Note: This is part two of a three-part series. While focused on teaching to the middle within our posture, breath, and nervous system, this article will focus on teaching the “middle ground” in relationship to the pelvis, shoulder girdle, and core.
Before diving into the anatomy and alignment of the pelvis, shoulders, and core, a few words about what I mean by “the middle”: The middle is the easeful place which allows for balance and fluid thought, breath, and movement. This is where mindfulness is present and breath is symmetrical and driven by the diaphragm. It is where movement is easeful and steady in all ranges of motion. It’s where power can easily be generated and accessed without strain.
As we continue to explore this thread of finding the middle within our bodies and minds, I’d like to expand outward from the breath and nervous system and move into the “core” and pelvic and shoulder girdles. Moving out of extremes of too much or too little muscle action and away from slumping or rigid posturing in these areas has clear benefits for asana as well as our day-to-day life in movement ease, efficiency, and safety. In this, the second of three articles on this theme of teaching to the “middle ground,” we will discuss muscles, joints, and biomechanics related to the core, pelvic girdle, and shoulder girdle. We’ll also explore the implications of extremes during asana practice, specifically during the transition from plank to to upward facing dog.
Moving out of extremes of too much or too little muscle action and away from slumping or rigid posturing in these areas has clear benefits for asana as well as our day-to-day lives.
The transition from plank to chaturanga to updog is often thought of as work of the limbs (arms and legs), not necessarily as a direct product of balanced girdles and core. But it is my aim to demonstrate how finding the middle ground of muscular effort and relaxation surrounding the pelvic girdle (consisting of the femur [thigh bone], acetabulum [or hip socket], and pelvis), shoulder girdle (consisting of the humerus [arm bone], glenoid [shoulder socket], and scapula), and the “core” (more on what that is in a moment) can create a more fluid and easeful movement and practice.
The word “core” is used abundantly in the yoga and fitness worlds but is not consistently defined. My working definition of the core is inclusive of the region between the pelvis and rib cage, all 360 degrees which consists of but is not limited to the collective synchronized work of the respiratory diaphragm, transversus abdominus, pelvic floor muscles, and multifidus in static postures or low-level activity. During higher-level activity the core may also include hip, shoulder, and additional abdominal and back musculature.
It’s not responsible to teach about the core without discussing the interdependence of the pelvic and shoulder girdles and vice versa—they all influence each other. For example, if you are too tightly gripping your core, you are probably too tightly gripping through your pelvic girdle and locking your shoulder girdle forward and down; however, for ease of explanation, I will describe these areas in three parts.
Let’s think of the core as a canister or a drum with a lid, a bottom, and a circumference which consists of all one piece of material connected to the lid and bottom. In our “cores” the lid is the diaphragm, the circumference is the transversus abdominus and its connected fascia, and the bottom is our pelvic floor. In order for our core to function optimally, the lid must be stacked over the bottom in all four directions (front to back and side to side) and none of the three pieces can be overly tight or loose.
Posture plays a huge role in establishing a core that is working in the middle and not extremes. If we stand in a swaybacked position (think relative to a plum line: the upper back is behind the plum line, the pelvis is forward of the plum line; if the upper back is usually overextended but can be rounded and the pelvis is usually posteriorly tilted or tucked under), we will have less tone in our core muscles. If we are too rounded forward and slumped we could have overly toned core muscles. Our habitual tendencies toward extremes drives our posture and muscular work.
Among yoga teachers and dedicated practitioners, a posterior rib lock, or “hinge back,” is a common extreme. It often comes from years of trying to lift the sternum and widen the collarbones. The effort and result are too harsh, and we lose valuable spinal alignment and core muscle work. What typically follows this postural extreme is an overdominance of the spinal extensors and hip flexors as stabilizers. This habitual posture may influence the way we teach; if we’re not aware of this extreme ourselves and are hyper-focused on “heart opening” at the expense of stability and overall postural balance, it’s probable that we are encouraging our students to do the same thing.
Conversely, a more forward, rounded posture can lead to a different sequelae: a diaphragm that is collapsed in the front (and maybe shifted to one side), dominant rectus abdominus (six-pack muscles), and grippy glutes. In both of these examples we lose the inherent fluidity and stability of the core. It becomes more difficult for the respiratory diaphragm and pelvic floor to descend and ascend fully and symmetrically and to remain stacked. The result may be a diaphragm that fails to facilitate optimal breathing, and a pelvic floor that may provide compromised support of our organs or be unable to prevent urogenital leakage. There will concurrently be a compromised ability of the transversus abdominus to engage, decompress, and stabilize the spine before, during, and after movement.
