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The wonderful insights you find in asana practice need to come back to your daily life, right? Finding neutral—or what I call coming home to your body—is a practice of its own. What is your neutral? No matter what part of the body we’re talking about, it’s good to know the answer to this question, so you don’t keep returning to a position that doesn’t serve you or your yoga practice.
There are lots of differing opinions about what constitutes a neutral position. For yogis, Tadasana (Mountain Pose) describes a neutral standing position: easily resting upright, stacked up in gravity, and bearing weight on centered, balanced feet (figure A, in the slideshow below).
A second form of neutral is called “anatomical position”—a term coined in the early 1900s to describe the version of neutral that makes sense for anatomical naming (figure D). This neutral position is expressed in yoga as Savasana (Corpse Pose): lying horizontal, resting out of gravity, and fully supported with your arms open.
My sporty friends argue that there’s a third type of neutral, called “athletic neutral,” which happens when you’re alert: with weight resting slightly on your toes, knees and hips flexed, arms in front of your chest at the ready (figure B). “Athletic neutral” is close in shape, though not in muscle tone, to a fourth possible definition of neutral, called “floating neutral”: the position you’d take if you were totally relaxed under water, like a fetus in the womb or an astronaut in space (figure C).
These four neutrals are common positions from which you move. Right now, take a moment to consider if one of these positions supports your health and helps you find a sense of calm. Can you feel yourself comfortably resting and happy in Tadasana or Savasana? Or are the neutrals you experience in these poses not actually neutral for you—therefore creating anxiety or draining your energy?
Consider Tadasana for a moment. Beginner yogis often believe this is the simplest pose; yet when you really break it down, it’s actually one of the most challenging poses to master. One of the reasons so many of us find Tadasana so challenging is because finding true neutral in this posture is rarer than you may think. Too often, our natural neutral—our birthright of balance—has been disturbed by accident, incident, or attitude, producing a front-back imbalance with hips jutting forward and heart falling back (figure E, on page 56).
Upright standing, as in Tadasana, with your heels on the earth, weight back, and back body lengthened, is a form of coming home to your body. Relaxed standing is calming, centering, and generally a parasympathetic stimulus, meaning it stimulates the repose, restore, renew, and repair part of your autonomic nervous system. Compare this to the athletic neutral position, which stimulates your sympathetic nervous system—commonly called your fight-or-flight system.
These days, way too many of us find ourselves halfway between the calming neutral standing position and the active athletic neutral position, which means we are neither fully at rest nor fully ready. For example, if your knees are straight and your pelvis is over your forefoot, you’re neither calm nor ready, neither resting in appreciative standing nor prepared to battle your demons. Either stance—resting neutral, or ready-to-go neutral—is a valid one, depending on the state of your world. However, constantly hanging out somewhere in between is an invitation for anxiety, tension, and backache.
Gravity does not fall cleanly through your skeleton, so the soft-tissues—your ligaments and muscles—have to work to keep you upright. Over time, this pattern creates pain or soft-tissue degeneration.
I see a lot of yogis and yoginis paying attention to what they do in practice, but not to what they’re doing the rest of the time. How do you sit? How do you stand? When you bend down to pick up your kids’ toys at the end of the day, do you return to an easy, upright neutral? Or do you return to something like the pose shown below (figure E)? Understanding your neutral will help you move from a place of structural integration as you practice yoga poses—and as you move off your yoga mat.
Figure A: Neutral Standing Position
You’re resting upright, stacked in gravity, and bearing weight on centered, balanced feet.
Figure B: Athletic Neutral
You’re alert, weight is resting slightly on your toes, knees and hips are flexed, and arms are in front of your chest.
See also Poses for Athletes
Figure C: Floating Neutral
The position you’d take if you were totally relaxed under water, like a fetus in the womb or an astronaut in space.
See also The Effect of Stress on Your Body
Figure D: Anatomical Neutral
You’re lying horizontal, resting out of gravity, and fully supported with your arms open.
Figure E: Why do so many of us often feel stressed?
One reason: We find ourselves somewhere between standing neutral and athletic neutral: not aligned and at war with gravity. When gravity doesn’t fall cleanly through your skeleton, your ligaments and muscles have to work to keep you upright. Over time, this creates pain, tension, and a near-constant revving of the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system.
See also Yoga for Stress
How to find your neutral alignment
One key to fully stepping into your true resting neutral, or at-the-ready neutral—rather than something in-between—is learning how to access the balls of your feet.
In Tadasana, allow your toes to rest lightly on the floor, like a piano player’s fingers rest on the keys before playing. When you’re standing upright, your toes may exhibit a slight prehensility, gripping the earth lightly but without grasping.
If your toes habitually lift off the floor in standing poses, this is an indication of malfunction in your feet or lower legs; some tension is pulling up the toes. See if you can let your toes go, or try some ball work on the muscles in your calves, which can help those poor, overworked toes to relax. Keep in mind, however, that when you’re standing with your toes on the ground, they shouldn’t exhibit a white-knuckle grip. Test this: Can you lift all ten toes and one foot without feeling your weight shift backward? If not, your pelvis is likely forward of true neutral, so bring it back until your toes relax and you feel more weight in your heels.
See also 9 Spinal Stretches to Ease Back Pain
Your weight should be distributed between your heels, the balls of your big toes, and the balls of your little toes—a tri-point contact, three-legged stool, or a tetrahedron (if you’re into geometry)–with an arch in between each of these three points. Once you find balance in your feet, come into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), and notice how the position of your foot is closer to the at-the-ready neutral position.
My hope is that this practice helps you understand this: If you’re standing, really stand. Stay back where your toes are free and your hips are directly over your ankles. If you need to be ready for action, bend your knees and hips, lean into your toes, and embrace being fully prepared to move. Just don’t get caught in no-man’s land, which usually amounts to pretending to be calm while feeling underlying anxiety. After months and years, this creates a pattern of strain that tugs on your muscles and ligaments, leading to pain.
This is why Tadasana is such a deep and worthwhile pose to practice (and practice, and then practice some more). If you can find true neutral in this pose—and you can carry this knowledge off the mat and into how you move and stand throughout your daily life—it will have long-term benefits for your physical and psychological well-being.