by Jenni Rawlings
A Yoga Journal article entitled “Alignment Cues Decoded: ‘Soften Your Front Ribs’” by YogaWorks teacher Alexandria Crow came through my Facebook feed yesterday and I decided to write a response to it. As you might know, I am very interested in seeing our wonderful yoga world update its traditional alignment cuing with the intelligence of biomechanics and modern movement science. I’ve found that the yoga community can be a surprisingly insular environment in which aspiring yoga teachers learn asana alignment from other yoga teachers who learned their alignment from teachers before them, etc., and at no point in this handing down of information do yogis tend to step outside of the tradition of yoga to learn about anatomy and biomechanics from objective movement professionals who base their teachings in the science of the body.
So when I saw this article come through my feed, I was excited to read it because I was hopeful that it would contribute some new and interesting information to the greater yoga alignment dialog. The magazine Yoga Journal and the large yoga studio chain YogaWorks are both very established entities in the yoga world, so the articles they publish about yoga alignment are considered authoritative by many yogis.
But as I made my way through the article I became progressively disheartened because rather than introduce new and intriguing alignment insights, I found instead a reiteration of some standard old-school yoga cues that biomechanics has long ago proven to be incorrect and which many movement professionals retired from their teaching years ago.
A SUMMARY OF THE YOGA JOURNAL ARTICLE
If you don’t have time to read the original article, I’ll give you a summary. The gist of “Alignment Cues Decoded: ‘Soften Your Front Ribs’” is that most people tend to overarch in their lumbar spine/low back area, which results in a forward jutting of their rib cage. In order to fix this misalignment, yoga teachers instruct their students to “soften your front ribs”, but what they really should be cueing (according to the article) is “pull the front of your pelvis up, by lifting your hip points and dropping your tailbone until your lower back is in a natural – not overly arched – curve.” Here’s more of an excerpt:
“The ribcage puffing forward is what most teachers’ eyes see first, so they say, ‘soften your front ribs’ in an attempt to get students to drop the front of the ribcage toward the pelvis. But the change actually comes from the front of the pelvis, the hips. To fix overarched lower backs and pointy, puffy lower ribs, students have to posteriorly tilt their pelvis at the hip joint bringing their pelvis and lower back into neutral alignment. That reduces the lower back’s arch and shortens the front body, dropping the ribs down.”
Does that make sense? In order to fix the common issue of jutting-forward ribs, yogis need to tuck their pelves. Alexandria’s advice is well-intentioned and is certainly a commonly-held belief in the yoga world, but this perspective has been outdated by modern movement science for years now.
Here is the biomechanics to explain why tucking our pelvis does not fix our ribs-forward issue. Alexandria implies in her article that most people have a forward-tilted pelvis (also called an anterior pelvic tilt), which needs to be brought back to neutral with a posterior tilt, or tuck. But the anatomical truth is that the overwhelming majority of us present with pelves which are actually tucked under (also called posteriorly-tilted), which is the opposite of forward-tilted. We sit in so many chairs with rounded spines and tucked-under hips for the majority of our time that our body can’t help but adapt to this shape.
(As a side note, I must point out that no postural rules apply to everyone and there are of course some people who don’t have chronically tucked pelves. But when we’re discussing general yoga cues, we’re talking about common movement patterns and postural imbalances that apply to the majority of the students we tend to see. We’re trying to be as helpful as we can teaching in a group class setting.)
But then why would Alexandria and so many other yoga teachers and yoga teacher training programs like the ones at YogaWorks teach that most people have forward-tilted pelves that need tucking? Great question – I’m so glad you asked! It’s because in addition to having a tucked pelvis, most people also present with a forward translation of their rib cage, also called rib thrust or rib shear.
Here’s me with my ribs forward – do you see that my lumbar curve looks exaggerated here?
