Anatomy of Alignment
By Kathleen Ames
The human spine is designed to have curves of both the lumbar and cervical for shock absorption and ease of movement. When we do exercises that flatten our spine, we are overriding our natural design. Many Yoga positions reinforce bad posture and go against our natural curves. (Our curves are there for a reason!) These exercises make up a large percentage of our current Yoga, Pilates and fitness exercises. With a little bit of awareness, we can avoid distorting our natural shape and instead move to support the curves of our body.
Chronic pain is directly related to poor posture In fact, according to Cedar Sinai Spinal Institute, 95% of pain is a result of dysfunctional alignment. Many a sore back is blamed on too much time sitting at a desk, but exercises that put our body in right angle positions that simulate the chair shape are just as harmful.
Two simple tests may determine whether an exercise or yoga pose serves the human design: it should allow the spine to have its natural curves, and it should not cause restricted breathing. The breath is a wonderful barometer to realize if one is holding tension.
These are common positions and exercises that distort our natural alignment, creating more pain and joint destabilization:
• Sitting in chairs with poor posture. This puts the spine in an unnatural C-shape with its natural curves reversed.
• Toe-touching with knees straight while standing or sitting, like the yoga forward bend.
• Forced abdominal exercises that direct us to keep the navel drawn in to tighten the six-pack. Chronically tight, short abs can inhibit movement and distort posture, breathing and digestion.
• Positions that create a right angle, such as the yoga staff pose, straight leg standing or seated bends, and the yoga shoulder stand and plow pose. These are non-functional body positions that can overstretch nerves and ligaments, as well as compress spinal discs or even encourage a distal disc forced misalignment or even force a slipped disc. Our spine is not made to bend like this. Keep your curves, and bending at the knees when doing any forward bending unless you are one of a very few that can keep the lumbar curve with straight legs.
• Cycling, paddling and spinning with your spine in a C shape. Why would you want to strengthen poor posture habits?
• Tucking the tailbone requires one to draw in the abs, creating chronic shortness of the trunk, compressed lumbar spine and a flat butt. DO NOT TUCK YOUR TAIL BONE!!!!!
The human body is not designed to sit in chairs! Our trunk is not designed to be static in a right angle, so we often fall into a slouch. This pushes our head forward, and we strain our shoulders, upper back and neck muscles to support the extra weight of the head posturing forward. The strain culminates in chronic pain, headaches etc. My yoga philosophy is based on eliminating unnecessary tension in the body and waking up dormant postural forces that align you from the inside out, working on the deep stabilization muscles rather than the large, gross muscles. The six-pack is highly overrated! Toning the six-pack to be flat, however, can inadvertently create an unnatural shortened tension that brings our breastbone towards our pubic bone and draws our head and shoulders forward in misalignment.
Good posture should be a natural result of doing exercises and poses that simulate your body’s innate curving shape…maintaining the lumbar and cervical spine. It is imperative that in our daily movements through which we live in our bodies, we have our natural, neutral spine alignment. When alignment is not balanced, the whole body suffers from pain, tension, and eventually the deterioration of cartilage and joints.
To be pain-free, you need to learn to engage your body in its natural design, sit with actively curved spine engagement, but also make sure that your exercise supports good posture and not good poses.
In addition to the physical…in our day to day activities we can subconsciously get caught up in holding patterns in the body, we don't have to be in intense pain for this to happen. We can carry this "holding" in our body even when we sleep. When we let go of our mental anguish and our fear the body softens and vice versa when we relax the body we release the fear. When we are in pain our fear/holing can be referenced to as a pain/tension loop that is extremely hard to get out of. So my pain was not in vain, I get to help others through what I learned from being in pain for years. Although I have had many great Yoga teachers my best teacher has been my pain and for that I am very grateful, yes, even for the pain.
Suffering is actually a good thing in one's life (however it is usually a choice). It makes you stronger and when the suffering dissolves you're more appreciative and have more gratitude for your life. But some of us get stuck in the suffering loop and it's hard to get out of it. We get stuck with the old stories and build our present on the past which just is more of the same. Releasing the suffering, the old stories and the old patterns is the key to being in the present moment. And only in the present moment is where gratitude lives, it does not live in the past or the future. Regret lives in the past and worry lives in the future. Now is a present!
You may go about your day (or even your yoga practice) focusing on other things besides what's happening right now...dwelling on what has already happened in the past or thinking about a future that may or may not happen. In the meantime you can bypass a good chunk of your life; you could be experiencing something that could profoundly affect you but you wouldn't know it because you're not paying attention. (This is also true in a yoga pose.) Paying attention is one of the key components of transformation and of enlightenment and releasing the pain response whether it is physical or mental. You are completely unable to change something that you are not aware of and sometimes recognizing something takes your full attention and intention.
We tend to set self imposed limitations and buy into the thought process that we can’t. We should never ever say we can’t rather it is much more empowering to say; I choose not to. It does help to listen and feel our bodies as we transition from one move to the next. We need to take care that we don’t “fall” in or out of our poses. As we move slow and mindful we also need to move with alacrity, being eager and ready for what’s next, opening to the “being” of yoga rather that the “doing” of yoga.
Expectation is setting one up for future disappointment, being completely in the present moment is loving what is. Always come to your mat with a beginners mind rather than an all ready knowing mind.
Pay attention… ask yourself… am I coming from ego or a place of listening and a place of ease. Relax, release and realign. Sometimes the healing path is through which we long to avoid, you must fully feel to heal. The only way out of the pain is through the pain. This is why pain pills do not work...the more you take the more you need. The body wants you to feel! The more you feel the more you heal.
You have to be in the present moment to know if you're holding on to the past (or holding period), then and only then are you able to release the past and enjoy your life now! Welcome home…
- Kathleen D. Ames
Owner and instructor of YogaUtopia and founder of Anatomy of Yoga Alignment