by Chelsea Doohan
Do you remember being a child and learning how the Earth spins like a top?
A top has a visible shaft at its center. The widest part of the top is like the equator of the earth. When you look at a top, its shaft and circumference are tangible, visible. With the Earth, this is less true. Because we aren’t in a position to see the entire earth as one object (unless we are in space), we have to conceptualize the earth’s axis and equator. They don’t feel like solid things. Yet they are still real.
When teaching yoga, I often refer to a student’s vertical axis. This is much the same as Earth’s axis. It’s very real but isn’t a tangible object. Rather, it’s a reference, and it gives us something around which to organize.
So let me be more concrete. Your body’s vertical axis is basically a plumb line generated by a gravitational pull toward the ground you stand on. Around this plumb line, the weight of your body must distribute itself evenly. Otherwise, one of two things happens: 1) you fall over like a top that has stopped spinning, or 2) one side of the body needs to work hard to keep you from falling over. As time goes on, this second options gets tiring!.
Exploration no. 1:
Stand in tadasana, (mountain pose). Don’t worry if you are a beginner and/or you don’t know how to do the pose “correctly.” Just stand vertically. That is tadasana.
Bring your attention to your vertical axis, your plumb line. How do you know where it is? One way is to sway in the pose, such that you move around the axis. Play with swaying in tadasana, forward, back, and side to side.
When you move around something enough, you start to get an idea of where it is. Your vertical axis is somewhere between front, back, and your two sides—that’s pretty obvious. But, you can get more specific by gradually making your swaying smaller. In other words, move in a smaller radius around your plumb line. Playing with smaller and smaller movements, you may hone in on where your axis is.
Once you find this, you can stay in tadasana for a long time without any one part of you tiring. That’s because all your parts are organized around the plumb line, and your body’s weight is evenly distributed around it.
Here’s a pattern I see in tadasana a lot: Hips and belly move forward of the vertical axis. Shoulders are nice and far back, perhaps over the heels, which might give the impression of having a plumb line. . . until you realize that the hips are off of this line—they are in front of it. The body is making something of a bow shape. Is this a problem? Well, it can put a lot of pressure on the low back. And if you do tadasana like this all the time, you may start to feel that that position is centered and plumb, when it isn’t.
Exploration no. 2:
Stand in tadasana and push your hips forward. You can even exaggerate it (but stop if it makes your back hurt!) This is just to feel a particular pattern. Then, gather your hips back a bit so they are more over your heels. This is likely to tone your abdomen and gather your belly towards hour low back. It should feel nice on your low back, spreading and lengthening it. More generally, you may feel that you can grow upward all around your vertical axis. Your back lifts as much as your front lifts, so that your back doesn’t get compressed.
This plumb line I’m talking about. . . where in relation to other body parts is it? It is an axis that runs just in front of your spine. Your spine can be a great reference, and we often hear about lengthening the spine in yoga. Nothing wrong with that! However, we can also get more precise and note that the the body’s true axis is in front of the spine, more on the inside.
In tadasana what if you felt the length coming from a space just in front of the spine, a place that is more central? One thing this does is place the crown of the head in the vertical axis (not in front of it, as I so often see).
So now we have crown, hips, and ankles all in one plumb line. This is a very strong tadasana!
Sitting involves the same principles
This vertical axis of the trunk, from hips to head, is essential for seated poses as well and especially twists. Twists need a clear axis to move around or else one side of the body becomes compressed or collapsed. You will get more benefit from twists if you find your vertical axis before moving into the rotation.
Exploration no. 3 (chair twist):
Find a level, firm-seated chair with a back but no arm rests. Sit sideways in the chair such that the chair back is on the right side of your body. Before you twist, find your two feet flat on the floor and find your vertical axis. You can think of it like tadasana, except now you are “standing” on your two sitting bones instead of your two feet. From here, twist to your right and take your hands to each side of the chair back, so that your arms are somewhat engaged, helping you rotate. You can think of lengthening up through your axis the whole time, or it might work better for you to think of growing upward, then twisting, growing upward again, twisting a bit more, etc.
The twist will involve the whole trunk, from head to seat. One note here: sometimes students aren’t sure whether they are supposed to keep their hips square while the trunk twists. My answer is that it is actually helpful for the pelvis to participate in the twist. It won’t turn a lot, but there will be a slight rotation of the hips around each other (and around the central axis). This will bring one sitting bone forward on the chair, and I encourage students to simply let that happen.
The rewards you can gain from this awareness are about relating to the world that is around you. Being clear in your axis creates a stable vantage from which to better see outside of yourself. You can not only attend to what is in front of you but also to what is to the sides and all around. Then, pivoting in order to switch attention from one thing to another becomes more effortless and graceful. Also, it makes backing out of parking spaces a whole lot easier.
Have fun playing with this! Namaste.