Assessing and Correcting Posture
Yogananda often said, “A bent spine is the enemy of Self-realization.”
Patanjali stated in his Yoga Sutras, “The fruit of right poise is the strength to resist the shocks of infatuation or sorrow.”
In The Art and Science of Raja Yoga, Swami Kriyananda wrote, “Right posture is vitally important to the yogi.”
And one of the first known written books on Hatha Yoga, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, explained that asana “… should be practiced for gaining steady posture, health and lightness of body.”
The importance of good posture is undisputed. Yet I have found that the teaching of good posture is rarely at the forefront of most yoga classes. Even in classes that purport to emphasize alignment, often the focus is so strongly on, say, the position of the little finger, or the placement of the femur through various muscular contractions, that it can leave the spine in a compromised position.
At best the spine is beset with tension, and at worst it is contracted in such a way as to impede the flow of energy up the spine — and an unimpeded flow of energy is the ultimate goal of practicing yoga postures, whether one’s goal is physical prowess or enlightenment. I suspect that there are several reasons for this common discrepancy. Some instructors do not have the training and experience to be able to correct more than the grossest postural problems. Even those who are better versed in alignment may not realize that correct positioning of the spine is more important than correct positioning of any other part of the body.
It also takes a combination of hard work and intuitive attunement to be able to teach students of varying body shapes and sizes how to have perfectly aligned posture. To teach the subtleties of alignment, it is necessary to experiment with one’s own posture and learn how to experience the subtle shifts of energy caused by subtle alignment changes.
The Purpose of Posture
Why is good posture so important? How can we know whether we ourselves are in good alignment? How can we know whether our students have the best alignment that they can have for their bodies in order to maximize their benefits from yoga practice? And how do we make corrections to improper posture?
Proper alignment is necessary for preventing injuries as well as maximizing the benefits of any asana. For example, putting all of one’s weight onto the standing leg when the knee is hyperextended puts tremendous strain on the ligaments supporting the knee. They become overstretched and may cause swelling, which can over time cause damage to the knee joint. Also, overstretched ligaments in any joint provide less support, predisposing one to a potential future injury from something as mundane as stepping off the curb incorrectly and causing a sprained joint.
Additionally when the knee is hyperextended, the leg muscles are not being correctly utilized and strengthened, and the energy flow of the leg is disrupted, thus limiting the potential benefits of the asana.
Similarly, misalignments in the spine can create the same problems, for the vertebrae also are connected by joints. I’m sure you can see how misalignments in the spine and the corresponding problems can easily be compounded.
When working therapeutically with yourself or your students, proper alignment is essential. Often injuries are caused by poor posture and/or continue to be aggravated by poor posture. A very subtle correction in alignment can make the difference between complete recovery and being stuck with managing a chronic problem.
Posture and Energy Flow
Poor posture impedes energy flow, with a resultant negative impact on one mentally, physically and spiritually. Conversely, good posture will help improve one’s mental, physical and spiritual state of being.
For example, when we are feeling well (on any level — mentally, physically or spiritually), we naturally lift our eyes and lengthen our spine. In describing how we feel, we use words like “up” and “high.” When we are not well, we tend to look down, slump our spine, and speak of being “down.”
Indeed, when we are feeling “up” there is a corresponding upward flow of energy in the spine. This upward movement of energy is one of upliftment and expansion, and with it comes vitality in the physical body and a more positive mental outlook. Spiritually, this upward energy can be directed toward an expansion of consciousness.
On the other hand, when we are feeling “down,” there is a corresponding downward flow of energy in the spine. This downward movement of energy is one of contraction; with it comes a loss of physical energy/vitality and a more negative mental outlook. Spiritually, it tends to move us toward self-centeredness.
A Quick Postural Checkpoint
A simple test for your own alignment is to stand in Tadasana for five minutes or more, then ask yourself the following questions: “Am I comfortable? Am I completely free of tension? Am I becoming more energized as I stay longer in Tadasana, feeling the energy moving upward in my spine?” If you can answer “yes” to all of these questions, then your alignment is probably very good.
On the other hand, if even the thought of standing in Tadasana for five minutes makes you uncomfortable, then probably you have some work to do on your posture — and probably you should not even try the exercise. (A word of advice: do not ask your students to stand this long in Tadasana in class unless they have good posture and are very advanced. Otherwise at best, you will see attendance going down in your subsequent classes, and at worst you will have someone’s muscles go into a spasm that’s not easily released.)