This is the same image, but with a rib cage overlaid because rib cages are cool. 🙂
When one’s rib cage has moved forward, it creates the overly-arched spine that Alexandria correctly sees in her students, but the mistake that too many yoga teachers make is in assuming that this excessive arch (also called hyperlordosis) is coming from below – from of the pelvis. Yes it’s true, as Alexandria points out in her article, that when your pelvis moves, your lumbar spine moves along with it. But it’s also true that when yourrib cage moves, your lumbar spine moves too. The hyperlordosis that we all-too-often see in our students isn’t the result of a pelvis that is anteriorly-tilted from below – it’s the result of a rib cage that has sheared forward from above. The fix is therefore not to tuck your pelvis under, or to do any of these other cues that the YJ article suggest that mean the same thing, like:
-pull the front of your pelvis up
-lift your hip points
-drop your tailbone
I repeat, the fix is not to tuck the pelvis. Tucking the pelvis when we’re already tucked leads to major body imbalances that we don’t need to delve into right now – but it’s not what we want to be doing. The correct fix is to return the rib cage to neutral, which you could certainly cue as “soften your front ribs” (but there are many other ways to convey this same action).
As I wrote about in my Core Strength Fiction & Facts article, it’s time to retire the indiscriminate use of the “tuck your tail” cue. Yes, there are specific times when we do want to work a posterior tilt of our pelvis – absolutely! But as yoga teachers who integrate anatomy and body intelligence into our teaching, it’s our responsibility to learn when these specific times are and to use this cue only at those times. In the YJ article, we are recommended to tuck our pelvis in all of these poses:
-tadasana (mountain pose)
-utkatasana (chair pose)
-adho mukha svanasana (down dog)
-adho mukha vrksasana (handstand)
-high crescent lunge
-trikonasana (triangle pose)
-”and so many more!”
However, the only poses from that long list in which most of us would be well-advised to work a tuck of our pelvis are high crescent lunge and warrior 1 – and that’s it!
I feel thankful to have realized at a certain point in my yoga path that I had only learned about the body from people within the yoga tradition, and that it might be a good idea to seek some broader, more objective knowledge from movement professionals from outside the yoga world as well. The knowledge I’ve gained (and continue to gain!) from years of studying have given me a profoundly different perspective on the way that yoga approaches the body. Armed with these new understandings, I’m actively working toward helping yogis understand biomechanical alignment and how we can apply this modern-day movement science to our yoga practice to keep our beloved tradition of yoga evolving and current.
I understand that traditions don’t change overnight and that people tend to have ingrained notions about the way the body moves or which alignment cues are optimal that can be challenging to dislodge. But one great first step toward embracing positive change is to not accept at face value something that was written in an article just because the article was published in an established entity like Yoga Journal. Yoga Journal is not the authority on how the body moves – biomechanics and science are the authority.
Jenni Rawlings loves to weave her natural interest in anatomy and biomechanics into her yoga and movement teaching. You can find out more about her offerings and teachings at www.jennirawlings.com.
~ Article reposted with permission ~
Thank you for another excellent article! Please keep writing-these posts about actually healthy, rather than simply “traditional” alignment are so needed and so lacking in the yoga world at large!
“the anatomical truth is that the overwhelming majority of us present with pelves which are actually tucked under (also called posteriorly-tilted), which is the opposite of forward-tilted”
References? It would help your case enormously if you provided a few.
Personally, my problem with the “tuck the tailbone” instruction is it’s imprecise and means very different things to very different people. Add in the fact there are a range of different theories about how best to protect the lower back (both “biodynamically” and “traditionally”) and it’s a subject best approached with detail and precision… (and references)
John, any physical therapist, chiropractor or osteopath will confirm that most people do in fact have a posterior tilt to the pelvis. If you’re looking for data or references, just read some trade journals from any of these professions.
Biomechanics not biodynamics, although that could be interesting! #farmeryoga
Actually, Sara, you and the author of this article are incorrect. The Yoga Journal article is correct. A statement like “any physical therapist, chiropractor or osteopath will confirm that most people do in fact have a posterior tilt to the pelvis” is one of those overarching quips that has no basis in reality (work with PT’s all the time). The position of excessive anterior tilt of the pelvis with hyperlordosis of the lumbar spine is far more common than posterior tilt with a flat lumbar (by a country mile). It has been well described in the medical literature as well. Among other things, it involves weakened glutes. The YJ article correctly addresses this by encouraging engagement of these muscles.
