Category Archives: Alignment

An Ice Cream Cone in the Pelvis – The Pelvic/Thoracic Line

The pelvis and thorax are connected by the lumbar spine and the abdominal muscles.  Because of this, imbalances in either one of these structures will lead to imbalances in the other. To feel how this works in a yoga pose, come into utkatasana (the chair pose).  Consciously curl your tailbone upward like Donald duck and notice how your ribcage begins to flare upward and outward in the front.  Next, tuck your tail strongly under, and notice how your ribs naturally draw inward toward the central axis of your body.


Since changes to pelvic positioning invariably affect the ribcage, we think of the torso and pelvis as being one connected unit and use one energetic line to position both of these structures rather than working with each individually.  The line of energy that we use to accomplish this is called the pelvic/thoracic line.  Specifically, this line of energy is used to shorten the space between the first and second sacral and 12th thoracic vertebrae while we practice many of our yoga poses.

Within the context of a yoga practice, the pelvic/thoracic line can be used to experience instantaneous changes in range of motion when forward folding, side-bending and twisting.  Additionally, since balancing the weight of the ribs and pelvis along the central axis will help your body retain firmness and straight lines without weakness, you will find that utilizing this line in your practice will increase your endurance, improve your sense of balance and make vertical postures like the tripod headstand much easier to hold.

To experience how the pelvic/thoracic line affects your yoga poses, try the following exercises:  

Tadasana

Lordotic Posture ain't good for tadasana! Use the P/T line to fix it.

Imagine that your pelvic bowl were the rim of an ice-cream cone.  In lordotic posture, the frontal edge of the cone tips downward which puts pressure on the abdominal muscles and causes the belly to protrude.  To balance the pelvis, imagine tipping the front of the cone upward to a level position to allow the ice-cream to fall back into the rim.  Imagine a cherry dropping down from the level of the solar plexus to center in the middle of the ice-cream.  Finish by extending upward through the crown of your head.   (adapted from Dr. Lulu Sweigard).

Balance your pelvis and ribs in Warrior 2

Imagine that the space between your zipper and two bottom ribs were like an open clamshell.  Close the clamshell ¼ to 1/2 of the way or until the pelvis and ribs balance vertically and horizontally as close to the axis as possible.

Deepen your range of motion in Janusirsasana

Fold forward into Janu Sirsasana with your left leg extended forward.  Slide your left leg backward and into the body, much like you were sliding a drawer into a dresser.  Next, consciously shorten the space between the mid-front of your pelvis and your solar plexus by imagining that those two points were connected by a thick cable.  “Shorten” the cable by simultaneously rolling your tail gently under and drawing your two bottom ribs on the front body inward toward the central axis until your feel your abdominal muscles contacting.  Lengthen along your central axis by pulling your head toward your toes.  Take note of any increases in range of motion.

NB:  Since identifying the exact location of the 12th thoracic and 1st and 2nd sacral vertebrae can be challenging, feel free to simplify by using the belt buckle and solar plexus as your reference points as you practice.   

Postural Inspiration – The Bound Dancer’s Pose

The bound dancer’s pose can be found in our advanced level I syllabus.  I first ran across this variation in an old-school A. Sidersky video filmed in the Ukraine.  At first blush the pose doesn’t look too terribly challenging.   However,  actually getting both palms all the way to the back of the head requires a high degree of openness in the hip flexors and shoulders and a really solid sense of balance, which is why I haven’t included it in our beginning or intermediate level training paradigms.

I’ve seen more than one intrepid yogi/yogini topple over while trying this one in the middle of a class, so move slowly and keep your eyes glued to something solid when you try it!  Lest you should be afraid though, know that the fall isn’t that bad if you topple out of the pose…typically, you just sort of spin off to the side after a bit of wobbling and land on both feet.

