As yogis, most of us want to understand how we move—and as we become more aware, we head down a path toward even more curiosity and self-awareness. I see this evolution in my students all the time. The first spark—maybe someone realizes she’s tighter in her left hip than in her right—is often revelatory. Soon after, this student may notice that because of the tightness, she favors her right side. Then she may discover it’s causing her back pain. With each discovery this student makes about her movement, she becomes more conscious, inquisitive, and, ultimately, more knowledgeable about herself.
The Three Anatomical Planes of Movement
Understanding how you move your body is key to getting stronger, staying injury free, and feeling more balanced, grounded, and (I would argue) happy. And a great tool to help you do all of this is to look at movement through the lens of the three anatomical planes.
Once you know how to work with these planes, you’ll begin to recognize the ones in which you feel most (and least) comfortable moving your body. Then you may discover you’re missing whole segments of movement in certain planes—knowledge that can then inspire you to start moving in the directions where you need to wake up. In doing this, you’ll ultimately learn how to wake up in your life too, helping you navigate this world more fully. Here’s what you need to know to understand the sagittal, coronal, and transverse planes, and why it’s so important that you do.
The Sagittal Plane of Movement
This plane dissects the right and left sides of the body, as if the edge of a pane of glass were dropped down the center of your crown through your midline. Sagittal plane movements take place where this imaginary pane of glass sits—or parallel to it—meaning any time you’re in flexion (for example, forward folds) or extension (such as backbends), you’re moving in the sagittal plane.
It is probably the most familiar, and most used, plane for all of us: When we drive, hunch our heads over our smartphones, sit on the couch holding the remote control, ride a bike, and walk down the street, we’re moving in the sagittal plane. In yoga, any time you take your arms forward and reach them overhead—whether you’re doing Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute) or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)—you’re moving in the sagittal plane.
Where’s the distortion?
If you’re a teacher and notice something’s off when a student practices a pose but you’re not sure in which plane the problem is occurring, communicating how to correct what’s off may be challenging. Recognizing a distortion in a specific plane is the secret to quickly and clearly helping your students get into their fullest expression of a posture. To practice seeing bodies this way, let’s look at Vrksasana (Tree Pose) with a distortion in each of the three planes. Here are two distortions in the sagittal plane:
<<SEE HOW her pelvis is tipped anteriorly and her spine is overarched?
THE FIX She’ll want to bring her pelvis and spine to neutral, lengthen her tailbone, and draw her sternum toward her navel.
<<SEE HOW her pelvis is tucked and her spine is flexed (rounded)?
THE FIX She’ll want to press the top of her standing thigh back and press her shoulder blades into her chest.
See also The Truth of Tree Pose
The Coronal Plane of Movement
This plane dissects the front of the body from the back. This time, imagine a pane of glass dropping through your midline and dissecting your front body (anterior) and back body (posterior). Coronal plane movements occur where this imaginary pane of glass sits, meaning any time you abduct (move away from the midline) and adduct (move toward the midline). You’re moving in the coronal plane when you step one leg to the side, turn a cartwheel, or bust out your best “Stayin’ Alive” dance moves, John Travolta style. In yoga, think of moving into Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) or Parighasana (Gate Pose).
Where’s the distortion?
Here’s Vrksasana (Tree Pose) with distortions in the coronal plane:
<<SEE HOW she is sitting in her standing-leg hip?
She needs to hug her standing-leg thigh in toward her midline.
<<SEE HOW one hip is higher than the other?
She needs to press her lifted thigh down (adduction) to level her pelvis side to side.
The Transverse Plane of Movement
This plane divides the body into upper and lower portions—as if the same imaginary pane of glass cuts through your belly button. All movements in this plane involve rotation, either inward (internal rotation) or outward (external rotation). You’re moving in the transverse plane when you turn your head to look out your rearview mirror before merging into another traffic lane, or when you do “The Twist,” à la Chubby Checker. In yoga, spinal twists such as Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) and Parsva Sirsasana (Side Headstand)—and even rotating one leg out at its hip socket to prepare for Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)—are movements that happen in the transverse plane.
Where’s the distortion?