Moreover, the author of this “biomechanics informed” article needs to inform herself on biomechanics before pompously making statements that we are all handing down what we are taught etc. If you had been around yoga for a few years you would know that the instructions from India have almost always discouraged engaging the glutes or tilting the pelvis down. I would say the YJ article is spot on in correcting this, and it is biomechanically informed. This article isn’t.
So your argument against an article in one trade journal is – other trade journals? Anecdotes? That’s not really bringing “science” to bear on “tradition”, is it?
Biodynamic 🙂 never trust autocorrect.
In the Anusara tradition, the “tuck the tailbone” cue is linked to outer spiral and pelvic loop — and this instruction always comes AFTER the cut to “root the thighbone BACK” (inner spiral, thigh loop). So the first move is always to shift pretty much the entire pelvis backwards in space, which prompts (on purpose) a strong anterior tilt, which is then balanced by correcting the pelvis back to upright (root the tailbone towards the heels). Tuck the tailbone as a cue is a little too aggressive, and many prefer, “root” the tailbone “towards” something specific to aim to bring the pelvis into a neutral alignment.
If you want to shift the ribs, well, that’s a set of cues that comes AFTER correcting the pelvis.
/dork out 🙂
Why do you not recommend tucking in chair pose? When I am in that pose I am typically thinking about dropping my tailbone down and forward as I squeeze my shoulders together. Is that not correct?
Thanks! Very interesting article!
I wrote a reply to this attack. Please have a read of it.
James, I’m guessing you’ve never been attacked before, if you’re thinking this blog post is an attack. The author used the phrase “in every yoga pose” in the title, but she never said that it was a quote from the article. In fact, she quoted the article exactly by listing every pose that Alexandria DID say the tail should be tucked in, which is ridiculously long.
Oh and that list ends in “and so many more!” which is lazy and unclear and pretty ridiculous. So, yeah.
I read this article and the core article you linked. I don’t find an explanation of the rib sheer you aver. Nor do I see a cue to fix the perceived sheer. I have always found “soften the ribs” to be vague. What muscle movement “softens” the ribs? I do think we tend to over emphasize the over arching lumbar and i like your point about sitting leading to an over flat lumbar. On the other hand most of the people we see in classes are young flexible women who DO exhibit hyperlordosis. Could you explain better or refer me to what you claim is more modern research from the non yoga community. I have trouble finding a way to move my ribs without using abdominal muscles, though I think the obliques play more of a role than the rectus.
As a great teacher said: “don’t tell the students what to do but tell them how to do it”. All of this is great: soften the rib cage, drop tailbone, etc., but how about telling them how to do that? For a long time I kept practising this tucking tailbone until I ended up with serious lumbar and SI joint issues. Teachers tend to confuse the “volume” of the buttock with where the sitting bones are, with how tilted the pelvis is and how puffed up the ribcage is. You must as a teacher give all the cues, NEVER EVER TUCKING TAILBONE CUE, but also tell them to apply to their own body, show them how, explain to them how and most of all as a teacher STOP repeating like a parrot what you heard from your teacher or in a workshop. the best teacher is your own body and that way you can really understand the movement, more of a reason to practise with awareness.
Great article! I worry about the over-cue of tucking in Warrior I as well. WI is a back bend, it’s ok to let the tail float a bit. Thanks for taking the time to write this.
Yes! I agree with never tucking the tailbone, even in warrior I. If there’s any compression in the lower back, lengthen the spine more… if there’s strain in the groin, move the thigh bone back towards the hamstring.
Hi! I love anatomy and thank you for sharing your perspective and knowledge. However, I did not see in the article where she said to tuck your tailbone. I have also taken several classes from Alexandria and have never heard her cue that phrase. I believe what she was explaining is different from ‘tucking your tailbone’. Again, I do love learning from different points of view. This topic is fascinating to me since yoga has been the only vehicle that has helped to heal my lower back issues and pain. Thanks for your insight. Namaste.
