Intuitive Alignment: Tadasana Hips
If you adjust a student in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), she will be aligned for a moment, but if you teach her how to feel Tadasana, she will be aligned for a lifetime. Tadasana is the root of all yoga postures, so improving it can revitalize a student's entire practice. Although it's simple in concept—just stand up straight—it's often a challenge for beginners because they can't see themselves in the pose. As teachers, we instinctively act as an extra set of eyes for our students, observing them from various angles and suggesting, through word, touch, or example, that they move one body part this way, another that way, until they line up better. This works for some students, but for others it can be an exercise in frustration—it can be hard for them to reproduce your corrections accurately on their own. What they really need is to learn what Tadasana alignment feels like from the inside so they can create it from scratch whenever they want. In this column, we'll focus on ways you can teach your students to feel a crucial element of Tadasana alignment: accurate placement of the pelvis and hip joints. In next month's column, we'll expand on this technique and apply it to teaching alignment of the whole body in Sirsasana (Headstand).
Before we launch into specifics, let's acknowledge that there is more than one path up the mountain. One excellent way to teach Tadasana that will not be covered here is to have your student stand with her back against a wall, make various adjustments, then maintain these adjustments as she steps away from the wall and re-establishes the pose. This can be very effective, but once your student is away from the wall she no longer gets ongoing sensory feedback from it about her body position. The techniques below are intended to teach your student how to get that kind of feedback from her internal sense organs. Once she has learned to listen to these sensations in Tadasana, she will be able to do the same in many other poses.
Before you can teach a student how to align her hips in Tadasana, she must position her feet and legs properly. Make sure she starts by:
With her feet and legs in place, you can teach her the four elements of positioning her pelvis and hips in Tadasana:
Equalize hip height: Unless your student has an anatomical abnormality in her feet, legs or pelvis (such as a difference in bone length between her left and right legs), her hip joints will be at the same height as one another when her pelvis is centered between her feet. If her body is symmetrical left and right, her feet will bear equal weight when her pelvis is centered. So, in most cases, even though your student cannot see her own pelvis in Tadasana, you can teach her to equalize the height of her hips simply by instructing her to shift her pelvis left and right until she feels exactly the same amount of weight on her two feet. Students who have structural anomalies may require more complicated instructions that are beyond the scope of this column.
Neutralize pelvic tilt: To help your student place her pelvis in a neutral (non-tilted) position, first have her place her fingers on her left and right pelvic rims (iliac crests) and trace forward along both rims until she locates the foremost point (the anterior superior iliac spine, or ASIS) on each side. Next, while she keeps her fingers on the fronts of these spines, have her bring her attention to the position of her pubic symphysis (the junction of the two pubic bones at the midline of the front of the pelvis, often incorrectly referred to by yoga teachers as "the pubic bone"). Have her tilt her pelvis backward (moving her ASISs backward and her pubic symphysis forward) or forward (ASISs forward, pubic symphysis backward) until the ASISs and the symphysis lie in the same vertical plane. In other words, the pubic symphysis should be neither in front of nor behind her two anterior superior iliac spines. For most students, this will create a neutral pelvic tilt. When she achieves it, your student will have a moderate inward curve in her lower back.
Neutralize front-to-back placement of the pelvis: The instructions in this paragraph involve whole-pelvis movements, rather than tilt. They will help you teach your student to feel for herself how far forward or backward to place her pelvis relative to her feet. When she finds the right spot, her pelvis will balance naturally atop her legs. For some people, the optimal balance point is where the hip joints line up exactly above the ankle joints; for others, the ideal hip position may be a little forward of this.
The technique described here will only work if your student's pelvis is in the neutral (non-tilted) position (see previous section). Note that as she experiments with different fore and aft positions of her pelvis it will probably tilt a little out of neutral. She will need to correct this to finalize the pose.
To teach front-to-back hip placement, you will first show your student how to use palpation (feeling with her fingers) to identify the position she wants, then have her graduate to using internal sensations alone to guide her self-adjustments. We'll explore ways to teach this from both the front and the back of the pelvis.
Here's how to do it from the front. First, starting in Tadasana, have your student lift one foot, flexing her hip until her thigh is parallel to the floor and her knee points straight ahead. Have her trace one fingertip up the midline of the front of her lifted thigh until she reaches the crease at the junction between the front of her thigh and her pelvis (her front groin). Here, she will find the tendon of her contracted rectus femoris muscle or the nearby sartorius muscle under her finger. (Note that the tendon will bulge out, interrupting the crease at this point.) Instructing her to keep her fingertip on this spot, have her lower her foot back to Tadasana and find the same "front hip crease" spot on the other side with the corresponding fingertip of her other hand.
