Ask the Teacher is a new advice column that connects Yoga Journal members directly with our team of expert yoga teachers. Every other week, we’ll answer a question from our readers. Submit your questions here, or drop us a line at email@example.com.
How does softening the bottom ribs down toward the navel help protect the low back? I’m interested in the anatomy of this!
—Sam Whitley, The Dalles, Oregon
Before we explore the anatomical repercussions of the cue “soften your ribs down,” let’s look at what this instruction actually asks you to do with your body. When I was learning yoga, this action was usually cued “knit your front ribs down.” I didn’t understand what was being asked of me or why—probably because I was still struggling to learn how to do all the other things in the posture. This seemed like a subtle refinement.
And it is. “Soften your front ribs down” asks us to modestly engage the abdominal muscles. It’s typically used to correct students’ alignment after the basic shape of a pose has been attained. Sometimes the cue is needed in a backbend in which you’re over-exaggerating the arching of the back and, as a result, are jutting the ribs away from your body. Other times, the cue comes in handy in poses in which students are susceptible to slipping into a backbend when it’s unnecessary. I often see that in Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute) and Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).
To a teacher observing students in the pose, it tends to appear as a slight puffing out of the chest. Because the backbend is so slight, it often isn’t noticeable—even to the person doing it.
The anatomy of “soften the low ribs down”
We just answered what we’re doing. But why are we doing it? “Cues to ‘soften the low ribs’ or ‘knit the low ribs down toward the navel’ are intended to create subtle engagement in the upper rectus abdominis, part of the superficial abdominal ‘six pack’ muscle that links the base of the sternum to the pubic bone,” explains Rachel Land, a New Zealand instructor and YJ contributor on the real-world application of alignment and anatomy.
“These cues are usually offered in backbends, especially with those with overhead arms like Crescent Lunge or Wheel Pose, where lack of mobility of in the shoulders can lead students to unconsciously compensate by lifting the low ribs and almost hinging into the junction between then thoracic and lumbar spine. This habit can create a feeling of compression in the back,” explains Land.
Over time, if this compression isn’t corrected, the misalignment can also be potentially injurious in addition to depriving you of some of the intended benefits of proper alignment in the pose.
“When we take the spine into a backbend, or extension, bony projections off the back of the spine (called spinous processes) move closer together, potentially putting pressure on the soft tissues between them. This is particularly true in the thoracic spine, which has long, downward-sweeping spinous processes that almost overlap the vertebrae beneath,” says Land. (This is the chest and mid-back area of the body.) “Rectus abdominis has the opposite effect on the spine; engaging this muscle flexes the spine forward. So the idea is that subtle engagement of the upper fibers of rectus abdominis flexes the lower thoracic and upper lumbar spine just enough to create space between the spinous processes and ease that sense of compression.”
It’s not only the more challenging poses that benefit from this cue. Land finds them to be helpful in neutral spine poses, “such as Tadasana (Mountain Pose) or Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), that become slight backbends for those of us with a postural tendency to flare the low ribs. Gently engaging rectus abdominis counters that tendency to dump in the upper lumbar, guiding the spine back to a more neutral shape.”
For anyone who still isn’t feeling how that cue lands in their bodies, Land has a suggestion. “Some teachers prefer to offer a version of this cue that focuses on the back of the body. ‘Inflate the kidneys’ has the same desired effect, to reduce flare in the low ribs and create more neutral alignment in the bones of the upper lumbar spine.”
That’s a lot of alignment talk, although sometimes it helps to understand a cue not just through your felt sense as well as your intellect to truly take something in.
Got a question about alignment in a certain yoga pose? Want to better understand an aspect of yoga philosophy? Need advice on how to approach a challenging situation in your class? Submit your questions here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may answer it in an upcoming column.