Ummmm…..unless you are a chiro, PT, or osteo, don’t reference information like you are….and then say to ‘look it up in a journal’ as your proof. I actually am a PT, and the majority of back pain that I treat (in a spine center) is associated w excessive anterior pelvic tilt or lordosis. There is no anterior shearing of the entire rib cage, and rib mobility does not directly affect lumbar mobility. I love yoga, but often have to shut my ears to the cuing and info shared by yogis that don’t really know anatomy and/or typical musculoskeletal dysfunctional patterns. Stick to yoga and leave treating dysfunction to healthcare professionals. 🙂
Hi Guys! This blog post seems to have incited a bit of yoga controversy, to put it mildly. Not just here on YD but also on my own website. I’ll keep watching any new comments here on YD and respond here if applicable, but I wanted to let you know that I’ve written quite a lot of responses on this post on my website and they address some of the questions that have been mentioned here so far. I just didn’t want to flood this comment thread with super lengthy responses, so feel free to check over there if you have a question that hasn’t been answered. Oh, and @Amy – thank you for seeing what my article was about so clearly – I appreciate your comments!
In any case, that kind of post and discussion is necessary to yoga, as its traditions need to be challenged and questioned.
I like the logic and goodwill of your article, but I tend to disagree with you… anteversion and retroversion vary a lot from one person to another, and depend on so many intricated factors, biomechanical, visceral and cultural, that it is difficult to make general statements about it.
Most bodies are imbalanced compared to a theoretically balanced body, and changing the system this or that body has adapted to during this lifetime is delicate. Moving this or changing that may have hidden consequences, and here certainties can be pretty tricky.
Anyway, that’s just my point of view, but I thank you for your insight and the following discussion : it’s likely that many readers will try to find books and reliable sources, and maybe that’s the all point.
But, perhaps, quoting or mentionning some of your sources would have been a good asset. When dealing with such topics, I think it’s necessary.
We all have to consider that this is exactly the type of meaningless debate that distracts us from “yoga”. This is a debate about “asana” – science, art and philosophy.
Just putting out there -biomechanics/anatomy is not a defined science. So if that is true at least then osteopathy, manual therapy and bodywork in general that consult science isn’t easily defined then what source can we rely on? I believe we can find our answer from our practice and teachings we respect. If yoga is observance of nature then let that phenomenon guide us. Yoga never suggested itself as a scientific platform it is a journey of a more fundamental tuth – than just about our ribs and sacrums. Stop obsessing about the material and let people play. This article and counter argument is sad because it’s just a point of view and a selfish exersice of ego. Stop high jacking what yoga is.
The tendency of the pelvis to tilt one way or the other could be caused by many factors. Starting with the feet and the legs. The laws of compensation within the body are always at work. The article was about softening the ribs. So from that standpoint, I’m assuming that she is narrowing her article to people who puff out their chests in the poses that were mentioned. Didn’t see where she used the words ‘tuck the tailbone’. Were those your words? I did see that she mentions a neutral pelvis. The neutral position of the pelvis in the saggital plane is the goal. I tend to puff out my chest. It’s an aggressive emotional tendency that shows up physically sometimes. Softening the ribcage is helpful from an emotional cue as well as a physical cue.
As aPT with a 500 hr YT cert., No tucking!!!!— until you locate the right and proper journey for your own hips and SI Joints. What we cue is the journey, which applies to any posture where the hip is in extension or moving to extension (as in uttanasana, and utkatasana and including all that work on all 4s). In tadasana it is easiest to feel and must feel it. lift the toes pressing big toe ball mounds down, with a block btw the thighs, internally rotate the thighs to untie the sit bones, as if passing the block behind you (don’t lose the big toe down), this creates space in the SI joint that then allows the pubic bone to draw toward the sternum just enough to engage the lower abdominals but not to restrict breath or tie up the sit bones again. Once you get the proper work in the legs for you, being mindful that you are not “launching” in the standing poses this work shows up everywhere and especially if you want to quiet the most medial hamstring.
Your job is to teach the journey. Each student will have their own level of IR and lower abdominal activation that is right for them.
Interesting. Not sure where the idea PTs are necessarily better qualified than yoga teachers comes from. I’ve seen physios (who gave workshops on anatomy for yoga teachers no less) who had no clue about their own practice and no eye for what was going on in other’s. Still, the more perspectives and training the better, I guess, and being both is definitely good.
