I am really loving all the the new information coming out about anatomy and alignment. I have been practicing yoga for over 13 years now and I have witnessed many changes or attempted changes in yoga. One of those was the movement towards rigid alignment principals. As an Ashtangi, this never set well with me because I witnessed thousands of happy healthy people doing exactly what many anatomy people said NOT to do. I met people who had been doing these movements on a daily basis for like 30, 40 years with no problems. As a matter of fact, they were thriving. I also met people for which these same movements were detrimental. For over a decade, I watched Ashtanga teachers work Mysore style, or one on one, with students to help them understand the nuances for each pose as they pertained to the student’s body. I was taught from the beginning that everything should be take on a case by case basis.
As group classed gained in popularity and swelled in size, the one size fits all cue also grew in popularity. This was followed by the equally disturbing “don’t give any alignment cues or breaths and just talk people into poses and let them do what feels right for them” trend. I think everyone means well. Everyone is just trying to find their way. I teach group classes and it definitely is tough to figure out what to say to correct a few people without messing up the others. I am not even saying I know how to do that. What I do know is that it is never one size fits all.
Anatomy and bio mechanics expert, Jenni Rawlings, has written another brilliant article about pelvic tucking that brought up some great points. Go here for the full article. The first point she makes is about the trend towards no pelvic tucking…which is not right either.
Since the time that I wrote these two pieces, I have noticed that this pelvis-tucking message has grown much more widespread in the yoga community, which is a wonderful progressive step for us. However, this shift in perspective has brought with it a large population of yogis who are now taking a stand on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from the original issue. Today, I regularly hear yoga teachers report that they “never teach to tuck the pelvis”, that they have dropped this instruction from their teaching language altogether, and that tucking the pelvis and the accompanying flexion of the lumbar spine that occurs are “bad” or “harmful” movements for the body and should not be practiced.
As well-intentioned as such viewpoints are, they are unfortunately not an improvement over the original situation. Instead of treating this as a black-or-white “to tuck or not to tuck” issue, I’d like to suggest that we move toward a nuanced approach to pelvic movement that takes into consideration the individual asana in question and the individual body being taught in the moment.
Another great point Jenni makes is about the greatest crime of all time against Ashtanga….the back bend after a forward fold. I never forget when I first started to dabble in Vinyasa after practicing Ashtanga exclusively for 5 or 6 years. The back bend after the forward fold was viewed the same way as mixing bleach and ammonia. Jenni Rawlings explains why it is just not that simple.
There is a widespread belief in the yoga and movement world that lumbar flexion is an inherently damaging movement for the body. (I used to believe this idea myself some time ago too!) The general claim is that spinal flexion puts an unhealthy amount of pressure on the lumbar spine which can lead to harmful conditions like joint degeneration, ligament sprains, and disc herniations. I’ve even heard statements like “Your spine is like a credit card. Repeatedly flexing it is like bending a credit card over and over – with enough time, the credit card will simply break.”
Forces affect biotensegrity structures like the human body (new model) differently than they affect lever systems like machines (old model). Of course if the spine were to experience a high load while in a position of flexion (like in heavy weightlifting, for example), it could certainly be injured. But basic unloaded and low-loaded spinal flexion is a safe and natural movement for healthy spines.
The last point I want to mention, that Jenni makes in most of her articles, is how instilling fear of movements in asana is detrimental to the student. This directly relates to the work that Ashtanga does with the nervous system.
When we pathologize a particular movement and tell people that it is inherently damaging, we create a significant amount of fear around that movement. When we have fearful beliefs about a movement, our brain is more likely to output pain for us when we do that movement (also known as a nocebo). This pain very likely has nothing to do with any actual tissue damage being caused by the movement, and instead has everything to do with beliefs and fear surrounding the movement. This will result in our participating in the movement less and less (sometimes called fear avoidance), which can cause us to lose mobility and range of motion in that direction of movement.
Jenni’s pelvic tucking article is awesome. Go check it out here.