Let’s look at shoulder blade and pelvis extremism. There is an inherent similarity in the function and shape of the shoulder and pelvic girdle; both function best when the sockets are held in neutral and the balls (the head of the femur or humerus) are centered in the socket. When stability and mobility are balanced in the middle, the pelvis and scapula allow freedom in the hip and shoulder ball-in-socket joints. Additionally, the core works best when the girdles are stacked and balanced 360 degrees.
It is because of these parallels that we can look at “what the middle is not” in the shoulder and pelvic girdles together. The extreme postures that arise in these areas are: shoulders pulled down and back or (conversely) shoulders slumped and rounded and tailbone down and tucked, or the opposite extreme: an overly forward pelvic tilt. None of these extremes are optimal; they all set the body up for possible injury, inefficiency, and instability.
Shoulders pulled down and back means excessive gripping of the pectoralis and latissimus muscles. To understand this, put your thumbs in your armpits and then pull your shoulders down and back. What do you feel? Your pecs and lats engaging. What do pecs and lats do? Protract (move away from the spine) and depress (pull down) the shoulder blade, and adduct (move toward the midline of the body) and internally rotate the arm bone. That means that when we draw the shoulders down and back, the shoulder blade gets locked down and basically immobilized. It’s not allowed to glide easily in its scapulohumeral rhythm with overhead arm motion. It also means that the arm bone moves forward in the socket, decentralizing it, pulling it away from the stabilizing rotator cuff. The shoulder joint therefore becomes destabilized as a result of an increased difficulty for the attached muscles to do their optimal work.
Shoulders pulled down and back means excessive gripping of the pectoralis and latissimus muscles.
Over-tilting your pelvis backward, or posterior pelvic tilt, leads to excessive muscular action in the lower gluteus maximus fibers and the posterior pelvic floor. Put your hands on the front of your hip creases and grip your glutes. What do you feel? You probably feel fullness under your hands. That is the femoral head (the hip ball of the ball and socket) moving forward into your hands. When it gets pushed forward like that, just like the shoulder it becomes decentralized, pulled away from its stabilizing “rotator cuff.” This position happens when we stand in a swaybacked posture, sit all day, or misinterpret the teacher’s cue to tuck or root the tailbone, resulting in a forceful posterior pelvic tilt. The pelvis can get locked down and back, which leads to difficulty differentiating hip joint movement (flexion and extension) from pelvic movement (hip hiking or lifting the pelvis up to move the leg forward instead). This position of the pelvis also creates stiffness in the lower back and will have kinetic chain effects up the spine and down to the feet.
Conversely, the slumped shoulder or the anterior (forward) tilted pelvis is equally poor for shoulder and hip health, bringing with it imbalanced muscular tone (meaning some muscles get over-lengthened, some over-shortened), joint malpositioning, and challenging, inefficient biomechanics. An inherent disuse of supporting muscles, such as the rotator cuff, rhomboids, and mid traps in the shoulder and an overdominance of mobilizing muscles, such as pectoralis and latissimus in shoulder and back extensors and hip flexors around the pelvis—the sum of these creates difficulty in attaining neutrality, efficient movement, and power generation.
In the above examples of the scapula and pelvis, the extremes of posture and muscular overwork and underwork are not ideal. When we put our bodies in these shapes and use these compensatory strategies, we are depriving ourselves of the innate balance, efficiency, ease, and fluidity of movement that our bodies are designed to provide. As teachers who can understand how and why the hip and shoulder girdles function optimally in the middle, we have a responsibility to care for our students by sharing this knowledge and guiding them to the middle.
How do we find “the middle” in our core, hip, and shoulder girdles in the transitions from plank to chaturanga and from chaturanga to upward facing dog?
This transition is about the teamwork of the core, shoulder, and pelvic girdles, their integration as a result of their separate neutrality, stability, and mobility. The synchronous movement through these postures is driven by finding the middle ground of balance within the core and girdles.
We don’t generally think of the girdles and core as being the drivers to safety, strength, and efficiency during this transition; we usually think of the shoulders and arms. But not having integration of the arms and shoulders with the girdles and core during this weight-bearing transition will effectively compress our shoulders and wrists, causing us to overload them, which may ultimately cause increased fatigue, joint damage, and/or pain. But calling attention to using the core and girdles more than the limbs while leading our students through sun salutations may help them find some relief in their shoulders and arms.
