This post is in the context of a common yoga posture that to non-yogis looks just like standing; thus the instructions given are applicable whether you are standing around in yoga or in the world.
Yoga’s Tadasana aka Mountain Pose is taught with a variety of cues. Yoga lineage, aesthetics, cultural postural influences, and the desire to capture a certain energetic expression are often woven together in what can be a confusing tapestry of instructions that differ from teacher to teacher, class to class. One teacher may tell you to contract your gluteal muscles, while the next says to relax your butt. Oftentimes yoga teachers don’t question why they give a particular cue or what it is good for. Often we give a cue because we learned it from another teacher or from a book, article, or website. Maybe it made sense at the time, but in the interim, we’ve forgotten why. It could be that certain cues are part of a yoga lineage that we follow closely or let loosely inform our teaching. But I propose that most of the time, most yoga teachers have not given much thought to or challenged the wisdom of most of the cues they give. Bring it.
The cues you are about to read for Tadasana (or standing for non-yogis) are not from a yoga lineage or given to make you look or feel a certain way. They are based on my understanding of the optimal orientation of bony markers relative to each other and to specific planes of motion that have the greatest chance of putting your muscles at their best length for maximum force generation; and so that you optimize the flow of oxygen via blood to feed your cells, energy via nervous system to move your muscles, and cellular waste removal via your lymph system. In other words, they are alignment based.
When I cue yoga poses, I avoid giving specific measurements like stand with your feet 6 inches or two fist widths apart or four feet apart. A 6’4 person and a 5’2 person each having his feet 4′ apart is going to experience very different ranges of motion and loads relative to his height & leg length. When I can, I use distances that are relative to other body parts. For wide stances, when this is not possible or is arbitrary, I simply instruct to “take a wide stance” and then let the pose dictate the actual distance needed. An arbitrary cue for Virabhadrasana 2 aka Warrior 2 is to “step your feet wide so that they line up beneath your hands when your arms are outstretched.” If you offer this cue, I am curious why.
The following cues, from the feet up, list the body areaa, common cues, and an alignment-based cue that I’ll call “Smart Alignment,” because it is biomechanically informed. I try to provide a thorough but concise rationale for my instructions. Using these cues to position yourself in Tadasana and whenever you are standing is practice for aligning your body during movement for optimal flow.
How far apart should my feet be from each other?
Common cues: feet together, feet hips width apart, feet 6 inches fists apart; feet 2 fists apart
Smart Alignment: A smarter cue would be to place your feet pelvis width apart. This means to space your feet the same width as your pelvic bones. Your pelvic bones are sometimes called your hip pointers or even your hip bones, but those are misnomers as your hip is a joint made of your pelvis and femur and is located on the lateral side of your pelvis. Your pelvic bones are the “sharp” bones on the front of your pelvis that would poke into the floor if you were to lie on your belly. The bony markers for the feet are the centers of the front of the ankles.
Rational: When your feet are pelvis width apart, you are in the best position to build bone strength in your ankles because the force of gravity tracks vertically down your femurs. If your feet are closer together or further apart, you lose the vertical requirement of gravity to optimize bone density.
How should I point my feet?
Common cues: I rarely hear cues for how to point your feet in Tadasana, but know that some teachers instruct students to point their second toes straight ahead
Smart Alignment: A better cue would be straighten the outer edges of your feet. You can gauge this by stepping to the side edge of your mat and lining up the lateral edge of your foot along the edge of your mat. The edge of the yoga mat should align with your malleolus (lateral ankle bone) and bisect the center of the baby toe joint at its base (metatarsophalangeal joint). Place your other foot pelvic width apart and try to align it similarly, but without the advantage of having that straight line. A true geek would whip out a level…just sayin.
Rational: I go over this in detail in an earlier post on building a bunion.
How do I distribute my weight?
Smart Alignment: Shift all of your weight back into your heels
Common Cues & Rationale: I wrote extensively (for a blog, anyway) about common yoga cues and the rational for getting your weight back.
Do I squeeze or relax my quadriceps?
Common cues: Squeeze your quads; lift your kneecaps
Smart Alignment: Release or lower your knee caps aka stop gripping your quadriceps
Rational: If your quadriceps are gripping, squeezing, or contracting, your kneecaps will be lifted. Contracted quads not only draw the patella aka kneecap up, they also pull it back into the joint capsule causing increased heat and friction, which leads to joint degeneration. In yoga, there are occasionally times that you might benefit from the stabilizing effect of engaged quads – when you are learning to balance in one legged postures or balancey two legged postures like parivrtta trikonasana; or if you want to increase the stretch of your hamstrings in parsvattonasana, trikonasona, or prasarita padattonasana via reciprocal inhibition, a technique used to signal the stretching muscle to relax by contracting its antagonist muscle on the opposite side of the joint. But you should be able to fire the quads on or off (mostly off) at will. If you are not aware of what your quads are doing, then you may be damaging your knee joints. Most people are unknowingly gripping their quads.