When we align our bones correctly, we will engage muscles that are designed to keep us in our upright posture. These “postural muscles” are designed to hold us upright for long periods of time.
However, when we are not aligned properly, the body must recruit other muscles — muscles not intended for this purpose — to hold us upright. Because those muscles are being asked to do something that they were not designed to do, they will tire easily — as well as spasm — if asked to do the work of the postural muscles for too long. (In fact, if one has not been in proper alignment for a long time, the postural muscles will have atrophied to some extent. They will need to be toned progressively, and it may take a while before they can return to their intended full-time job.)
Overview of Correcting Posture
First of all, to assess your students’ alignment in Tadasana or any other asana, you will have to walk around the room and view your students individually from the front, from at least one side, and from the back. No amount of postural knowledge will help you individually correct your students’ posture if you view them only from your position in the front of the classroom.
Second, when correcting posture, always start at the base first. In standing asanas, the base is the feet. Tension and misalignment in the spine are often the results of improper distribution of weight on the feet.
In seated asanas, the base is the ischial tuberosities (a.k.a. sitzbones, sitbones, sitting bones). If the sitzbones are tilted forward even slightly (i.e., the pelvis is over-tucked), the spine cannot be in proper alignment. True, we do not want to tip the pelvis too far forward either, but only very flexible individuals will be able to come into that exaggerated position. Particularly inflexible individuals, on the other hand, will not be able to tip forward enough to come into proper alignment without the aide of props such as blankets or pillows under the sitzbones.
In fact, anyone who has an injury or chronic condition that is even mildly aggravated when sitting on the floor — and for whom props do not completely alleviate the discomfort — should not sit on the floor until he or she is able to do so with no discomfort whatsoever.
Starting from the base, work your way up the body to make corrections. As you do this, continually look back at the base and the other lower points, because there is the habitual tendency for the body to revert to its former position while you may be trying to correct another area.
Last of all, do not expect perfection all at once. Though it is important to have excellent posture, reality will dictate how quickly one can move toward a more perfect alignment. In many cases, it is quite enough of a challenge simply to focus on the proper placement of the feet, while generally encouraging the rest of the body to “stand tall.” Again, you want your students to come back to class, right?
Alignment of the Joints
My own view of proper alignment is that, viewed from the side, the center of the ankle joint, center of the hip joint, center of the shoulder joint, and center of the ear canal should be in a straight vertical line (see photo). That sounds easy, but it is actually a bit tricky to tell where these centers are.
For example, when one looks at the knee joint, the tendency is to find the midpoint between the front and the back of the visible parts of the knee. That is incorrect. The kneecap is in front of — not part of — the actual knee joint (see image.)
If you consider the kneecap as part of the joint, you will determine an incorrect center of the joint, and thereby possibly encourage hyperextension of the knee joint just to get all of these points into alignment.
Fortunately, the other points of alignment are easier to find than is the knee. Even then, it takes practice to get it right with all the different body shapes and sizes that you’ll encounter. Make small adjustments at any given time, observe the results, and ask your students how they feel in the new position. Explain to them that they may feel different or strange — and that’s okay — but you do not want them to feel discomfort or tension. Then ask them specifically, “How do you feel in this new position?” The more feedback you get, the more you will learn about what works and what does not work.
Getting Clarity on “Natural Curves”
For correct posture, the spine should be in its “natural curves.” If you look closely at the curves of the spine on a skeleton, you may be surprised at how small the curves actually are. However, when looking at an actual person, the true skeletal shape is somewhat obscured by the many different types of tissue that cover it (see image of the skeleton inside the outline of the body.)
For example, in standing posture, the protrusion of the gluteal muscles (and perhaps some fatty tissue as well!) tends to give the illusion that the lumbar spine has more curve than it actually does. Therefore it’s easy to conclude — incorrectly — that someone with large, developed glueteals has too much curve.
Then too, someone with nearly flat gluteals may appear to have insufficient lumbar curvature. A lumbar curve can also look flatter than it is because of a lot of developed musculature in the lower back; this is often the case with people who do physical labor for a living — the spine can literally disappear between two high ridges of muscle.
