How to maintain an optimal (natural!) spinal curve to breathe better, stand taller, and sit longer—on and off your meditation cushion.
High school gym class is a vague memory. I do remember my classmates and I often being asked to stand close to a wall, turn around, and then try to flatten our lower backs against it. We all stood around the gym, dutifully pushing our lower backs against the hard surface, while our teacher counted to 20 and then repeated. We were never told the benefits, but the subtext was that this exercise helped our backs.
The spine is not a straight line though. I learned this many years later when I studied anatomy in depth. This is true especially when you stand, because the vertebral column bears weight more efficiently and more healthily when you allow it to maintain its normal curves. Consider the spine’s shape, relative to the back of the torso: The cervical spine (neck) curves in, the thoracic spine (mid- and upper-back) rounds out, and the lumbar spine (lower back) curves in again. The base of the spine, the sacrum, is a series of fixed bony segments that also curve in.
See also What You Need to Know About Your Thoracic Spine
We need to let go of the belief that flattening the lower back in a gravity-loaded position protects the spine. In fact, it does the opposite. When you flatten your back, or tuck your tailbone, when you stand, you:
• Tend to inhibit the normal action of your abdominal muscles.
• Distort the curves of your cervical and lumbar regions.
• Compress your vertebral discs in an unhealthy way.
• Compromise the stability-creating disconnection between your sacrum
• Displace your abdominal organs by moving them back and down.
• Interfere with your breathing.
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Distorted breathing is one of the simplest effects to experience in this pose. Try this: Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Now tuck your tailbone. Sometimes teachers suggest “dropping your tailbone” or “letting your sacrum move down.” These statements are what I call “sneaky tucking” because they sound innocent but actually are just other ways to say “tuck your tailbone.”
Now, in Tadasana with your tailbone tucked, try to take a deep breath. It’s hard to breathe well this way. That’s because you have moved away from neutral (a normal curve) in the lumbar spine and into flexion. Flexing the lumbar spine interferes with the excursion of the diaphragm—the key muscle of breathing—because the diaphragm is attached to the lumbar spine at the L1 vertebrae, or top of your lumber spine.
Now, instead of tucking, move your top thighs back so 2/3 of your weight is on the back 1/3 of your feet. Slightly internally rotate your thighs, and invite your pubic bone to move down toward your feet. This is the opposite of tucking and encourages the natural shape of your spine. Do you feel taller? Does your head seem to float above your body? Do you feel your shoulder blades dropping down? Do you notice that the shoulder blades are in a vertical line?
See also 5 Steps to Master Tadasana
Take a Seat
You can also bring the principles of Tadasana into the sitting position you use for meditation. I have long practiced and taught that to sit comfortably, you must begin by creating a 120-degree angle between your trunk and femurs (thigh bones). This means you need to sit elevated on the corner (not the edge) of a cushion or small stack of blankets, letting the thighs drop more easily below the rim of the pelvis. If the angle is less than 120 degrees, the pelvis could easily tip back, disturbing the spinal column. If that happens, the lumbar spine is in flexion, and your posture won’t be as stable or comfortable.
See also Essential Foot and Leg Anatomy Every Yogi Needs to Know
Sukhasana (Easy Pose)
Now try this: Sit on the corner of several stacked blankets and make sure you are high enough for your thighs to release down. Be sure to elevate your pelvis—not your thighs. If you elevate your thighs and your pelvis, there is little difference between this position and sitting on the floor without blankets.
Now find a comfortable crossed-leg position. Sit slightly forward of your sitting bones. This engages your iliopsoas, which is contracting to pull your lumbar spine forward into a normal lumbar curve. originates from the bodies of the 12th thoracic vertebra and all five lumbar vertebrae. It joins with the iliacus to insert on the lesser trochanter of the medial femur. When you walk, the iliopsoas initiates the action of bringing the thigh forward; in other words, it initiates hip flexion in walking. The iliopsoas therefore has a lot of endurance because we use it so much every day; we can walk for hours. It’s the best muscle to keep you upright in a meditation seat.
If you instead sit behind your sitting bones, you will slump, and very quickly your paraspinal muscles, which run vertically along either side of your spine, will work too hard trying to hold you up against gravity, fatiguing quickly. The paraspinal muscles are more efficient at extensions (backbends) like Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose).
See also Anatomy 101: Why anatomy training is essential for yoga teachers
Next, take your attention to your pubic bone, and roll it toward the floor. The iliopsoas is the muscle you use to do this too. This action is the opposite of tucking. The downward roll immediately brings your pelvis into a neutral position and thus your spine into its normal curves. Be sure to make this distinction: Roll the pubic bone down between the legs; do not push the spine or pelvis forward. Pushing the spine or pelvis forward uses back muscles instead of the iliopsoas.
