Rolling up to standing vertebra by vertebra is often taught as the kinder, gentler way to come up to tadasana (mountain pose) from a standing forward fold. But in truth, this transition may not actually be so kind and gentle. Rolling up incorrectly carries great risks, and rolling up correctly is challenging, especially for beginners who are often the target audience for this cue, and especially at the beginning of class when the roll-up is most often taught. In fact, it's for these reasons that many experienced teachers and practitioners are finding that the roll-up is uniquely worthy of reconsideration.
Rolling up incorrectly carries great risks, and rolling up correctly is challenging, especially for beginners, who are often the target audience for this cue.
“Often, rolling up is a missed opportunity to strengthen and organize the core muscles closest to the bones,” says Jonina Turzi, a doctor of physical therapy specializing in kinematics, who is also a yoga teacher and the owner of West End Yoga in Lancaster, PA. “Rolling up incorrectly can also be compressive to the sacroiliac (SI) joints, the labrum of the hip, or the intervertebral discs. And it can increase the likelihood that when you are rounding down one day to pick up a pencil, you’ll throw your back out,” she explains.
Healthy positioning of the sacrum (the triangular bone at the base of the spine that is surrounded by the iliac bones of the pelvis) is vital for a safe roll-up. If, as you begin to initiate the roll-up, the top of the sacrum drops back passively (a movement known as sacral counternutation), slamming against the back of the pelvis with the entire weight of the upper body dangling from its ligaments, you will be shearing the cartilage of the SI joint and setting the stage for spinal compression. “You want space between the 'S' and the 'I,' says Turzi. "To get that, you need the top of sacrum to nutate—to nod in and up—as the spine moves up to stand. That will create the space around the joint that provides shock absorption and buoyant force attenuation.”
To check if you are able to nutate the sacrum during a roll-up, you can use the wall as a guide: Turzi suggests standing in a forward fold with your sitting bones just off the wall and heels close to the wall (1 to3 inches away, depending on the dimensions of your tailbone and buttocks). If, as you roll up, you can keep your heels rooting down into the floor, your hips OFF the wall, and your legs straight but unlocked, there is a good chance your sacrum is properly positioned to transmit its weight into the bones of your legs. You might indeed be able to roll up safely. "But," notes Turzi, “you are one of a special few.”
In addition to the problems posed by passive sacral counternutation, “rolling up is often done with incomplete segmentation of the spine,” says Turzi, meaning that because of gaps in awareness or strength, many of us roll up in large increments instead of vertebra by vertebra, which can cause shear force damage to the intervertebral discs. Imprecise segmentation of the spine can also stand in the way of rehabilitation: Turzi sees many PT clients who have been undulating in transitions in their yoga practice for years, inadvertently avoiding the muscle repatterning required to heal SI joint or hamstring tendon problems.
Many of us roll up in large increments instead of vertebra by vertebra, which can cause shear force damage to the intervertebral discs.
Truly rolling up vertebra by vertebra requires the engagement of many postural or “core” muscles, the deep muscles closest to the bones. To find out if you are effectively using your core muscles to roll up, you might enlist the help of a physical therapist or attentive yoga teacher. As you roll up, have that person rest a couple fingers lightly on your lowest lumbar vertebra. Can you lift into her fingers? How about the next vertebra? And the next? It is up to her to discern whether or not you are lifting the designated vertebra. If she encounters what Turzi calls a “shadow spot,” or weak area, you might not be able to tell for yourself. Pause in those spots for a few breaths or a few minutes, revisiting them repeatedly if necessary, until they wake up. You will notice that there is nothing passive about rolling up this way; you will have to use your legs to create the movement, pressing down strongly into both feet in order to lift into the fingers on your back.
It might take years for some of us to be able to roll up to stand with the sacrum in nutation and using core muscles to lift a single vertebra at a time. Even those of us who have the ability to roll up safely may be better off postponing the action until the end of class when our attention is firmly rooted in the body and our muscles have, in Turzi's words, “magnetized to their bones." “This is not to say that rolling up is illicit,” she emphasizes, “But we should earn the undulation by first engaging our core muscle fibers.”
Fortunately, until we have earned our roll-up, there is a universally helpful way to come up to stand: keeping our spines long while we hinge at the hips. Turzi advocates moving the trunk as a single, well-aligned unit over the tops of the thighs. “If there is one action that seems most valuable for the human form, it’s using the true hip hinge,” she says. “When you move an elongated spine over the ball of the femur at the hip socket, you’re systematically putting weight in the femur, shin, and foot, and building muscle mass and bone density exactly where you want your roots to be.”
