On the other hand, if even the thought of standing in Tadasana for five minutes makes you uncomfortable, then probably you have some work to do on your posture — and probably you should not even try the exercise. (A word of advice: do not ask your students to stand this long in Tadasana in class unless they have good posture and are very advanced. Otherwise at best, you will see attendance going down in your subsequent classes, and at worst you will have someone’s muscles go into a spasm that’s not easily released.)
When we align our bones correctly, we will engage muscles that are designed to keep us in our upright posture. These “postural muscles” are designed to hold us upright for long periods of time.
However, when we are not aligned properly, the body must recruit other muscles — muscles not intended for this purpose — to hold us upright. Because those muscles are being asked to do something that they were not designed to do, they will tire easily — as well as spasm — if asked to do the work of the postural muscles for too long. (In fact, if one has not been in proper alignment for a long time, the postural muscles will have atrophied to some extent. They will need to be toned progressively, and it may take a while before they can return to their intended full-time job.)
Overview of Correcting Posture
First of all, to assess your students’ alignment in Tadasana or any other asana, you will have to walk around the room and view your students individually from the front, from at least one side, and from the back. No amount of postural knowledge will help you individually correct your students’ posture if you view them only from your position in the front of the classroom.
Second, when correcting posture, always start at the base first. In standing asanas, the base is the feet. Tension and misalignment in the spine are often the results of improper distribution of weight on the feet.
In seated asanas, the base is the ischial tuberosities (a.k.a. sitzbones, sitbones, sitting bones). If the sitzbones are tilted forward even slightly (i.e., the pelvis is over-tucked), the spine cannot be in proper alignment. True, we do not want to tip the pelvis too far forward either, but only very flexible individuals will be able to come into that exaggerated position. Particularly inflexible individuals, on the other hand, will not be able to tip forward enough to come into proper alignment without the aide of props such as blankets or pillows under the sitzbones.
In fact, anyone who has an injury or chronic condition that is even mildly aggravated when sitting on the floor — and for whom props do not completely alleviate the discomfort — should not sit on the floor until he or she is able to do so with no discomfort whatsoever.
Starting from the base, work your way up the body to make corrections. As you do this, continually look back at the base and the other lower points, because there is the habitual tendency for the body to revert to its former position while you may be trying to correct another area.
Last of all, do not expect perfection all at once. Though it is important to have excellent posture, reality will dictate how quickly one can move toward a more perfect alignment. In many cases, it is quite enough of a challenge simply to focus on the proper placement of the feet, while generally encouraging the rest of the body to “stand tall.” Again, you want your students to come back to class, right?
Alignment of the Joints
My own view of proper alignment is that, viewed from the side, the center of the ankle joint, center of the hip joint, center of the shoulder joint, and center of the ear canal should be in a straight vertical line (see photo). That sounds easy, but it is actually a bit tricky to tell where these centers are.
The black dot marks the center of the knee joint. It is somewhat behind the visual center of the knee.
For example, when one looks at the knee joint, the tendency is to find the midpoint between the front and the back of the visible parts of the knee. That is incorrect. The kneecap is in front of — not part of — the actual knee joint (see image.)
If you consider the kneecap as part of the joint, you will determine an incorrect center of the joint, and thereby possibly encourage hyperextension of the knee joint just to get all of these points into alignment.
Fortunately, the other points of alignment are easier to find than is the knee. Even then, it takes practice to get it right with all the different body shapes and sizes that you’ll encounter. Make small adjustments at any given time, observe the results, and ask your students how they feel in the new position. Explain to them that they may feel different or strange — and that’s okay — but you do not want them to feel discomfort or tension. Then ask them specifically, “How do you feel in this new position?” The more feedback you get, the more you will learn about what works and what does not work.
Getting Clarity on “Natural Curves”
For correct posture, the spine should be in its “natural curves.” If you look closely at the curves of the spine on a skeleton, you may be surprised at how small the curves actually are. However, when looking at an actual person, the true skeletal shape is somewhat obscured by the many different types of tissue that cover it (see image of the skeleton inside the outline of the body.)
For example, in standing posture, the protrusion of the gluteal muscles (and perhaps some fatty tissue as well!) tends to give the illusion that the lumbar spine has more curve than it actually does. Therefore it’s easy to conclude — incorrectly — that someone with large, developed glueteals has too much curve.
Then too, someone with nearly flat gluteals may appear to have insufficient lumbar curvature. A lumbar curve can also look flatter than it is because of a lot of developed musculature in the lower back; this is often the case with people who do physical labor for a living — the spine can literally disappear between two high ridges of muscle.
Dr. Kessler’s response was, “Are you comparing your lumbar curve with some theoretical lumbar curve that you think you’re supposed to have?”
When you are not sure if someone’s clothes, excess or lack of fatty tissues etc., may be making their posture look “not quite right” to you, go back to checking whether the points of alignment are in their proper places. Also try to get your students to relax into good posture. Being tense is not only undesirable, but can make a person’s posture not look right even if their bones are aligned properly.