Finally, place your hands on your top thighs so the little fingers rest on the thighs, the palms facing your abdomen and close to it. Keep the elbows a little distance from the sides of your body. Drop your shoulders. Imagine that your pubic bone and breastbone are moving apart. If sitting crossed-legged is uncomfortable, try sitting on a yoga block in Virasana (Hero Pose) instead. Let your thighs find their own natural distance; you don’t have to hold them together. Notice how you are creating a triangle with your thighs and your pelvis. This is your base of support. Roll the pubic bone down to draw the spinal column inward and upward, establishing the normal curves.
To meditate, very slightly drop your chin and take your attention to a spot you can imagine is at the very center of your brain. Either close your eyes or let them stay half open, gazing about 18 inches ahead on the floor. Take a few soft breaths, and let your mental focus and bodily sensation lie gently on the breath. Does the position create the meditative state or does the meditative state create the position? I think both happen at once.
See also The Best Clothing for Meditation: 17 Soft, Loose, and Super-Comfy Picks at Every Price
The pelvis is the pot out of which the spine grows. When the pelvis is balanced, the spine is free and long with its normal curves. Think of this position of meditation as one that allows you to come home to yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. True balance is the expression of your natural wisdom. Let your spine express its natural wisdom in standing and sitting by always honoring your natural curves.
One Yoga Teacher's 3 Lessons We Could All Learn About Making Money
Yoga and abundance don’t always feel like they belong together. One yoga teacher shares the lessons she learned about accepting wealth and tearing down financial barriers that weren’t serving her.
As I watched the snow fall into the hot tub at the retreat center I was visiting, nestled in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, I found myself thinking, How did I get this luxury?! Taking four days off to indulge at a hot springs in the mountains while learning from my yoga mentor seemed like a far cry from my start as a yoga teacher. Being underpaid was a regular occurrence when I first started teaching. Struggling to buy groceries, trips to the gas station hoping that I didn’t go over the twenty dollars I had in my wallet, and not being able to afford health care (gulp) were discomforts I grew strangely accustomed to.
I was extremely passionate about teaching yoga and I loved doing it, but my bank account did not match my passion as an instructor. As much as I would like to blame corporations, point my finger at capitalism, and gnash my teeth at the unfair nature of my soulful work being so undervalued, the truth is that my value as a teacher was already at a deficit before I even stepped foot into a yoga studio.
See also 10 Business Secrets to Starting a Successful Yoga Career
When I followed the thread that led me to being a “poor yoga teacher,” I could trace it all the way back to the old sayings that were instilled in my absorbent young brain as a child: “Money doesn’t grow on trees.” “You have to work hard for money.” Or the most insidious, “Good people don’t need money.”
These seeds grew in my subconscious at a slow and steady rate. Over time, they became my reality, and as my yoga career developed, so did my belief that money meant struggle.
See also A 5-Minute Meditation To Relieve Financial Stress
I said “yes” to unpaid yoga gigs. I constantly bustled across town from one teaching job to the next. And I watched as my own practice fell to the wayside because teaching at a high volume was siphoning all my time and energy.
Finally I hit a bottom. I was fed up with scraping by, and I knew something had to change. I realized that if I wanted abundance, I needed to make a choice. That choice was to start shifting my perspective around money so that that I could not only heal my relationship with money, but also welcome prosperity into my life.
See also A Katonah Yoga Sequence To Live A More Abundant Life
There were three critical things that shifted the tide for me, and I know they can help any teacher looking to give themselves a raise.
1. Realize that spirituality means abundance
When you go into class and speak the word “abundance,” can you honestly say that you are feeling it in all areas of your life? Chaining yourself to the idea that being spiritual means financially struggling can disrupt the abundance that is waiting for you. When you accept that financial abundance and spirituality can have a thriving working relationship, it will reflect in your spirit—and your bank account! Take it from visionary Maya Angelou, who said, “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive”.
See also The Yoga of Money: Take Wisdom from the Mat to Your Finances
2. Get crystal clear on your teaching intention
For some people, teaching a full load of 15 classes a week can strain your health and your capacity to serve. As in any other business, it can take time to build a network and establish a presence in the yoga space. Figure out a teaching strategy that will fulfill you and help maintain your sanity—not detract from it. Do you see yourself teaching full time? Does having a full-time job while teaching two to three classes sound fulfilling? Get clear on what is right for YOU. The way I figured this out was by getting support from a business coach and community I trusted so that I could navigate how to market myself and speak effectively about my services.