Fortunately, until we have earned our roll-up, there is a universally helpful way to come up to stand: keeping our spines long while we hinge at the hips.
Turzi suggests hinging your way up to stand by practicing the steps below with a dowel or yardstick on your back. Move your tailbone and the back of your head toward the dowel and away from each other as you make your way up. (Turzi learned to use a dowel as a tool to organize the spine in her physical therapy studies at The Institute of Physical Art and finds the technique applies neatly to yoga.)
When not using a dowel, to increase the likelihood that the back of your head and tailbone remain aligned as you rise, try coming up with your upper arms close to your ears while you hold a yoga block between your hands or grab opposite elbows overhead.
In order to hinge up to stand with optimal length in the spine:
Step 1: In your fold, press your shins forward so you can root down through the balls of your feet, setting the stage for your legs to take full ownership of the length of your spine.
Step 2. Keeping weight at the front of your feet, press your inner top thighs back, and begin to lift your trunk. When your spine comes to parallel to the earth, your head and tail should be on the dowel. (Bend your knees if necessary to move your pubic bone toward the back of the room and lift your tailbone to the dowel.) While moving your head and tail away from each other, also draw your lowest front ribs in, and be attentive to the tracking of the limbs: Guard against knock-knees and forward-rolling shoulders. You might pause in your halfway-up position for a minute or two, placing your elbows on your knees. Turzi encourages holding here to “facilitate fiber awakening and weight acceptance. Your arms can help you catch mistakes and keep your upper spine long.”
Step 3: Keeping the back of your head and tip of your tailbone against the dowel, come all the way up to standing. Notice how it feels to rise when you are already tall inside.
When you move from tadasana into a forward fold, reverse the process. From a vertical spine, root with the fronts of your feet, move your pubic bone back (again bending your knees if need be), and begin to tip your pelvis forward so that you stay on the dowel as you lower instead of rounding your way down. Once your spine has lowered past a 90-degree angle with your thighbones, you may move off the dowel.
Parshvottanasana (pyramid pose) offers another chance to practice hip-hinging while maintaining healthy spinal length. While still upright in your pre-pyramid stance, align your head and tail along a dowel. If your right foot is forward, take your left arm up, upper arm alongside your ear. Keep your upper arm next to your ear as you fold and lift. Start by just lowering a few inches, and then come back up. Repeat, slowly increasing the arc of your motion. See if you can bring your spine parallel with the earth while still keeping your head and tailbone on the dowel. If at any point in the process of hinging up or down you notice you're starting to move off the dowel (e.g., your sacrum is tempted to slouch back or your head to sag), you have a valuable opportunity to strengthen where you most need it. Turzi suggests that you dwell in that place of sustainable challenge for two to three minutes, holding and breathing, in order to create a new pattern in which you ground through your legs instead of gripping in your trunk or compressing your spine.
The transition from adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog) to plank pose (and vice versa) is another place to practice using the hip hinge and staying on the dowel as you move. According to Turzi, “If you undulate from pose to pose, it might be all too easy to use what is already strong—often the pectorals, upper abdomen, and scapular protractors—in a way that allows you to avoid your weak or shadow spots—often the lower abdomen and upper back.”
By contrast, when we use our limbs to help us hold length in the spine and we teach ourselves to move the head and tail in tandem over the thighbones, we engage the core muscles which, according to Turzi, “send waves of biomechanical efficiency outward from the core and bring us one step closer to neuromuscular enlightenment.”
And that enlightenment is portable. After a class that encourages us to lengthen rather than cave in, we will be primed to maintain optimal height in the spine in our day-to-day activities, so that every time we bow to pick something up from the floor, we retain our inner expansiveness, and every time we rise, we lay claim to the height that is ours, inching ever-nearer to our highest possible selves.
“The ease we bestowed upon ourselves through this effort will be free to ripple outward into the world,” affirms Turzi. “That is kindness.”
Through the challenging work of using our deep core muscles to stabilize our bones as we hinge at the hips, we create the space the organs need to function optimally, and we destress the nervous system, leaving us with more energy to devote to the people, causes, and quests that matter most in our lives. “The ease we bestowed upon ourselves through this effort will be free to ripple outward into the world,” affirms Turzi. “That is kindness.”
And until we earn the roll-up, there is an undulatory movement that remains always available to us: that of the breath, kindly and gently rolling up and rolling down inside our enlightening bodies.