Practice note:  If you wish to stabilize your balance, allow the standing leg foot to turn out very slightly.  Doing this will create a more stable relationship between the femur and the hip socket and make the balance much easier to accomplish.  Iconoclastic you say? Indeed it is, but the idea is strongly grounded in sound mechanical principles.  For more information on this and other fascinating topics, be sure to check out “Yoga Body: Anatomy, Kinesiology and Asana” by Judith Hanson Lasater.

To prepare for this pose, practice some lunging poses to open the hip flexors and throw in a couple of  side bends such as the half moon or reversed warrior to open the side body.

PVYU senior teacher Kevan Gale in the bound dancer's pose

Want to practice with this guy?  Check out an advanced PranaVayu practice with Kevan at Wanderlust Vermont!  

Let Your Body Hang and Allow Your Skeleton to Do the Pose!

PVYU Founder David Magone

Using your understanding of how to position the three weights and the bicycle chain makes aligning vertical postures very easy.   When you encounter a pose like Warrior II, you can imagine that the central axis were like a fulcrum and level the weight of the pelvis, skull and hips on it.  Once the three blocks are in place, you can then stabilize the posture by allowing the weight of the three blocks to flow down the spinal column and increase the tension in the front of your body to hold everything in place.

B.K.S Iyengar in Tadasana Pose

While these simple steps can be followed to create a more efficient posture while standing, walking or practicing poses like tadasana, many of the yoga postures that we commonly encounter in a class require a finer degree of control over certain key sections of the body.  For this reason, our system includes 9 additional lines of energy called action lines.  Action lines are used to refine our postural alignment and positioning while we perform more complicated postures such as backbends, side bends and forward folds.

Where Do These Nine Lines Come From?

The Inimitable Lulu Sweigard

The 9 lines of movement are derived from research conducted by Dr. Lulu Sweigard.  Over the course of her research, Dr. Swiegard was able to discover nine areas of the skeletal structure which when correctly placed directly influence the positioning of the skeletal structure as a whole.  According to Dr. Sweigard, the location and direction of each of these lines of energy is a ‘line of movement’ between skeletal parts, each beginning and ending in bone.

Betty Riaz Deepening a Fierce Stretch With the Sternum Line and Shoulder Line

Adaptatations to the System

When I first began cataloguing our system, I used Dr. Sweigard’s nine line theory to direct my alignment explorations.  Upon doing this, I quickly discovered that the original lines of energy needed to be adapted and augmented in order to meet the unique demands of an active yoga practice.  To that end, I’ve modified  Dr. Sweigard’s original theories in the following ways four ways:

*  I’ve given names to each line of energy to make referencing them easier.

*  I have identified two extra lines of energy not included in Dr. Sweigard’s original research – the shoulder line and the skull line.  These lines are particularly helpful in weight bearing postures like the down dog, and all backbends and forward folds.

*  I’ve shifted the way that we utilize the line of energy that aligns the sternum to make it more applicable to backbending and forward folding poses.

*  In addition, I’ve replaced a line of energy that narrows the front of the pelvis with the more commonly practiced Uddiyana Bhanda.  This line now called the abdominal line is very helpful in twisting and folding postures.

What Will Learning the Nine Lines Do For Me?  

This system will help you learn how to quickly and effectively position virtually any yoga pose that you will ever encounter in a yoga class.  By using Dr. Sweigard’s original research as a starting point, we’ve been able to develop an adapted system that will help you avoid overuse injuries in your postures, develop greater endurance and experience instantaneous changes in range of motion.  

Next Week:  The locations of each of the nine lines and a description of how to use the ankle line to position your feet while you practice.    

Balance Like a Teeter-Totter

 According to Ideokinesis pioneer Mabel Todd, “In order to have a minimum of stress, and therefore of strain, within the body, not only must the structure as a whole be in balanced relation with the outside forces, but each part must be in balance with every other part within the system” (Todd, 56).

When we don’t balance the three major weights of the skull, ribcage and pelvis, the body has no choice but to respond by increasing muscular tension in order to avoid toppling over.   Many times, the increase in tension that arises due to poor postural positioning leads to chronic discomfort in the shoulders, back, or the neck.  In many ways, this is similar to what happens when you try to balance  a teeter totter:  If you put a heavy weight on one side, the weight will need to be countered by another weight of similar size or additional force of another type in order to keep the structure in equilibrium.