See also Live + Practice From the Heart: Identify True Intention
3. Seek great mentorship
One of the most pivotal steps you can take to open to financial abundance is to seek guidance from other successful yogis. Learning from others who gained wisdom and experience from walking a path before me allowed me to understand the paths available to me. Just like your daily local teacher, learning from someone who knows the ropes is so much easier than trying to figure it out yourself. I also sought guidance from business mentors and like minded women who were committed to living on purpose that could teach me how to offer my gifts, live my purpose, and get the structure I needed to financially sustain myself. Look for local clubs, meetups, and other networking opportunities in which you’ll be able to make valuable connections in the community.
See also A Yoga Teacher’s Guide to Social Networking
Just like yoga, stretching your financial container can cause some discomfort. Just like the journey of yoga, the path to feeling ease and grace with our money values starts from within. With a clear vision and the right tools and support, knowing and claiming your worth as a yoga teacher is totally possible!
5 Lessons I’ve Learned Teaching Yoga to Senior Citizens
After one yogi took her 200-hour yoga teacher training, she decided to volunteer at a senior citizen home instead of finding a paid job teaching yoga. Here’s how it’s changed her practice—and her outlook on life.
Three years ago, I was walking in Santa Monica and noticed a senior center and for some reason, I felt compelled to walk inside. Maybe it was because I’d just finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training with Annie Carpenter, who urged all of us new teachers to volunteer before trying to find a paying job. Maybe it was because shortly after that teacher training, I spent some time with my grandmother just before she passed away.
I wasn’t looking to volunteer, but my intuition urged me to walk into that senior center and ask the woman sitting behind the front desk if there might be an interest in having me teach the center’s residents yoga. The woman’s eyes lit up. She said they’d love to have me volunteer, and for the last three years, I’ve taught yoga and meditation to a group of seniors at Sunrise Senior Living Center every Monday morning. Since I started working with these senior citizens, I’ve learned some invaluable lessons about teaching yoga—and about life itself.
See also 5 Signs You Have a Yoga Teacher Who Empowers You
Lesson No. 1: The smallest movements can sometimes feel like the most advanced.
I work mostly with seniors who have memory impairments, and most are bound to wheelchairs—so we don’t do traditional yoga. I lead my students through seated yoga, which means we sit and breathe and then we do some minimal movements. Sometimes my students fall asleep. Other times I can tell their minds wander off. But I always try my best to keep them present in the moment, because even just a few moments of presence can have a profound impact.
Lesson No. 2: Life is fleeting.
Teaching my amazing senior students has taught me that age isn’t going to get away from any of us. We are all going to be older and slower one day, and when we get there, we may not like the fact that we’re older and slower. Spending time with my students is an important reminder to enjoy my life now, and it’s helped me recommit to my yoga and meditation practices over and over again, since those are the practices that help me get present.
The reality is that we’re all aging. People don’t like to talk about it, but it’s the truth. At the ripe age of 40, I feel some creaks and can’t do things I did at 30. Teaching my senior students has taught me to be more gentle with myself as I get older, so I’m able to practice as long as possible. Tiffany Russo, my SmartFLOW teacher here in Los Angeles, says you want to practice today so you can practice into your 90s. When I teach these seniors, it’s a reminder that I really can practice for the long haul. My students love being in their bodies and gently moving with the breath, and they’re a beautiful mirror of how I will hopefully be practicing one day.
See also 19 Yoga Teaching Tips Senior Teachers Want to Give Newbies
Lesson No. 3: Everyone has a story.
The seniors in my classes have incredible pasts. One was a well-known cardiologist at UCLA; another was a famous architect in North Dakota. I’ve taught former social workers and dental hygienists, teachers and musicians. All too often, we disregard our elders and focus instead on our peers. Yet what I’ve learned is that my students once had thriving careers and interesting lives and experiences that teach me so much. It’s an honor to help bring them to a place that helps them feel truly seen, which I’ve come to realize is all that any of us really crave.
See also How to Create a Solid Yoga Practice At Any Age
Lesson No. 4: Sticking to the basics can feel like the most advanced practice.
I try to have my students focus on following their breath while doing some sort of movement. When they inhale and raise their left hand, I show them how to move their arm in a way so they feel internal and external rotation and ask how it feels in their shoulders. We’ll do that five to 10 times with the breath on one side, then move to the other. When I do this with them, it helps me feel embodied in a way that I may not access when I’m practicing on my own.
See also Why is Yoga Needed in All Communities?