Moving from plank to chaturanga to upward facing dog can be quite challenging. During these movements we are weight-bearing through our shoulders, forearms, wrists, fingers, and toes through a pretty large arm, shoulder, spine, and hip range of motion. The balanced core and girdles can support the overly demanded arms and shoulders, share the work, and create fluidity and ease. Balancing our core and girdles means freely accessing and utilizing the ease and strength of the core muscles as well as powerful leg and shoulder muscles for stability during this challenging transition.
Connect the balanced girdles to a balanced core, centered mind, and fluid breath and you are about as efficient as can be.
Finding the middle in our shoulder girdle in a plank pose moving to chaturanga is contradictory to what I typically hear in a yoga class. What I typically hear is to “hug elbows toward ribs and pull shoulder blades down and back.” Finding the middle is trying to maintain width in the armpits and shoulder blades—this positional cue can facilitate a more neutrally functioning scapula and centrally positioned head of humerus. If we can find the place of balance in our shoulder and pelvic girdles, our scapula and pelvis will be stable and neutral and our shoulder and hip joints will be centered in their sockets. This will provide long-term joint health, muscular efficiency, and ease. Connect the balanced girdles to a balanced core, centered mind, and fluid breath and you are about as efficient as can be.
The following are some cues that I use to explain how to find the middle in the body moving from plank to chaturanga to updog. In your own practice and while teaching students, I recommend trying to shift your awareness onto just one new cue or body action at once. Limiting the amount of “new” things your body and mind is trying to integrate at once will directly impact your success; too many things at once will overwhelm the nervous system. It’s also helpful to try this transition first in front of a mirror to give yourself visual feedback:
Create width in your armpits (as though there are raw eggs being held there; don’t crack them!).
Lift your armpits off your arms without rounding your spine.
Widen your back ribs.
Imagine the entire canister between your diaphragm and pelvic floor lengthening (like pulling a slinky apart).
Balance the pelvis into a neutral tilt, not anterior or posterior.
Most importantly, while keeping the core activation, DO NOT clench your glutes. Instead, widen them—this will keep the pelvic floor in “the middle.”
Then you can find the power of your legs through your quadriceps and hamstrings.
As you bend your elbows (and bend only your elbows) to move to chaturanga, nothing should change within the girdles or core. The only change is the elbows bending. Width in the armpits, shoulder blades, back body, glutes, and length in the core remains consistent.
Upward Facing Dog:
The final transition, moving from chaturanga to upward facing dog, requires the most control and finesse within the core and girdles as the relationship of the parts to the whole becomes disrupted when the spine extends and the girdles are no longer stacked and aligned. As a teacher, you may notice your students gripping their glutes together and squeezing their arms next to their ribs; this is a moment where you can teach the middle ground as you guide students to extend their hips without clenching their buttocks. I remind them to “allow their glutes to be wide.” Also, to suggest a softening of any armpit gripping to allow the humeral head (ball) to be centered in the shoulder sockets. As we move our shoulders and hips into extension and the spine into a backbend, it becomes more difficult to stay in the middle. To prevent hinging in the spine, I cue to widen the lower ribs, while gently accepting the front ribs into the front body.
To find the balance in the core in this extended position, lift the sternum while maintaining the width of the lower back ribs, and imagine each vertebra of the spine gently separating from the one below it to create length. Continue to narrow the waist toward the midline and to keep width in the lower back.
Finding the middle in the pelvis in this position is accomplished by finding the middle in the pelvic floor. While maintaining width in your lower glutes (no gripping), can you imagine that a marble is placed under your pubic bone, and gently draw up through your front pelvic floor muscles, trying to softly nod the pelvis forward to roll the marble forward toward your nose?
These mindful changes balance the girdles and core, take the “over” and “under” work out of the process, and may begin to direct your students toward the subtlety of proper alignment and optimal muscle recruitment. This will ensure efficiency, ease, and fluidity within our centers.
To create these changes in your own practice and to find the middle in your core and girdles, the most important tools to utilize are awareness, mental strength, and endurance.
To further create these changes in our students’ practices, we must continue to refine our cueing, choosing words that are geared toward intelligent action rather than often unattainable alignment.
The middle is where we find ease in the subtleties of our optimal alignment and where our mind and breath can balance and find fluidity.
The root of finding the middle is understanding that what needs to change during yoga asana or standing posture, is which muscles are recruited at what time and at what intensity—not how strong or how long our muscles are. Training our muscles to get stronger or stretching “tight” muscles will not lead us to the middle because it does not utilize our awareness and body sense. The middle is where we find ease in the subtleties of our optimal alignment and where our mind and breath can balance and find fluidity. Really, the muscle to “stretch and strengthen” is the mind, as we let go of old habits and create new, fresher pathways.