Balancing the weight of the head, torso and pelvis on the central axis is the key to creating less tension in your yoga poses.   This works because creating a neutral balance in the three blocks naturally shifts your body weight into the skeletal structure which in turn reduces the degree of tension the muscles need to exert in order to keep your body upright.  As long as the weight is evenly balanced on either side, the body will maintain its horizontal positioning without any extra effort on your part at all.

Balance the three weights like a teeter totter

From a yogic perspective balancing the weight of the three blocks will provide you with a quick and simple way to position purely vertical poses like tadasana.  To experience this, try the following exercise:

1.  Stand in tadasana with your feet positioned roughly hip distance wide.

2.  Think inward to your central axis.  Imagine that the central axis were like a fulcrum of a teeter totter.

3.  Imagine that your pelvis were the lever of the teeter totter.  Roll your tail under, and feel how the tailbone drops as the front of the pelvis rises up.  Lift your bum like donald duck and feel how the sitting bones lift as the front of the pelvis drops toward the floor.

4.  Continue on with this motion, but decrease the range of motion slightly every time.  Find an end position where the teeter totter of the hips feels balanced on the fulcrum of the central axis.

5.  Repeat the same process for the rib cage and the skull.

Master stacking the three blocks  from Tadasana, and then try it in postures like the pile driver:

Check out this yogini positioning the three blocks in style!

The Winner of the King Pigeon Challenge is…

The votes have been counted, and the winner of the King Pigeon challenge is Alisa Davidoff!  Her photo, taken by a friend in Israel is a true inspiration! Check it out below.

King Pigeon Champion Alisa Davidoff

The Prize:  Alisa will receive a personalized PVYU accelerated  sequence designed to help her reach new and inspiring levels of bendiness.   This sequence when combined with her obvious dedication to the practice will doubtless give her a leg up in the next challenge, so you’d better get practicing if you plan on keeping up!

Congrats Alisa!

The Wonders of the Central Axis

A plumb line

The term “centering” is often used in yoga classes to describe the mental act of re-establishing a connection to a deeper part of ourselves that isn’t swayed by thought, distraction or destructive emotional states like fear or anxiety.  Centering allows us to remain calm in the midst of challenge and helps us to reconnect to our sense of self when we are knocked off of balance.  Physically speaking, positioning the weight of our body around a theoretical center can be helpful as well.   Doing so helps us to experience balance and equilibrium in our postures, eliminates unnecessary muscle tension in flexibility enhancing poses, and creates a sense of effortless ease is strength enhancing postures.

The Central Axis 

Since understanding how to stack the weight of the body closer to  center can be difficult to understand if we don’t know where our center lies, we expand our definition of  “center” to encompass a vertical line of energy referred to as the Central Axis. The Central Axis is an imaginary line of energy that flows vertically downward through the body’s center of mass in the upright standing position. To visualize the central axis, simply imagine a plumb line hanging from the center of the skull, threading downward through the rib-cage and exiting through the middle of the pelvic floor, and you will have a good idea of where the central axis lies.

The Central Axis

The Central Axis is much like a beacon of light in the middle of a thick fog. It acts as a central reference point that shows us where to shift our focus as we practice, drawing our attention inward to our center and allowing us to radiate gracefully outward from a sense of inner connectedness and strength in our core.  The Central Axis gives us a tangible landmark around which to position our body as we flow through our postures. Creating a solid mental map of the central axis takes a lot of the guesswork out of where the body should be positioned as we practice.

Once we isolate the position of the Central Axis from an upright vertical position, we can carry the image of its location into the rest of our practice, using it as a frame of reference for the large variety of yoga poses that we practice. Standing, supine, sideways and kneeling postural patterns can all be informed and brought into more efficient alignment by positioning the body around the central axis that we discovered in the vertical position.

