The other day a friend of mine asked why I teach warrior two in a way where arms are not aligned directly over legs. She also asked why, when guiding through a sun salutation sequence, I ask to come forwards on lower arms and get into sphinx and extension of the spine (where forearms and hips are on the mat) instead of upward facing dog (where hands are on the mat and hips off). She had not been taught this in any other yoga class.
The answer to both is that the two variations allow for a positioning of the lower spine that is safe to all. Read on for further explanation! I learned so many great ways to care for the spine at my teacher training at the Yoga Academy and they have worked wonders for my own lower back.
Some facts first: The spine is designed to move – in total in six different ways. It can move into extension and flexion, lateral flexion and rotation, as well axial extension and inversion. Some people can move their spine with ease and have no issues at all. However, the majority of people have once or perhaps several times in their lifetime experienced problems with their back. Very often it is the lower back that gets mentioned. In a yoga class of ten practitioners there are most likely only two who have never had any back issues! Therefore, when teaching, I go with what is safe for all.
Different parts of the spine rotate in different ways. The cervical spine, your neck, is the part of the spine that offers greatest possibility for rotation, while the lumbar spine, your lower back, is not designed to rotate more than around 5%.
So when we come into warrior two in a class and I instruct to place shoulder region above hip region, lift back heel and place it further down on your mat than your toes, it is to prevent forcing a rotation in your lower spine. To me, this is about respecting natural movement and alignment of the spine. Also, when I ask to keep hips down onto the mat and come up to sphinx or cobra, it is to ensure you are not putting load on your lower back by risking “hanging” on it as could happen in upward facing dog. Please note I do not mean to criticise how you usually practise these postures. If you feel fine maybe it is all okay! Truth is, I have never been in upward facing dog posture without lower back discomfort… You are the only one who know how it feels to be in your body, so always ensure you bring your awareness to how a posture feels for you and go from there. If there is any discomfort in your spine, then don’t hesitate to choose a safer option.
Here are other examples of variations that I include in my classes to care for the spine: With standing or half standing forward bends, Uttanasana/Ardha Uttanasana, I teach the postures with flexed knees so there is no unnecessary load on the lower back. In chair pose, Utkatasana, I always ask to keep arms at the height where you won’t feel added load either. And in seated twists, I ask that you let sit bones move if this happens naturally for you, again to prevent a forced rotation in lower spine.
With a history of lower back challenges it was amazing to notice how strong and safe I started feeling around my lower back as I got more into caring for the whole length of the spine. In spinal rotations, always allowing instead of forcing. In forward bends, always knees flexed, arms to sides or hands in prayer position close to body, and inner groins to the back. The first time I came up to standing from a wide-legged forward bend without feeling a twitch in my lower back felt so wonderful – I had to tell everyone around me! I really enjoy caring for my spine and I hope you do too ❤️