Yoga Focus: aligning the spine
Spinal alignment is key to ensuring that instructors and participants maintain safety in all yoga poses.
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The various poses and planes of motion experienced throughout a yoga class improve core strength and postural alignment when performed safely. Unfortunately, too many injuries are caused in yoga through lack of instruction and body awareness – often from pushing into a pose, rather than simply enjoying being in the pose.
One of the most important of the Seven Principles of Alignment (SPA) developed by YogaFit is aligning the spine. The most flexible points of the spine, C7/T1, T12/L1 and through the sacroiliac joint, are also the points of most injury. There is often a tendency to ‘hang out’ in certain yoga postures, specifically in back bends and rotation, so that they feel easier at the time. We should move in one plane of the spine at a time, either neutral, flexion, extension or rotation – as opposed to flexion and rotation, often seen inside a spinal twist. We must be able to breathe fully and comfortably inside every pose – spinal movements performed incorrectly will cause shallow breathing. We must also work to create space between each vertebra, from our tailbones to the top of our neck, taking time to re-align our spines in every movement and pose.
Please note: poses should only be performed after a sufficient warm up.
From a seated position, extend your legs. Bring your right knee up with the sole of your foot on the floor. Place your right hand next to you or behind you and sit tall (photo 1). Beginning in neutral spine, rotate to the right, bringing your left forearm around to hold your right shin. Use your core strength rather than your arm to deepen the twist. A great test is to perform this pose first without using your arms.
Holding the pose: Use only your core strength to deepen the twist. Lengthen your spine with each inhalation, twist further with each exhalation. Switch sides.
Modifications: If you have difficulty keeping your back straight, sit on a rolled-up yoga mat or folded blanket. Elevating your hips relieves tension caused by tight hamstrings that can tip the pelvis back, making it difficult to sit with a neutral spine.
Moving slowly from a kneeling position, place your hands or fists on the top part of your glutes (gluteus medius). Firming your glutes, and drawing dynamic tension through your adductors, begin to lift your chest toward the sky (photo 2). For a greater challenge, drop your arms behind you and grab your heels.
Holding the pose: Lift out of your lower back, drawing your elbows back to expand your chest. Look toward the sky without dropping your head back. For added support, place a yoga block or 20cm ball between your legs, a few inches above your knees. This will ensure proper pelvic floor engagement and more length for the spine, particularly through the sacroiliac joint.
Modifications: If your neck begins to fatigue, look forward and tuck your chin slightly. For sensitive knees or other knee concerns, use a kneepad for comfort.
Beth Shaw is the president and founder of YogaFit Training Systems Worldwide Inc, which has trained more than 200,000 fitness professionals across six continents. She has also authored Beth Shaw’s YogaFit (Human Kinetics, 2009) from which this content is adapted.