Proper alignment is key not just for physical health but for finding harmony in the mind, body, and spirit. And while alignment should be natural and intuitive, between the amount of sitting we do all day and the propensity to hunch over our phones in 2017, it's not always as easy as it looks.
If you're looking to find more alignment in your body both as you move through your day and during exercise, these principles of alignment are exactly what you need in your life right now. Here's what you should know:
1. Start with the foundation.
Mother Earth is our greatest support, providing us with our food, shelter, and sense of ground. Literally, she is our rock. Feeling connected to the solidness of the earth helps us stay centered and balanced, both physically and emotionally. When standing or walking, notice the ground beneath you, and make a conscious effort to enhance your connection by spreading and rooting through your feet and imagining roots growing down through your legs into the earth below.
If during yoga or other exercise your foundation shifts from your feet to other parts, such as your hands, knees, back, or front, observe the part of you that is now your foundation, and feel an energetic connection between the earth and whatever part of you is closest to her.
2. Honor the natural curves of the spine.
The spine is the central axis of your body, through which the bulk of your nerves run down from your brain to the rest of your body. Maintaining the strength and suppleness of your spine is essential to living a long, and comfortable life. The spine has three natural curves: the cervical spine (your neck), the thoracic spine (your upper back), and the lumbar spine (your lower back). This "s" shape of the spine developed in response to the body's need to absorb shock and allow movement in the back. The cervical and lumbar segments of your spine arc in a concave curve, while the thoracic spine has a gentle convex shape.
When standing, sitting, or lying down, you should notice all three of these curves. Tight hips, chest, and shoulders, as well as poor posture due to lack of awareness, lack of core strength, and societal habits such as looking down at computer and cellphone screens, can cause the spine to be pulled out of alignment, either losing or overexaggerating the natural curves. Using ergodynamic chairs and pillows, and having awareness of the curves when walking and exercising, will help to maintain proper alignment.
3. Engage your core.
Your core consists of all the muscles in your trunk, including your abdominal muscles, back muscles, and shoulder girdle muscles. Engaging these in a mindful way whenever you are not at rest will keep your spine in alignment and create a long-lasting healthy posture. To locate your core, begin in a comfortable upright position. Place your hands over your belly and take a deep breath, feeling the belly expand as you fill up with air. Then cough a couple of times and feel your belly draw back toward your spine. This is one way to feel your abdominal muscles engage. Now try to activate those same muscles more slowly with each exhale. To engage the shoulder girdle, lift your chest as you breathe in, then slowly draw your shoulder blades toward each other and your outer shoulders back.
4. Respect the movement of your joints.
Knowing how each of your major joints is meant to move, and respecting that movement, will protect your joints. For example, the knee and elbow are called "hinge" joints, meaning they only move in one direction: forward and back. Forcing them into sideways movements or past their natural range of motion stresses the ligaments and other fascia, which over the long term can contribute to degeneration or serious injury.
5. Utilize the strength of your muscles and bones rather than hanging in the joints.
The joints were developed to allow for movement, while the muscles and bones give structure and support to hold up the weight of your body. Standing up with a slight bend in your knees, rather than straightening the legs completely, engages your leg and core muscles to help your bones to hold you up. This concept applies to your elbows whenever you have your hands down in a weight-bearing position. Similarly, engaging your hand muscles and fingers in such a position spreads the weight away from the delicate wrist joints, protecting them from undue strain.
6. Be active in all muscles needing to engage, and relax the other parts of your body.
Practicing mindful movement teaches us where we habitually hold stress and where we are weak or tense in our bodies. Discerning which muscles need to be active to create movement or hold you in a position and which parts of your body can relax, will help you immensely in releasing tension, whether it be during yoga, sports, or simply sitting down.
Most of us tend to hold tension in certain parts of our bodies, such as our necks, shoulders, hips, chest, jaw, or forehead. Becoming aware of these tendencies will allow us to let them go, reserving our energy for where we really need it. At the same time, when exercising or simply walking around, we do ourselves a big favor by engaging all the muscles needed for each activity to create well-rounded strength and stamina in our bodies.
7. Listen to your body, and trust your instincts.
Whether you're going into a deep yoga pose or deciding whether to make a big change in your life, taking the time to feel into what your body is telling you will give you insight into how to move forward. Try this: Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, and notice any sensations in the body. Is there any place you can relax more? Is there anything that feels uncomfortable, prompting you to make a small adjustment? The more you practice paying attention to your inner landscape, the more clear the messages will be.
8. Rest when you need to.
This counsel holds for physical movement as well as how to structure activity in our lives. We often hold ourselves back, avoiding challenges because of fear and self-doubt. Pushing ourselves a little beyond what we think we can accomplish, while being sensitive to the needs of our body and spirit, can take us beyond limiting beliefs that may have held us back in the past.
9. Lead with your heart.
Try walking across the room and notice what is out front: your heart or your head? Now consciously walk with your heart leading the way, and notice how it feels. Use the above guide as a mantra when walking, moving into forward folds, or making a decision about how to respond in a confusing or stressful situation.
Investigating even one or two of the above principles will bring more awareness of how you currently carry yourself and will illuminate how you physically show up in the world. Implementing these practices will help you feel more grounded, confident, and at home in your body, while increasing the respect you feel for the gift that is your physical form.
Interested in learning more about maintaining alignment? Here are five tips to get you started.
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