Let Your Ribs be Your Guide!

One of the things I love most about focused, body alignment in yoga is that it requires so much of my attention.  It helps me make the shift from the busyness in my mind to the concrete grounding of my body. In my experience, landing in my physical body by noticing and feeling is one of the most potent ways to practice mindful awareness.  Sensations are always happening in the now. 

Body awareness in yoga happens through:

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  1. Interoceptive Awareness: Feeling what's happening on the inside /  feeling breath expand the ribs or heartbeat sensation
  2. Exteroceptive Awareness: Noticing things external to or surrounding your body/ being aware of the walls around you or hearing the breath of others 
  3. Proprioceptive Awareness: Sensing your body in space/ holding your lifted leg parallel to the floor or lifting hips over shoulders in handstand

Just like we form habits in any area of our lives, we tend to get habitual in the ways we pay attention to our bodies on the mat. The next time you are on your mat, shift your focus to finding alignment of the trunk by paying close attention to your ribs.  By paying attention to your ribs, you can learn a lot about what's happening in different aspects of your anatomy. Here are two things in particular:

 
 
  1. Spine Alignment: The ribs are connected to each thoracic vertebra from T1 to T12. If you pay attention to how your ribs are placed in any particular pose, you will have a very good idea of what is happening in the spine. There are a few junctions within the spine that most of the mobility is typically accessed.  The thoracolumbar junction is one of those places and is found between T12 and L1.

 Thoracolumbar Junction is the space between the last thoracic vertebra and the first lumbar vertebra. 

Thoracolumbar Junction is the space between the last thoracic vertebra and the first lumbar vertebra. 

 
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 In any pose, you can align your spine by aligning your ribs. To get a clear understanding of what I'm talking about, go into table top position and move slowly while noticing the placement of your ribs, specifically your lowest ribs. As you move into cow position, your front lowest ribs flare out away from the belly and your spine is in extension or backward bend. In this position you are closing the thoracolumbar junction space (posteriorly), or maxing out your backs ability to backward bend. Try to sense this happening in your thoracolumbar junction.

 Notice the closing of the thoracolumbar joint in spinal extension (backward bending).

Notice the closing of the thoracolumbar joint in spinal extension (backward bending).

 Notice the opening of the thoracolumbar joint in spinal flexion (forward rounding).

Notice the opening of the thoracolumbar joint in spinal flexion (forward rounding).

 
 

Now, as you move slowly into cat pose, notice how your lower ribs begin to draw into the belly.  At the same time you are re-opening your thoracolumbar joint(see figure above). This is spinal flexion. 

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The key here is to wire in the feeling of how your rib cage moves in full extension (back-bend) and full flexion of the spine (forward rounding). Now your practice is to take this understanding into all other poses. A common tendency is to compress the thoracolumbar space (sit in full lumbar backbend with lower front ribs flared forward) while in standing postures. Compression is not necessarily a bad thing and is natural in all bodies in different circumstance, but habitual patterns of compression are very likely to lead to structural degradation. This type of compression often shows up when fatigue sets in during a strong standing hold such as crescent lunge. There is a tendency to sort of "hammock" into maxed out joint spaces when the body gets tired. Practice going into crescent lunge with the same awareness of the rib-spine relationship that we discussed in cat cow movement. You could even go through a sort of cat cow movement in crescent lunge to remind yourself of the feeling of closing and opening the thoracolumbar joint. What you are aiming for is somewhere in the middle where the joint is neither compressed (backward bend) or fully open (forward rounding). Zoom into your lower ribs and dial in from there. Lower ribs drawn slightly into the belly combined with lengthening the sacrum towards the ground should do the trick. Once you've mastered this, try it in lots of poses.  The same patterns show up in every single standing posture--triangle, side angle, warriors, etc. 

 

2. Core Integration: The way you are holding your ribs can shine light on the amount of core activation that is happening in an posture. As I use the word core here, I am speaking in terms of a "cylindrical core", the muscles of the torso, all the way around the front, sides and back,  working in an integrative way.  As we discussed earlier, when the lower ribs are flared out and away from the belly, the spine is in extension. In this position, the back body muscles or the trunk extension muscles (erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, etc.) are engaged, but the front body muscles are not (rectus abdominis, hip flexors, etc.).  Only the back of the cylindrical core is active, therefore there is core dis-integration. In order to fully integrate the cylindrical core, the lowest front ribs should be drawn in towards the belly just enough to re-open the thoracolumbar joint and engage the front body muscles as well. This type of core integration is useful in poses like: plank, low push-up, warrior III, headstand, handstand and many more. It's important to note that the aim is not to always be in cylindrical core activation, just when it's needed. In full backward bend postures, it's not feasible or advised to engage the front body.  The front body should remain supple and yielding in full backward bends while the back body fires up to support the extension. 

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 Trunk Extension Muscles + Trunk Flexion Muscles = Total Cylindrical Core 

Trunk Extension Muscles + Trunk Flexion Muscles = Total Cylindrical Core 

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I hope this helps you find a bit more body awareness in your practice. As always, I'd love to hear how it goes and please give me your comments and questions here. 

Author: Stacy Dockins, co-owner YP studios and yoga teacher trainings

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