Ask the Teacher is a new advice column that connects Yoga Journal members directly with our team of expert yoga teachers. Every other week, we’ll answer a question from our readers. Submit your questions here, or drop us a line at email@example.com.
How does softening the bottom ribs down toward the navel help protect the low back? I’m interested in the anatomy of this!
—Sam Whitley, The Dalles, Oregon
Before we explore the anatomical repercussions of this cue, let’s look at what this instruction actually asks you to do with your body. In recent years, teachers ask students to “soften your front ribs down.” to engage the body in this manner is typically Although when I was learning yoga, it was referred to as “knit your front ribs down,” which I found to be utterly confusing. I didn’t understand what was being asked of me or why I didn’t understand what was being asked of me or why—probably because I was still struggling to learn how to do all the other things in the posture.
The cue is typically used to correct students’ alignment. Sometimes this happens in poses backbends when students overcompensate and jut their ribs in the air. But often I use it bending backwards in a pose in which it’s unnecessary and could detract from proper alignment of the pose. Because the backbend is slight, it often isn’t noticeable to the person doing it. To an observer, it may look like it’s a slight puffing out the chest, which I see many of my students lapse into in Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).
“Cues to ‘soften the low ribs’ or ‘knit the low ribs down toward the navel’ are intended to create subtle engagement in the upper rectus abdominis, part of the superficial abdominal ‘six pack’ muscle that links the base of the sternum to the pubic bone,” explains Rachel Land, a New Zealand instructor and YJ contributor on the real-world application of alignment and anatomy.
Over time, this subtle misalignment, if uncorrected, deprives you of the intended benefits of the pose—all that lengthening and stretching and engaging of subtle muscle groups. It can also be potentially injurious.
“These cues are usually offered in backbends, especially with those with overhead arms like Crescent Lunge or Wheel pose, where lack of mobility of in the shoulders can lead students to unconsciously compensate by lifting the low ribs and almost hinging into the junction between then thoracic and lumbar spine. This habit can create a feeling of compression in the back,” explains Land.
“When we take the spine into a backbend, or extension, bony projections off the back of the spine (called spinous processes) move closer together, potentially putting pressure on the soft tissues between them. This is particularly true in the thoracic spine, which has long, downward-sweeping spinous processes that almost overlap the vertebrae beneath,” says Land. This is the chest and mid-back area of the body. “Rectus abdominis has the opposite effect on the spine; engaging this muscle flexes the spine forward. So the idea is that subtle engagement of the upper fibers of rectus abdominis flexes the lower thoracic and upper lumbar spine just enough to create space between the spinous processes and ease that sense of compression.”
It’s not just the more challenging poses that benefit from this cue. Land finds them to be helpful in neutral spine poses, “such as Tadasana or Warrior 2, that become slight backbends for those of us with a postural tendency to flare the low ribs. Gently engaging rectus abdominis counters that tendency to dump in the upper lumbar, guiding the spine back to a more neutral shape.”
For anyone who, like me, still isn’t feeling how that cue lands in their bodies, Land has a suggestion. “Some teachers prefer to offer a version of this cue that focuses on the back of the body. ‘Inflate the kidneys’ has the same desired effect, to reduce flare in the low ribs and create more neutral alignment in the bones of the upper lumbar spine.”
That’s a lot of alignment talk. But hopefully you can also understand it through your felt sense as well as your intellect. Sometimes we need both to truly take something in.
Got a question about alignment in a certain yoga pose? Want to better understand an aspect of yoga philosophy? Need advice on how to approach a challenging situation in your class? Submit your questions here or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we may answer it in an upcoming column.