Keep in mind that healthy spinal curvature is not a “one size fits all” proposition. Once while being examined by Dr. David Kessler (from Ananda Village), Gyandev remarked that his lumbar curve was too flat.
Dr. Kessler’s response was, “Are you comparing your lumbar curve with some theoretical lumbar curve that you think you’re supposed to have?”
When you are not sure if someone’s clothes, excess or lack of fatty tissues etc., may be making their posture look “not quite right” to you, go back to checking whether the points of alignment are in their proper places. Also try to get your students to relax into good posture. Being tense is not only undesirable, but can make a person’s posture not look right even if their bones are aligned properly.
Similarly, the scapulae (shoulderblades) and the muscles around them tend to make the thoracic spine appear to have more curve than it actually does. Finally, the skull perched on top of — and sticking out behind — the cervical spine gives the appearance that the cervical spine has more curve than it actually does (see image).
With all of this said, do make sure that people keep their curves! Too little curvature in any part of the spine is potentially just as destructive as too much curvature, and that, too, will impede the flow of energy up the spine. The natural curves of the human spine developed as they did to help support the body, distribute our weight effectively, and provide cushioning to absorb shock from walking, jumping, and moving in general. Without the curves, we lose our ability to move freely without risk of injury.
Common Postural Problems
To make corrections in spinal curvature, I’ve found it helpful to be aware that different people have different learning mechanisms. Some people respond best to auditory cues, others to tactile (touch) cues, still others to visual cues.
For the auditory person, imagery often works well: “Feel as though there is a weight at the end of your tailbone” will help to tuck the pelvis. For the tactile person, a light touch can be best; e.g. lightly touch the tops of the scapulae with the tips of your fingers to indicate that they should release downward.
You might want a visual learner simply to watch you make the correction on yourself, e.g., draw a protruding chin inward, toward the back of the neck. So I find it important to offer all three types of cues. And for especially difficult corrections, it sometimes takes the repetition of all three to achieve the response that you want.
In my experience one of the most common postural problems is having the weight too far back on the feet, i.e., too much weight on the heels. Even a small amount of misdistribution can create postural problems and tension farther up in the spine.
Often related to this is the tendency to have the lower rib cage protruding forward and the upper part of the rib cage angled toward the back of the body (see photo.)
This is actually very common in experienced yoga students (and teachers) with otherwise good posture. We spend so much time working on opening the heart area and counteracting the influence of gravity and rounded shoulders, that we and our students often overcorrect the spine and rib cage in this way.
Always be sure before making this adjustment that the lower body alignment is in place to support the correction. Sometimes this rib cage position is simply the body’s reaction to the alignment below being off, as in the case of someone who chronically has the pelvis shifted way forward, so it’s not under the shoulders anymore. First get the lower body aligned, then (if necessary) proceede with the upper body correction(s).
To help correct this position, I will sometimes exaggerate the incorrect position with my own body, and place my hands on the sides of my ribs, showing with my fingers that the lower rib cage is pointing forward. Then when I correct my posture they can see that my fingers move to pointing straight down toward the floor. I speak of bringing the rib cage over the pelvis.
Another effective method for correcting this problem is to stand to one side of your student and simultaneously place one finger on their upper back (indicating that the upper back is to move forward) and another finger on their lower rib cage in front (to suggest that it move backward), all the while explaining the desired direction of movement.
“Hey, This Feels Really Strange!”
When we correct this position by moving the lower part of the rib cage back and the upper part of the rib cage forward — bringing the rib cage to its upright position right over the pelvis — there is often an accompanying feeling of being too far forward. There even can be a sensation of feeling like one is about to fall forward.
Similar misperceptions of being “off” can occur with other postural corrections. This off-balance sensation is produced by a mechanism in the inner ear that is responsible for our sense of balance. When we habitually place ourselves out of alignment, this inner ear mechanism will in time “give up” on us, figuring that this must be the way we want our bodies to be. To help us strengthen this desired position, the inner ear will reprogram itself to give the signal that this new position is “normal.”
Then, for example, when we correct a position in which we were aligned too far back, the inner ear signals that we are now forward of our “normal” position by causing us to feel that we may be in danger of falling on our face.
I have made this correction countless times, and though I have known many a student to experience this sensation, rest assured that not one has ever fallen on his or her face — or even lost his or her balance, for that matter — due to my making this correction in Tadasana.
