Today I will start a series of blogs about Asanas/postures. It won’t be a step by step instruction as there are millions of sources for this kind of information. It will be more about practical hints that I’ve learned here and there that might help you improve your practice.
A couple of “never forget to” kind of tips: leave your ego out of the room, as he can be real trouble; and always move with the breath instead of trying to breath with the movement.
People underestimate the importance of the basic asanas, and among them the very first posture we ever learn: Tadasana, the foundation for all standing poses.
Tada is the Sanskrit word for Mountain, and that is exactly how you stand in this posture, reaching high into the sky, without letting go on your ground.
Tadasana teaches us to lengthen the spine and to find balance; it helps us correct our posture strengthening the abdomen, thighs, knees and ankles; it improves our breathing capacity as the chest opens.
It might seem that we are just standing there, but that is not the case at all. This posture develops a lot of awareness towards the entire body, awareness that will later help us perform other postures with the proper alignment and strength which are very important factors to prevent injuries. Yoga is not supposed to hurt us but it definitely will if we don’t build up our practice from the basics.
The main anatomical points on Tadasana are: your feet, thighs, hips, and shoulders. If you learn the proper alignment of these, everything else will fall into place. The proper alignment on each pose acts as a cascade of movement, so when you stand with the proper feet, the alignment of the legs will come, and then the hips and then the spine, and then the shoulders and then the rest of your body. When you are able to put all these pieces together, your postures feel light and effortless! And that’s when you really start enjoying your practice.
To create a good foundation, distribute the weight of your body on the four corners of your feet spreading your toes with a relaxed action. I like to ask my students to close their eyes and swing the weight of their bodies back & forward, left & right to then find their own balancing point. This is a very important action for standing postures, balancing postures, and inversions.
Depending on your own body structure it might feel better to have the big toes together or to stand with the feet hip width apart. I find that keeping the feet parallel to each other, from the outer edge (so your heels are slightly wider than your toes), makes the further internal rotation of the thighs easier.
When it comes to the thighs, there is a term often used in yoga that I think most of the students miss because they just don’t understand it: engage your thighs. How do you engage your thighs? Easy… just lift your quadriceps creating an automatic lift of the kneecaps, but make sure it is a relaxed action that doesn’t create overextension of your knees. This movement will also help with the inward rotation of the thighs that I think is very important for the proper positioning of the hips. Learning to rotate your thighs can be easy if you place a block high between your legs and try to move it back (for an inward rotation) and forward (for an outward rotation).
Regarding the hips, there is another very important instruction that people rarely get: tuck your tail-bone! The first time I heard this, I thought: “tuck what and where?”. Well, the intention of this instruction is to bring your hips into a neutral position. When I began teaching Yoga I used to ask the students to swing their hips back and forward until they could find a balanced neutral position. But now, I find it more effective to ask them to try to lengthen the bottom end of the spine towards the heels, while they push the belly in. Yes, the bottom end of the spine… That is your tail-bone! And when you do this little action, you are creating an immediate lengthening reaction in the rest of the spine. Just make sure you are not clenching your buttocks.
And to put the final touch into the perfect alignment, roll your shoulders up, back and down. This will open your chest, relax your neck and will bring your arms into the perfect place. One very easy way to perceive this rotation is imagining that you have a wheel around your shoulders. This rotation can be applied to any posture where the arms go over the head to avoid collapsing your shoulders into your ears.
When you work with basic postures, you should try to memorize the sensations, let your body get used to the feeling of the posture. This way, when you need to apply the same alignments in other positions your body will know exactly where to go! Just to give you a couple of examples: when performing Half Moon, the memory of your Tadasana feet and legs will help you make your back leg (which is the anchor of this posture) strong and active; or when practicing back bends, the memory of your Tadasana hips will make your lower back longer preventing the vertebrae from collapsing.
These basic alignment tips are useful for all the postures in one way or another, making them not only easier to perform but safer. Yoga is a practice of mindfulness that helps you connect body and mind, and building up this awareness in all your postures has a lot to do with it.
Feel the Mountain in your Tree, in your Warriors, in your Cobra…