Without moving any part of your body, take a moment, close your eyes, and just notice how you’re positioned. Whether you’re sitting or standing makes little difference at the moment. And, remember, don’t move anything.
Notice how your feet are positioned, how your pelvis is tilting, what your spine is doing, what’s happening in your shoulder areas, and the angle that your head is at. Don’t move.
Observe if any parts of your body are cranky — whether it’s tight muscles, achy joints, or any other sensations you’re experiencing. Now see if there’s some sort of obvious correlation. We’ll go deeper into this in a bit, so don’t worry.
And now, once again starting at your feet, try to get into the most neutral version of yourself that you can get into. But here’s the thing — being anatomically neutral like a textbook skeleton may not be appropriate for your body. Again, we’ll go into that further in a sec.
After you’ve moved into a neutral position that’s appropriate for your body, do a scan once again. How are the aches and cranky places? Did that repositioning have an immediate effect? For me, sometimes the relief is instantaneous; other times it takes literally months to feel the benefits.
This little exercise highlights how the subtle shifts in the ways we move and position ourselves might just be the thing to relieve some of our physical issues. Now, for the record, I’m not suggesting this is a magic cure-all. However, in the last 12 years of teaching, I’ve witnessed near miracles in many of my students’ physical experiences after they’ve made sometimes the tiniest of adjustments in the ways they reposition themselves.
We can apply this awareness on our yoga mats and (maybe even more importantly) while we’re going about our day-to-day activities that are a normal part of life.
Beginning with your life off of your mat, it’s important to pay attention to the way you stand and sit throughout your day. Observe how you stand while washing the dishes — the way your feet are positioned, what’s happening through your low back, your shoulders, your neck. Notice what’s wonky and what’s uncomfortable or tightening. Check how you sit while watching TV, how you hold your phone, how you sit in the car (both as a passenger as well as the driver). Notice how your body is positioned when you snuggle into bed as well as when you wake up. All of these actions have a direct relationship with how our bodies feel.
Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:
- For years I used to sleep with my hands underneath my pillow, sleeping on my side, wrists fully bent (picture the hands of a Praying Mantis ). It’s no wonder my wrists would absolutely kill me during the day. Once I changed hand positioning — and it took me a while to retrain my pattern — my wrists stopped hurting.
- Throughout my life, my default positioning while standing has been to do a big anterior pelvic tilt — meaning I’d stick my butt out and arch my back, thrusting my lower rib cage forward. This wasn’t intentional, and it was likely created while taking years of ballet classes. So deconstructing that position as our example, and keeping it in super simplified terms, it’s no wonder that my lower back muscles (my Quadratus Lumborum, or QL) became really tight, as did my front hip muscles (the hip flexors specifically). With awareness comes power, so now I check in often with how my pelvis is positioned while standing or sitting and reposition myself to get into a more neutral pelvic position whenever I’m off kilter. I also focus on the tight muscles created by this position and help stretch them often.
- Forever ago I sprained my knee really badly while ice skating with my kids. A few years later I sprained the shit out of my ankle while jumping on a trampoline, yet again with my kids. In both cases, as I wore braces to support the healing body parts, my back became increasingly ticked off due to the limping and other ways I was modifying my movement because of the injuries.
The takeaway: When the body isn’t neutral, it’s gotta compensate for that somehow. And usually that means some muscles get tighter, some get weaker, and chronic crankiness becomes the new normal.
Now, here’s the thing — most of us weren’t born completely symmetrical like a gingerbread man. And many of us have had injuries that somehow left a permanent physical alteration (as in the case of one of my toes, which now angles to the side because I’ve broken it so many times). We’re going for the most neutral positioning that works for our individual body’s needs. This isn’t about forcing our bodies into certain positions. We’re staying within our personal limitations and requirements and finding neutral-ish.
The times I really need to check in are when I’m sitting at my computer (that’s a huge one for me), when I’m brushing my teeth, doing the dishes, and standing. I’ll inevitably notice the forward-tilting pelvis, reposition to closer to neutral, and then observe what muscular effect that had. Usually that will mean a few of my abdominal muscles will automatically activate and my lower back muscles will feel a nice stretching sensation.
As you’re practicing this new awareness technique, observe what your tendency is and what body parts are impacted, both positively and negatively.
Notice where you feel discomfort or pain, then reposition and check in. Scanning your body throughout the day and making any shifts necessary, given your body’s unique makeup and needs, will have a dramatic effect in your quality of life. Check in, notice what’s cranky and wonky, and then intuitively adjust. Sometimes it’s the super subtle adjustments that have the biggest impact, so don’t hesitate to really explore your body.
If you’re not a doctor, don’t worry. You don’t need to be an anatomy superstar to figure this out. But if you’re really interested in human anatomy and want to learn more, here are some links to help:
This link has a nice interface so you can see what muscles attach to what and where.
This link has some good info relating to an anterior pelvic tilt.
This is the anatomy coloring book we use in the Sundara teacher training program. It’s very helpful and even fun. Color like you did when you were a kid, all the while gaining a deeper understanding of the incredible human body.
We also useD the Yoga Mat Companion series in our teacher training program in the past. These books do a great job of highlighting muscles in general as well as how they’re used in various yoga poses:
- Anatomy for Vinyasa Flow and Standing Poses
- Anatomy for Hip Openers and Forward Bends
- Anatomy for Backbends and Twists
- Anatomy for Arm Balances and Inversions
The next time you’re on your mat, notice how you’re sitting — how your pelvis is positioned, what’s going on in your spinal column, how your shoulders are placed, as well as how your head is sitting atop that same spine. When standing upright, begin with your feet and then keep scanning the rest of your body, noticing where you might be tilting or pushing or tightening or dumping. Come to your most neutral position and observe what muscles were activated or released in that new position.
With this newfound body awareness, you’ll be able to quickly identify your body’s patterns as well as the impact those patterns are having on other body parts. While you may not notice a change or improvement overnight, keep up the body sleuthing. Eventually you’ll create a new pattern which leads to a new normal.