Do you ever feel overwhelmed in yoga class by the sheer amount of postures to learn? Are you looking to master alignment to get the most out of your practice and prevent injury?
Discovering the six directions of the spine was the big “aha” moment of my yoga career. Before this revelation, I struggled to simplify the complex practice of yoga asana for myself and for my students (postures). Once I learned about the way we move the spine in yoga, everything began to fall into place. Moving through the six directions of the spine during warmup defines my vinyasa and therapeutic yoga teaching style. Whether we begin seated or in tabletop position, we explore the range of motion in our spine before exploring more traditional yoga postures.
You too can master your own yoga asana practice by understanding the six directions of the spine and standing mountain posture (tadasana). Every single posture fits into one of these six movements or tadasana.
- Front Extension (Also known as back bending)
- Tucking and Rounding
- Lateral Side Bending (Creating a C shape bringing right ear toward right hip)
- Lateral Side Bending (Creating a C shape bringing left ear toward left hip)
- Twisting to the right
- Twisting to the left
- Tadasana: The spine maintains its natural curvature
Want to learn more? Check out this elaborated content taken from Five Pillars Yoga based in New York.
Direction 1 – Spinal Extension
aka arching the spine as in Cow Pose
This shape lengthens the spine, expands the chest, strengthens the lungs and facilitates deeper breathing.
From an emotional standpoint, this shape helps us “open our heart.” Best of all, this shape is the exact opposite of how most of us spend our days – hunched over a computer or slouched looking down at a phone.
The simplest version of Spinal Extension is just a seated arching stretch, and cow pose is also a gentle option for the morning. Poses such as cobra, upward-facing dog, bow pose, and wheel are more dynamic versions of this shape, typically called “backbends” but perhaps wisely reframed as “front extensions” going for length over bend.
Direction Two – Spinal Flexion
aka rounding the spine as in Cat Pose
This shape expands the backbody, stretching the back of the lungs increasing breath capacity, and tones the abdomen with an engaged core. On an emotional level, these shapes help us turn inward for reflection and calm. This shape can be done via the usual cat shape, or seated by rounding the spine forward. Deeper versions of this shape are seated forward bending like in pachimotanasana, standing forward bending in utanasana, or even balancing shapes like devotional warrior.
Directions 3 & 4 – Lateral Side bending
as seen in crescent arches
By bending up and over to the left and right, we lengthen our side bodies, improving rib cage mobility and again, create even more space for the lungs. These shapes lengthen the muscles between the ribs and pelvis, plus parts of the lower back. They also support the health of the lymph system. It’s easy for things to get “stuck” in life, and side body stretches clear out often-neglected nooks and crannies. These gentle C-shaped curves can be created from a seated position, or from table top by reaching “cheek to cheek” – reacing the cheek on your face towards the hips and the hips towards your face. Standing crescents poses are also a gentle lateral side bend, and more active variations include peaceful warrior and extended side angle pose.
Directions 5 & 6 – Twists
as experienced in seated or reclining twists to both sides
Twisting to the right and left completes the set of six directions, mitigating against fusing and limited-mobility of vertebrae. Twisting also hydrates the intervertebral disks and massages the organs within the abdomen supporting digestion. It also asks us to “look forward and look backward” which can help us find the middle ground of the present moment. You can be seated in a cross-legged position, or atop bend knees to twist side to side, thinking about lengthening on the inhale and gently twisting deeper on the exhale. Or opt for a reclining twist and let gravity do most of the work! From table top, threading the needle is a good option, and revolved triangle pose is a powerful standing variation.