Once she has her fingers in place, ask your student to press firmly inward (toward the back of her body), indenting the flesh enough to notice how springy it feels. Then have her deliberately shift her hips well forward of the Tadasana position (see photo, middle panel, but exaggerate the movement more) and notice what happens. The flesh will harden under her fingers as the rectus femoris and sartorius muscles stretch. Next, have her shift her hips backward so the front hip creases deepen (see photo, bottom panel). The flesh will soften under her fingers as the muscles slacken. Have her repeat the forward and backward shifting of her pelvis, reducing the range each time, until she can feel how slight movements produce subtle differences in the firmness of the muscles. Instruct her to find the position where the flesh under her fingers feels exactly half way between hard and soft. If she has not lost her neutral pelvic tilt, this halfway point will be the Tadasana position of the pelvis.
The next step is to teach your student to do the same thing without using her fingers. To do this, she will need to notice the internal sensations of stretching and relaxation that accompany the adjustments. She can follow the instructions below with her fingers in the same place as before at first (as a transitional step), then repeat the actions with her arms at her sides in classic Tadasana position. Have her shift her hips forward as before and notice the sensations of stretch that arise at the rectus femoris and sartorius. Then have her shift her hips backward and feel that the stretch disappears. As before, have her shift her hips alternately forward and backward, reducing the range with each repetition, and noticing how the forward movement creates a feeling of stretch and the backward movement creates a feeling of laxity. Instruct her to find the position where the muscles feel exactly half way between stretched and soft. This will be the Tadasana position.
It's very useful to teach your student to make similar adjustments from the posterior (rear) side of her body as well. In Tadasana, ask her to put her fingertips on her sitting bones (ischial tuberosities), slide them about one-half inch toward the floor, then press into the flesh immediately below the sitting bones. She will be pushing on the tendons of her hamstring muscles (the hamstring origins). With her fingers in place, have her tip her pelvis and trunk a few degrees forward at the hip joints as if starting to go into Uttanasana. She will feel her hamstrings contract, making them bulge slightly under her fingertips. Next, have her return to the upright position and shift her pelvis well forward of Tadasana. She will feel her hamstrings relax and recede under her fingertips. As she did when she was palpating her front hip creases, have her alternately shift her hips forward and back, making the movements more and more subtle until she finds the point of neutrality (hamstrings neither bulging nor receding, neither hard nor totally soft under her fingers). Once she can feel this balance with her fingers, help her make the transition to feeling it from the inside by noticing the internal sensations that arise just below her sitting bones as she moves her pelvis forward and backward in ever-diminishing oscillations.
Once your student has learned to feel the internal sensations from both the front (hip creases) and back (hamstring origins) that signal neutral front-to-back alignment of her pelvis, have her neutralize both areas at the same time while practicing Tadasana. With practice, this will enable her to recreate the optimal position of her pelvis whenever she wishes without the help of a teacher or a wall.
Point the pelvis straight ahead: Preventing the pelvis from turning to one side or the other is one of the most difficult aspects of Tadasana alignment to feel from the inside. To teach it, you'll have your student use a combination of palpation and internal sensation at first, then internal sensation alone, as you did with front-to-back placement.
First have your student identify the location of her ASIS and her greater trochanter on one side. The greater trochanter is the large knob of bone that protrudes from the outside of the upper thighbone (femur). While standing, your student can feel it just beneath the skin on the side of her thigh, a little below the level of her hip joints. Have her trace a line on her skin from the ASIS to the greater trochanter, and locate the midpoint of that line. Then, have her press the tip of her index finger firmly into the skin about one half to one inch in front of that midpoint. Ask her to press the same spot on the other side of her body at the same time. Her fingertips should end up a couple of inches to the outside of and slightly higher than the "front hip crease" points she pressed to feel front-to-back alignment (described above). Anatomically, she should be pressing on the anterior (front) part of her left and right gluteus medius muscles.
Once she has her fingers in place and pressing inward, ask your student to compare the "springiness" of the flesh and the internal sensations she feels on one side vs. the other as she alternately turns her pelvis left and right. Have her to notice how, as she turns to the left, the muscle under her left finger grows firm and there is an internal sensation of contraction, while on the right the muscle softens and the sensation of contraction disappears (and vice-versa when she turns the other way). Teach her to find the point where both her finger sensations and her internal sensations feel exactly balanced between the left and right sides. Finally, have her repeat the exercise with her arms at her sides in Tadasana position, using only her internal sensations, not palpation, to judge the point where the sensations are the same on the two sides. With practice, she should be able to align her pelvis so it points quite precisely straight ahead using internal sensations alone to judge her position.
All this subtle up-down, front-back, left-right adjustment of the pelvis is a lot for a student to process. It's a good idea to divide your instruction on the various aspects of Tadasana hip alignment into several separate lessons. Ultimately, the techniques described here will empower your student to find her own Tadasana. When she does, she will have a deeper understanding of alignment she can apply to every yoga posture.
Roger Cole, Ph.D. is an Iyengar-certified yoga teacher (http://rogercoleyoga.com), and Stanford-trained scientist. He specializes in human anatomy and in the physiology of relaxation, sleep, and biological rhythms.