Here’s Vrksasana (Tree Pose) with distortions in the transverse plane:
<<SEE HOW the lifted knee and pelvis are rolling forward?
She needs to work her lifted leg more here, rotating the thigh out at the hip socket so she can press it farther open.
<<SEE HOW one knee is too far back, pulling the pelvis and her spine with it?
If she can press the top of her standing thigh backward, she’ll be able to bring her right knee (and that side of the pelvis) forward.
See also Make It About the Midline: Tree Pose
Why Should We Understand the Anatomical Planes of Movement?
In a word: proprioception. This refers to the body’s ability to sense joint position and movement, enabling you to know where your body is in space without having to look—and to know how much force is needed to create movement. It helps us feel grounded and balanced, and it allows us to move in and out of yoga poses safely. Proprioception can be enhanced over time with mindful, repetitive movements, such as asana.
One of the obstacles to healthy proprioception is chronic, unconscious, habitual patterns in the body. Whether these patterns arise from injury or overuse doesn’t matter; they affect your posture and keep you moving in habitual ways. To wit: Take a moment to think about your highly mobile shoulder joint, which is built to move in many different directions. If you start to favor moving it just one way—say, reaching your arms forward and up in the sagittal plane and avoiding reaching them out to the sides in the coronal plane—that pattern can create an imbalance in the joint, leading to chronic pain and even injury.
One way to wake up from these unconscious patterns is to try less familiar movements and shapes in the planes you tend to avoid, which will help bring flexibility to stuck areas and strength to weak ones. Exploring simple movements in all three planes, especially your nondominant one(s), with an open, playful attitude—frustration and shame are not helpful here!—can help you develop new neuromuscular pathways and more balanced movement patterns. Over time, there’s a good chance you’ll find this leads to more efficient posture, improved balance, and healthier joints.
If you’re a yoga teacher, including poses and cues that take your students through all three planes (whether you name them or not) can help them develop healthy and balanced bodies. What’s more, using the framework of the planes to see distortions and imbalances in a yoga practitioner’s body can help you use more effective cues.
As you try to understand and analyze how you move separately in each of the planes, keep in mind that the goal isn’t to dissect the body. After all, the body exists in all three planes at the same time. The point of this work is to try to bring the body into balance in all three planes, at all times, to create a feeling of wholeness. This, I believe, is one of the keys to feeling more embodied, both on and off the mat.
Put the Anatomical Planes of Movement Into Practice
Want to get comfortable with these anatomical planes and expand your movement range (or teaching skills)? Start here:
STEP 1 Make lists of your 10 favorite, and 10 least favorite, poses. Consider which poses you tend to practice at home and which ones you avoid.
STEP 2 Determine the primary plane for each of the poses on your lists.
STEP 3 Name the planes in which you seem to be most and least comfortable.
STEP 4 Create a list of poses from your least favorite plane, and plan to practice these poses several times a week. Are these poses challenging for you? Are they easy? How do you feel when you practice more from the plane in which you’re least comfortable? Get curious.
STEP 5 After a couple weeks of practicing your least favorite poses, go deeper with your line of questioning: What has practicing movements you’d been avoiding revealed? (Yes, I am talking poses—and anything else you tend to avoid in life.)
If you’re a teacher, take these same steps when it comes to assessing your go-to sequences: Look at the poses you teach often, as well as the themes that you choose for your classes. Which plane is over-represented? Which one(s), if any, are under-represented? Do you tend to teach the plane that is your personal favorite and avoid the one that’s your least favorite?
Finally, whether you’re teaching or simply moving through your own home practices, commit to creating sequences that include poses that highlight your least utilized plane. How do you feel when you practice (or teach) them? How does your body feel after a few weeks of moving in your less utilized plane? Do you feel more embodied? Are your movements more balanced in all three planes? See if these simple inquiries help you feel more awake and whole.
About Our Expert
Teacher Annie Carpenter is a yoga teacher and teacher trainer in San Francisco. She’s also the creator of the SmartFLOW method, which she teaches in classes, workshops, and her 200- and 500-hour teacher trainings across the globe. Learn more at anniecarpenter.com.