural sequences to correct them.
Check back next week for Part 2 of this blog series, which will discuss the final 2 cues for posture correction both on & off the mat.