Have you skipped lately? It’s a great cardio workout that is easy on the joints, engendering a childlike euphoria. In a 2012 study, 110 students from San Francisco State University walked in either a slumped position or skipped down the hall; then they rated their energy levels. Not surprisingly, the students reported having much more energy after skipping than slouching. Why? Think about what happens when we skip: a surge of upward-moving energy from the legs and hips propels the spine into space, where it is suspended and free. We can experience a similar feeling of freedom in our spine while standing, provided there is a sense of energy in the hips and legs.
Now feel what happens when we slump: Bring your sit bones toward your legs and collapse your chest. Can you feel a decrease in energy flowing through the body? Try breathing diaphragmatically—you may notice how the decreased space in your belly hampers your breathing. And how enthusiastic do you feel? In order to realign a habitually slumped, or swayback, posture, we need to intentionally create space in the body.
In this post we will first look at the swayback posture. Then we will explore how our bony structure, muscles, and fascia support optimal alignment. Finally, we will focus on ways to experience and maintain this optimal alignment, which creates space and facilitates the flow of energy from the legs to the spine.
The Swayback Posture
In the swayback posture the sit bones are propped forward on the legs, pushing the pelvis forward, while the chest collapses, straining the lower back. As a result, the hamstrings shorten, the gluteus muscles grip, and the psoas muscles become lax. Look at the picture to the right: you can see how the lack of energy in the pelvis and legs translates to a corresponding lack of energy in the core, chest, and head. The posture we are seeking gives us a feeling of strength in the legs and core, and freedom and space in the pelvis. Before we explore practical ways to experience and maintain this kind of posture, it will be helpful to look at the key components of our posture as designed by nature, and how they interact with each other.
Nature’s Design: The Bones
Our body is designed to work using bones, muscles, fascia, and dynamic forces. We will start with the bones. Look carefully at the hip joint, where the pelvis meets the legs. The ball of the femur, or thigh bone, is round, as is the hip socket.
The balls of the femurs act like a modified fulcrum, and the spine and the pelvic structure act as a lever. But while most kinds of fulcrums don’t work when the lever is vertical, the rounded hip sockets allow the spine to be upright. Because of this design, many kinds of relationships between the legs and the hip sockets are possible: flexion, extension, lateral and rotational movements…even slumping.
Notice also—in the picture to the left—that the sacroiliac joint and the coccyx are behind the hip joint. When the spine is properly aligned, our head is over our hip joint, where the ball of the femur inserts into the hip socket. Since the lower spine meets the pelvis further in the back at the sacroiliac joint, there is a slight forward diagonal to the spine when standing. See the picture to the right. It is important to keep this skeletal alignment in mind: in order to change our posture, we need to visualize what we are aiming for.
Muscles, Fascia, Tensegrity, and Energy
We can’t really talk about the alignment of bones without talking about how they are kept in a dynamic balance by muscular and fascial tension. We are all familiar with muscles, but perhaps less so with fascia. In simple terms, fascia is web-like connective tissue that envelops every organ, muscle, bone, and nerve in a seamless matrix. It keeps these and other structures in place in the body and helps them slide against each other. Fascia is interwoven with muscle: it covers every muscle fiber and every bundle of fibers, and covers the muscle itself.
The dynamic balance created by muscular and fascial tension is called tensegrity or biotensegrity. Tensegrity refers to a structure in which separate or “floating” compression elements (in our case, bones) are enmeshed in and tensioned by continuous tension elements (fascia, muscles, tendons, ligaments) working together to balance and stabilize the structure, as opposed to the parts of the body simply being stacked one on top of the other. When we are standing or moving with proper alignment, our bones are tensioned by the muscles and fascia from opposing directions, creating a feeling of space and stability in the body. Movement and stabilization occur by a shift in these tensional elements. When we slump, we subvert these tensional forces and decrease the feeling of spaciousness in the body. We also decrease our ability to move efficiently.
When the tensional forces are subverted through slumping, our energy is also affected, as the study on skipping showed. Why? Scientists theorize that the subtle energy pathways (meridians) flow through fascia. It makes sense, then, that when fascia is restricted, our vital energy—known as prana in yoga or chi in acupuncture—cannot flow well. Blocked prana affects us at the physical, mental, and emotional levels. Thus, fascia, which plays an intimate role in the connectivity within the body, seems to have an impact on the mind-body connection as well.
Creating Optimal Alignment: Tensegrity in Action
To get a sense of how we can use tensional forces to create optimal alignment and space for prana, let’s start by reviewing standing tadaka mudra. This posture gives us the experience of space and helps us find the alignment we are seeking. Bring your arms overhead, stretching your spine upward while reaching into the floor with your feet. Inhale by expanding your belly, lower ribs, and lower back. Exhale while lifting the pelvic floor and contracting your belly, which narrows the waist and creates space between the vertebrae of the lower back. Repeat a few times. If you have tucked your tail forward on the pelvic-floor lift, you have flattened that hip crease, so make your pelvic lift more subtle. Now relax your effort while maintaining the length in the lower back and waist, and bring the arms down. This effect of creating space within the lower vertebrae is tensegrity at work.
Now lift your sit bones off the legs until there is a slight crease in the front of the hip sockets, which indicates that the spine is at that slight angle described above in our discussion of the alignment of bones. This angle is tricky to find if you are used to slumping, but a flat-back forward bend will help: Place one hand on a hip crease and one hand on your tailbone. Keep your whole spine firm and initiate the movement from the tail—as the tail rises, feel how the pelvis and trunk seesaw over the heads of both femurs as the spine descends. Go down only as far as you can while maintaining a flat back. Come back up slowly, by initiating a downward movement at the tail.
Stop when you sense your head is aligned over your hip joints, or before your hip crease flattens all the way. (Use a mirror if necessary.) Stay here and notice how this feels. If you are used to slumping, it will feel very odd indeed. But pay attention: You may sense the legs connecting to the floor and energy rising from the floor through the pelvis to support the trunk and head. Notice your breathing—is it fuller and more effortless? How about your mood? Do you feel lighter and more enthusiastic compared to when you were slumping?
To maintain this alignment without strain, focus on abdominal strengthening, pelvic-floor work, and hamstring stretches in your asana practice. And incorporate the feeling of space you experienced in tadaka mudra in your standing poses, which will anchor the alignment in your kinesthetic awareness and build more strength in your legs.
Nature has given us the opportunity to stand erect; we need to do our part as well. By using exercise and awareness to balance our structure, we can maximize the flow of prana, so that even if we are not skipping, we can feel like we are! This process is especially relevant when it comes to meditation, where we direct the movement of prana to facilitate a quiet mind. In the next post, we will look at the role of the pelvis in the alignment of our sitting posture.