How to Find Your Central Axis

Find a partner and use the following exercise to find your central axis:

  1. Have your partner come to a standing posture with the inner edges of their feet hip distance apart.
  2. Help your partner find the approximate location of their central axis by pressing one finger into the front and another into the back of the body.  Start below the belly button (near the center of gravity).  Approximate the point that is directly centered between the right and left side of the body and place the tip of your index finger at that point.  Place your other index finger on same spot at the back of the body.  Have your partner think inward to the point your fingers would meet if they could actually touch.
  3. Once this point is located, repeat at the navel, solar plexus, heart, manubrium and at the third eye center.  This line that flows vertically through the body’s center of gravity in the standing position is the central axis.

NB:  When thinking of the Central Axis, it is important to recognize that it is an “imaginary” line of energy.  Since the central axis doesn’t consist of any bony masses, we can’t actually consider it to be a supportive structure.  As the central axis moves through the body, it may or may not encounter sections of the spinal column as the spine curves upward but it should not be considered to actually be the spinal column even if the spine and axis intersect in many places.  Rather, the Central Axis can be considered to be similar to a laser beam directed from the middle of the skull downward through the pelvic floor.  The beam simply flows through any bony junctures that it might encounter.

Let Your Skeleton Do the Pose!

The PranaVayu Core system of alignment has been created to help you learn effective alignment techniques as quickly and as painlessly as possible.  I’ve derived the system from simple mechanical principles that are commonly used to create balance and equilibrium in objects as diverse as the Sears tower and the leaning tower of Pisa.  Since both animate and inanimate objects are affected by gravity in similar ways, the rules that apply to buildings and bridges can be applied to and benefit the human body as well.

By using these principles to determine which alignment cues are the most effective, I have been able to substantially reduce the total number of alignment fundamentals that you will need to learn in order to keep your body safe while you practice.   This is eminently practical!  Rather than asking you to memorize hundreds of different random alignment instructions, I’ll keep it short and sweet by teaching you what’s really important.  This will include:

1) Nine locations of your skeleton that can be used to quickly position your postures (hereafter referred to as “lines of energy”).

2)  The ways in which these lines of energy can be used to position any yoga pose that you will ever encounter in a yoga class.

This system is super efficient and crazy effective.  Many of the pointers that you’ll be learning will instantaneously increase your overall endurance and range of motion.  When combined with our scientific approach to postural practices, you’ll have all the tools you’ll ever need to one day bend like a spaghetti noodle.

The system works! Kevan Gale rockin the sternum line and sacral nutation.

The system is based on one very simple foundation:

1) Using the skeleton to support body weight frees tension from the muscles and allows the muscles to more efficiently move the bones.

The primary purpose of the human skeleton is to support our body’s weight, while the primary purpose of our muscles is to move our bones.  When we adopt poor postural patterns that force our musculature to support our weight, we experience tight shoulders, lower back discomfort and areas of chronic tension.  By using our muscles to move our bones into positions where our bones can adequately support our body weight, we immediately experience improvements in overall strength and flexibility as tension is released from the muscles.

To experience how using your muscles to hold a pose makes the posture more difficult, try the following exercise:

Extend your arms outward to the sides just as you do in warrior II.  Stretch outward through your fingertips as hard as you can for thirty seconds.  Notice how much muscular energy this requires.

Next, check out how using your skeleton to support your weight can reduce the overall effort necessary to hold the pose:

Extend your arms as you did before.  Imagine that your arms were like dresser drawers.  Keeping your arms straight, gently slide your arm-bones deeper into your body.  As you do this, imagine that your shoulder-blades were like heavy rocks dropping to the bottom of a pond.  Let your shoulders slide down away from your ears, and stretch gently outward through your fingertips.  Soften all of the muscles around the bones and let your skeleton hold the pose. Notice how much less effort is required to keep your arms aloft.