The internal rotation thing… I’ve worked with very well qualified teachers who swore by external rotation, and equally well qualified teachers who swore by internal. I faithfully followed the instructions of whoever I was working with for the years I worked with them and frankly never noticed much difference. I’d bet good money the same would apply to a random sample of the public and tail tucking or not… some would find it very helpful, some very harmful, and many wouldn’t really be affected that much by doing it a few hours a week in a few yoga poses. Every time I get a few beers into a sports science research student they admit that nobody really knows or can prove anything – they’re just applying what they’ve been taught or found works to the extent the science doesn’t contradict it outright (if they’re making an effort to keep up with the science)
I completely agree with you, John. The same goes for martial arts : with completely different (or even opposite) theories and explanations, some teachers manage to achieve similar things.
I like that old story of Anko Itosu, a XIXth century karate master who, when he was old and facing a youngster who wanted to test him, caught his arm with lightning speed, dragged him into some tavern and had a drink with him. The young one asked him : “How did you do that ?”, and the old sensei answered : “I have no idea”.
Guess there are many paths out there, leading eventually to the same place, or state… but passing through all kinds of tracks.
Anyway, unshakable certainties tend to be boring…
Thank you for putting this essential information in writing for the world to see. This issue is the very reason I have stopped teaching yoga classes. My teacher taught me to tuck and I taught tucking for a few years though when I realized tucking was not helping my practice or bringing relief to my scoliosis I began to ask questions. Then I began to piece together how much yoga body movement is based in conjecture and not real science and I stopped teaching and stopped going to yoga classes. I now have my own home yoga practice where I listen to what my body is telling me. Thank you for the link to the yoga alignment and biomechanics course. Maybe after taking that I will begin to teach again. Informed teachers are much needed out there.
I would say that in MPY there is a split between form and function that is particularly problematic for women. Form is privileged over and above function, which is to say that for all the rhetoric, the vast majority of yoga is not really about simply encouraging a healthy, adaptive response to the world. Externally imposed shapes are almost always the norm – certainly the visible face – rather than organic process. And despite the vast majority of practitioners being women, there is widespread covert misogyny in the yoga world in that the miraculousness of the most ordinary of women’s bodies, the remarkable changes it goes through every month and the profound transformations it cycles through over the course of a lifetime as a crucible for embodied experience of life and death, are very rarely honoured. They’re usually ignored, treated as inconvenient episodes women have to endure before they can get back to the real business of “proper” practice. The somewhat shocking truth is that the vast majority of MPY is not at all supportive of female embodiment. In many cases, such as this tuck under issue, the pursuit of form pulls directly against function, in that it negatively affects it. Women’s lower spines are meant to be curved. The lumbar curve is directly related to the ability to carry a baby, for that child to assume a position in the womb that allows his/her safe passage into the world with minimal difficulty and therefore intervention, and for the pelvic organs to maintain their position and mutual supportiveness. Tucking under and flattening out the lumbar curve therefore has a direct relationship to the rise of caesarean births and pelvic organ prolapse.
Thank you Jenni for the great article. I admit I am a teacher who has not had much training in bio-mechanics or anatomy prior to teaching. I was taught in my YTT to very rarely or never say “tuck your tailbone,” but rather to use the term “lengthen (toward the earth)” when in tadasana, etc. Do you have any input on that? Also liked what you said about the ribs, I agree with you on the importance of softening or pulling in the ribcage for better spinal alignment. Thank you for any info you can provide! Cindy
The pelvis and spine should be in neutral. And this is the term I use and I use pelvic tilts to demonstate what neutral is. Using the tern “Tucking” is too ambiguous. If the pelvis is already in neutral, then “tucking” would create an overly flattened lumbar which is not ideal. The lumbar should not be overly arched nor too flattened. Neutral pelvis is where the lumbar has it’s optimum natural curve.
The pelvis and spine should be in neutral. And this is the term I use. I use pelvic tilts to demonstrate what neutral is. Using the tern “Tucking” is too ambiguous. If the pelvis is already in neutral, then “tucking” would create an overly flattened lumbar which is not ideal. The lumbar should not be overly arched nor too flattened. Neutral pelvis is where the lumbar has it’s optimum natural curve.