**Please see FootLove Yoga Facebook page for video of lifting & lowering your kneecaps, then give it a try. If you are unable to lift your kneecaps, then they are already lifted, meaning you are already squeezing your quads. To help coax them down, get all of your weight back into your heels, bend slightly at the hips and try again.
What is a “neutral” pelvis? Should I squeeze my butt?
Common cues: Squeeze your butt; drop your tailbone; tilt your pelvis forward and back a few times and stop in the middle
Smart Alignment: Line up your pelvic bones and your pubic bone in the coronal or frontal plane. If you were to press your front side against a wall, these three bones of your pelvis would touch the wall; said another way, if you lie down on your back, your pelvic bones and pubic bone will be at the same height.
Rationale: This alignment maintains the structural integrity of the natural lordodic curve of your lumbar spine, optimizes hamstring length for maximum force generation, and provides an appropriate amount of tensioning in your pelvic floor muscles. When you retrovert or posteriorly tilt your pelvis, as often happens as a result of the well-intentioned cue to “drop your tailbone,” you compromise the natural curve of your lower spine, grip your quads, change the length of your hamstrings, and increase the likelihood of pelvic floor disorders.
What about my abs?
Common cues: draw your bellybutton towards your spine; engage your abs; engage your transverse abdonimus, suck your belly in
Smart Alignment: Lower or drop your ribs down and back/in so that the most prominent bones of your lower rib cage align in the frontal plane with your pelvic and public bones. Stop Thrusting Your Ribs!
Rationale: When you do this, you will feel and probably look a bit shlumpy. It’s ok. I will post soon on what that means and what you can do about it. A rib thrust is when you lift and push forward your rib cage. Imagine the way an Olympic gymnast lifts her chest and thrusts her ribs forward before she starts a routine. To do this, she simultaneously lifts her sternum aka “opens her heart” in yogaspeak (warning, a post is forthcoming on this misinterpreted and potentially harmful instruction) and pushes her rib cage forward, the combined actions of which rotate the top of the rib cage back, causing a shearing motion of the lowest vertebra of the thoracic spine to translate or shear forward on top of the uppermost lumbar vertebra. Unfortunately, the vertebrae are not designed for a shearing motion. A rib thrust puts your rib cage out in front of your pelvis, causing a non-optimal change in the lengths of the abdominal musculature and attendant change in interabdominal pressure, increased vertebral disc compression, and pelvic floor tensioning. It’s a cascade of ugly but is the predominant posturing of ribs in yoga. You Must Stop Thrusting Your Ribs.
The Good News: Ending rib thrusting is very challenging both physically (you’ve been holding this muscle pattern for years) and emotionally, because the result does not look like what you’ve always considered “good posture.” But here’s the silver lining. When your pelvis and ribs are aligned with their bony markers in the frontal plane, it puts your abdominal musculature at optimal force generating lengths which means they are constantly turned on and toned. If you align yourself in this way, you can say goodbye to crunches and other ab work that only seemed necessary because for most of your life you have not been firing your abs naturally by aligning your pelvis & ribs. True story.
Palms forward or not?
Common cues: turn your palms out
Smart Alignment: Externally rotate your shoulders
Rationale: I like to use Tadasana as an opportunity to externally rotate my shoulders, which gives the appearance of turning my palms out, but happens at the shoulders and instead of the wrists. Until you experience in your body what it means to externally rotate your shoulders, a good rule of thumb is when your shoulders are externally rotated your elbows point internally and when you internally rotate your shoulders, your elbows will point externally. Try it. In external rotation, the elbow pits and palms of your hands will face somewhat forward. If the backs of your hands are facing forward, you are likely internally rotated in your shoulders. Life most often puts our shoulders in internal rotation – computer use, driving, doing most things out if front of us – and leads to chronic muscle patterning in the shoulders. Externally rotating your shoulders brings back a lost range of motion.
How did this string get on my head?
Common cues: pretend you have a string attached to the crown of your head and its pulling you up (or some variation on the them); align your ears over your shoulders; lift your chin;
Smart Alignment: Ramp your head up/back.
Rationale: The easiest way to describe this is to visualize its evil twin Computerhead, which is a head that is constantly thrust forward, often coupled with a lifted chin. This causes chronic contractile tension in the back of your neck. The fix is simple. Without lifting your chin, slide your face back like you are making a double chin until your ears stack over your shoulders. Ironically, when you ramp your head up/back, you actually turn on the muscles in the front of your neck/throat, which until now have been locked long in extension and are thus weak and without tone. By making a (temporary) double chin now you could save yourself from a permanent one later. Once you get your head back, you may find that you have a habit of lifting your chin. If so, just let your chin drop a bit to bring the muscles on the back of your neck to optimal length. Dropping your chin will bring your natural eye gaze level with the horizon. A lifted chin, lifts your eyes, causing overuse of the eyeball lowering muscles.
Alignment, like yoga, is a practice, but one that can be done everyday, all day, anywhere.