Join us next week as we hop straight away into the wonders of the central axis…


Wrist Straws and the Down Dog

Back in 2000, I had the good fortune to work at Holiday’s Yoga Center in Portland Oregon.  At the time, Holiday’s was one of the oldest yoga centers in Portland and  an epicenter for master classes and workshops with some of the best teachers in the nation.   As an employee of the center, I was able to attend all of these workshops for free, so I took full advantage of the opportunity and attended as many of these workshops as possible.

One of these courses was taught by Angela Farmer and Victor Van Kooten, two amazing master teachers with decades of combined yoga  experience under their belts.  Over the course of a weekend, we spent a good deal of time learning how to improve the positioning of our hands in the down-dog in order to alleviate wrist pain.  To accomplish this,  Angela recommended that we think of our hands and arms as straws.  Rather than grounding the heel of the hand on the floor, she recommended that we keep the heel of the hand slightly lifted and the palm itself slightly concave.

Once this was mastered, Angela counseled us to imagine drawing energy out of the earth and into the arms while extending simultaneously downward through the base of the thumb and index finger.  This technique worked like magic, but it was a little tricky, so I spent most of the weekend really working at it until I felt that I really had it down.  At the end of the weekend, I daresay that I felt like a master of wrist placement in the dog!

The next day, I popped in for a class with a local teacher.  During the first down-dog of the class, I stepped onto the mat and placed my hands in the new position only to be corrected by the teacher almost immediately.  She came over, stood on my hands and told me I was doing it wrong!  Her intentions were no doubt good, but the experience had the result of thoroughly and completely confusing me.  Afterward, I had no idea how I was supposed to place my hands in weight bearing poses!

After that experience, I witnessed this happening again and again.  It seemed like every time I took a workshop with one visiting teacher, another would come along and completely contradict a number of the alignment points that the other one had taught.  It didn’t take me long to figure out that something was amiss!  Aside from the Iyengar and Anusara community, everyone seemed to be taking a totally random and oftentimes completely intuitive  approach to human body positioning. Because of this, some alignment instructions were good while others made no sense at all.

After a couple of years of this, I figured out that many of these inconsistencies were due to the fact that many teachers were drawing their alignment instructions from a wide variety of sources rather than from a core set of working principles.  It seemed that most teachers had developed their alignment knowledge through sheer intuition and by borrowing hundreds of alignment tips from various classes and workshops that they had taken. Because the tips were coming from so many different (and sometimes contradictory) perspectives, there was a decided lack of internal consistency in the quality and effectiveness of each individual instructor’s alignment cues.

The problem with this approach was that was incredibly inefficient. Without a core set of principles to use as a standard, individual teachers had no way to quickly assess the  effectivity and usefulness of common alignment instructions.  Because of they had to  spend a ton of time wading through thousands of instructions in order to determine which should be accepted and which should be rejected.  For many teachers, this process took decades of experience and countless hours of experimentation.  The worst part though, was that without proper working guidelines to follow the process wasn’t always effective!

I’ve never been a tremendously patient person, so I decided to speed up the process of learning alignment by seeking out a core set of principles that would help me understand how to approach human body positioning in a more efficient manner.  To that end, I conducted over two years of intensive research on the ways in which forces such as gravity, tension and compression affect the human body.  During this process, I was pleased to discover that the human body reacts to gravitational forces in many of the same ways as any standing structure from the Eiffel Tower to the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  With this understanding,  I was then able to formulate an alignment system derived from simple mechanical principles.

The result of all of this is the “PranaVayu Core System of Alignment”.  This elegant and simple system is the primary alignment methodology used by PranaVayu Yoga teachers. However, since the principles included within the system are universal, you will find that these techniques can be applied to any yoga practice regardless of discipline. These principles will help you to find comfortable versions of your postures where you can explore and discover a true balance between sthiram sukham asanam (softness and firmness in a pose). The benefits of this unique alignment system include softening tension in yoga postures, reducing injury, and creating instantaneous changes in overall strength, balance and flexibility.

I’ll be dedicating Wednesdays to a full overview of our alignment system.

Next week: Foundations of the PVYU Core System of Alignment…