One way you can know that you are not overcorrecting someone is to ask if s/he feels tension or is uncomfortable in the new position. As long as the answer is “no,” then sensations such as feeling like falling forward, feeling “funny,” strange, etc., are okay; they will go away as the inner ear recalibrates itself. In fact, the inner ear re-calibrates itself fairly quickly.
Unfortunately it takes us a lot longer to change our postural habits than it does for the inner ear to adjust. I had a rather dramatic experience of this phenomenon many years ago when I had an operation on both of my feet. I was in a wheelchair for a month. My legs were kept straight out in front of me at a right angle to my torso. At the end of this period, when my doctor told me to stand up, I did so, but I kept my body at the same right angle that I’d been sitting in for the past month! Intellectually I knew that I was bent over at a right angle, but experientially, I felt that if I were to straighten up, I would fall over backward. It was a very strong sensation.
The doctor took my hand to encourage me to stand up and walk down the hallway. I can still remember my surprise at not being able to overcome the feedback that I was receiving from my body, even though I “knew” it was okay for me to stand upright. I still think of how hard I held onto my doctor’s hand as I tentatively walked down the hall, as though I was about to fall backward off the edge of a cliff. To this day I wonder if I bruised his hand by holding on so tightly! I do not remember exactly how long it took for the inner ear feedback to adjust, but the process did begin immediately, and in a matter of days I felt normal once again in my upright position!
Another aspect of postural habits is that neurological pathways are created between the muscles and the brain when we form muscular habits, whether good or bad. It takes time and concentration to create new habits and reprogram the neuromuscular pathways. Once the effort has been put forth and a new habit has been established, the hard work pays off — from that time forward, less energy and focus are needed to maintain it.
When you find a student with postural misalignment in Tadasana, you can usually bet that s/he will have the same misalignment in other asanas. If you do not address the misalignment in Tadasana, you will find it that much more difficult to correct the misalignment in the other asanas. Furthermore, as the asana positions become more complex, one increases the likelihood that the misalignment will aggravate an old injury or cause a new one.
When I work with young children, I ask them if they are ready for a really, really hard asana. If they say “yes,” then I have them stand briefly in Tadasana. I praise them for whatever attempt they made to stay still and tell them that it is a difficult pose for adults to do as well.
Keep this in mind for your classes also. Do not spend too much uninterrupted time working on postural alignment in Tadasana. Instead, weave good alignment points throughout the entire class. Always check first for anything that can cause strain or injury, such as hyperextended knees in a standing pose or a hyperextended neck in a backward bend. Then go back to the basics of proper distribution of the weight on the feet or the angle of the sitzbones.
Final Tips on Teaching Correct Posture
The more familiar you become with the human skeleton and how it looks when placed in various positions, the more you will be able to fine-tune alignment. Learn to have x-ray eyes to figure out how a student’s skeletal frame is lining up underneath all the layers of clothes and varying shapes of muscles and fat.
Once you get a feel for the bony alignment, go a little deeper and become aware of tension and relaxation in your students. You may be able to get your student’s bones to align properly, but if you still are observing tension, then you need to work on suggesting ways to release the muscular tension. Often the slightest touch and/or mention of releasing or relaxing will produce the desired results.
Dynamic use of the affirmations can also promote good alignment. A well-energized affirmation of “Strength and courage fill my body cells!” can help take the wilt out of a collapsed Chandrasana. Some quiet, relaxed time in an asana can help melt away the tensions of old habits as well as interiorize the experience for the student.
You’ll help your students in an even more profound way if you can sense if and where energy is being blocked in a pose, then help them adjust their position to get it moving again. This is definitely a more-advanced teaching skill, but it’s well worth the effort to develop it.
“A bent spine impairs the flow of energy. It also cramps the breath, making it almost impossible to breathe deeply. Right posture, however, from a standpoint of yoga, is by no means the rigid stance of a soldier on parade. One must be relaxed even while standing straight.
“Indeed, until one can learn to keep his spine straight, he will never know how to relax perfectly.”
And if we don’t have perfect relaxation, then vibrant health, complete peace of mind, and spiritual heights also will elude us. So, whether your students are looking for a more perfect body, peace of mind, or Self-realization, the more you can help them improve their posture, the more swiftly they will be able to move toward their goal.
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