Ask the Expert: Alignment and Surrender
In this edition of Ask the Expert, Priti Robyn Ross, a Kripalu Yoga teacher for more than two decades, deconstructs Warrior I (yes, the knee bone is connected to the hip bone!), discusses hip openers, and offers tips for easing into Savasana.
Can you recommend some alignment cues for Warrior I? I have a hard time finding the right positioning of my hips—I feel awkward trying to square off and face forward while also being slightly twisted in my stance.
The beauty of yoga is its intention to focus on the body as a whole unit while drawing your attention into the present moment. There’s permission and space to explore what’s right for your specific anatomy. As a teacher, I’ve seen many thousands of bodies practicing, and not everyone’s body is designed to be in the same alignment.
Warrior I can be practiced with the heel down or up (with the heel up, it’s called High Lunge in some traditions). In Kripalu Yoga, Warrior I is practiced with the heel up, so the feet are parallel and hip-width apart, allowing the hips to square forward more easily. The hips, pelvis, ribs, and shoulder girdle are all aligned, facing forward. Warrior I with the heel up is a bit more of a balancing posture, so you can put a rolled blanket under the heel to help with stability and balance.
If you practice Warrior I with the heel down, keeping your hips facing front, be aware of the torque in the back knee and ankle. Be careful not to force the back hip forward at the expense of an unhealthy torque in the knee. The ribs and thoracic cavity can rotate gently forward, even if the hips are not facing entirely square to the front of the mat.
Could you recommend postures to improve flexibility in the hip joints?
In the hips, as opposed to the shoulder girdle, for example, the range of motion is less, because we need stability in order to walk, run, and bear weight. There are a myriad of ligaments and muscles surrounding the pelvic girdle, and these all need to be intelligently relaxed and opened in order to create flexibility in the hips. Think of the hips in all dimensions: anterior, posterior, lateral (front, back, sides), as well as all the surrounding areas: superior (above) and inferior (below) the pelvic region.
When we’re tight in the hips, it’s important to not only address that specific musculature by assessing weakness and imbalances in the hip flexors and hip rotator muscles, but also to examine the low-back muscles, abductors, and hamstrings. All areas affect the range of motion and flexibility in the hip joints. Sometimes one area is tight and another area is weak, so it’s important to strengthen as well as stretch the muscles in various postures to address specific issues.
You can explore Pigeon along with its modifications (supine and double) to open the hip flexors and hip rotator muscles. The Butterfly helps open the inner thighs and groin, and Low Warrior One stretches the hip flexors by gently pressing the top front thigh of the back extended leg forward. Postures that explore internal rotation can be helpful as well. Ultimately, exploring the full range of motion in your practice and addressing the body as a whole unit is the most effective way to address tightness in the hips, or any area of imbalance.
When heading into Savasana, I have a hard time relaxing all my muscles. Any tips for the best alignment in what some call the hardest posture?
It’s good to understand that Savasana is a posture, not just an act of relaxation, so there are specific alignment cues that are used to support the body to begin to let go and relax. Classically, the legs are about 12 inches apart, with the hips naturally rolled open. The shoulder blades are relaxed down the back body, the shoulders relaxed down away from the ears, and the back ribs relax and broaden. The arms are about 10 inches away from the torso and turned outward to create a soft lateral rotation and opening of the chest and shoulders. The back of your neck is elongated and the weight of the head is released. You can use props to support your body—for example, a low folded blanket under your head or a support under your neck, or a rolled blanket or pillow under the knees to soften the low back. You can place eye bags gently over your eyes to block out light and help you fully surrender.
The level of activity in class may determine how easy it is to relax into Savasana. A vigorous class lends itself to ending with a deeper rest for the physical body. When the physical body is relaxed, the breath and the mind will follow. In a gentle or moderate class, the teacher may need to guide relaxation a bit more. It’s also important that the teacher create an environment that lends itself to letting go, with comfortable room temperature, low lighting, and perhaps neutral relaxing music. You can do this for yourself if you’re practicing at home.
There are many relaxation techniques that can be guided to help you surrender into Savasana. A full body scan encourages each body part to become heavy and relaxed into the earth; in a progressive relaxation, you tense and release your muscles one by one. Or send your breath awareness throughout your body—inhale into your heart, then exhale down your arms and out your fingertips. Inhale into your belly, then exhale down your legs and out through your toes, letting your whole body sink into the floor with each exhalation as you let go with a soft sigh … feeling relaxed yet?
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