What I’m learning is that the basic movements are actually the key to helping students get truly present. I’m reminded of one moment early on, when I started practicing meditation with the group. I started out instructing them to keep their eyes open while I showed them colored paper, and asked them to imagine the colors on the in and out breaths. I brought in mala beads from my Five Star Hippie collection and taught them use the beads to repeat simple mantras as they meditated. Then, around three weeks in, I asked them to place one hand on their heart and one hand on their belly, and then to close their eyes—something that feels especially scary for many of my seniors, who struggle with memory problems. I asked them to just relax, keep their eyes closed, and to follow their breath.
Watching them in this moment—two dozen seniors in the room, all in wheel chairs, and everyone in complete silence—took my breath away. They were the most present they could be, which in turn created this overwhelming feeling of presence and joy in the room. I still get the chills thinking about it. To see something so basic have such a profound effect was the epitome of yoga to me.
See also How to Be a Yoga Leader in Your Community
Lesson No. 5: Connections through yoga can be made any time, and at any age.
I started with two students and now I teach two dozen students every Monday morning. Yoga brings community together—no matter what age, race, or gender. It’s been a beautiful thing to see my students get a little bit stronger every week, and a little more able to drop in and get present after every meditation session. And what’s most amazing is how these students have become a cherished part of my life.
About the author
Janine Forte was born and raised in New York, where she comes from a lineage of jewelers. She started out designing fine jewelry in 2007 and then segued into the world of fashion jewelry with a focus on eco-friendly materials. She currently lives in Los Angeles where she designs and creates in a studio by the beach. Her company, Five Star Hippie®, is an eco-friendly, spirit-inspired jewelry collection and each piece bestows a positive message that is meant to illuminate your body, mind, and soul. You can follow Five Star Hippie on Instagram and Facebook.
The Business of Yoga: Follow This Advice for Social Media Success
Eight tips that’ll help you knock it out of the park when it comes to Instagram, Facebook, and more.
Posing in a San Diego alley, yoga and breathwork instructor Ava Johanna quips on Instagram: “Will the Instagram Yogi Gods shun me for not being on a picture-perfect beach?”
We’re sure she’s absolved; her Handstand in the photo is impressive. But, she raises a good point: When it comes to appeasing the Instagram gods—a.k.a. the all-important algorithms responsible for prominently placing you in followers’ feeds—what works? Nailing this is important because social media done right can help yoga teachers make a name for themselves and engage with their students, all while announcing class schedules and demonstrating techniques.
See also 10 Inspiring Instagram Quotes We Couldn’t Wait to Re-Post This Week
For Ava Johanna, who has amassed nearly 28,000 followers on Instagram, harnessing social media goes beyond pretty photos posed on beaches. She’s authentic with her followers, sharing behind-the-scenes glimpses into her own life. There’s the ups, like her recent bachelorette party in Tulum. And, the downs, like a post in which she shares what it was like to be homeless as a teenager.
“While imagery is always important, vulnerability has been the greatest asset in connecting with my followers and growing a following on Instagram,” she tells us. “I share the good, the bad, and the ugly in an effort to remove the veil of the ‘highlight reel’ that social media can often create.”
See also 7 Things I Learned From Doing One of Those Social Media Yoga Challenges I Always Thought Were Obnoxious
Ava Johanna also shares yoga tutorials and videos, re-visits yoga philosophies through captions, and has an overall goal of empowering students outside the studio. Essentially, she says, her IG feed is a just one more way she can show up for her followers.
Looking to grow your own social media following? Here, we’ve got tips from Ava Johanna, other yoga instructors killing it on Instagram, and digital strategists to help you become successful on social media.
Tip No. 1: Post a few times a week.
First things first, there’s no magic formula that works for everyone on social media because you’ll develop your own brand and audience, says Valentina Pérez, who works in an influencer marketing agency, oftentimes with wellness and lifestyle brands. But, you should be posting at least three to four times per week, says Pérez, who has also built a large following via her online presence as Break Con Valen. “People want to see new content all the time, so being present is extremely important on social media,” she says.
See also 6 Most Inspiring Yogis on Instagram This Week
Tip No. 2: Remember to interact with your audience.
The goal is to craft a great post that generates discussions and prompts questions. Then, be sure to answer those questions and respond to comments, Pérez says. Not only will your audience appreciate it, but it also helps the algorithms work in your favor, she explains. Simply put: The more you interact with your followers, the more you’ll show up in people’s feeds.
Tip No. 3: Create a consistent color scheme.
Have you ever looked at an influencer’s Instagram feed and noticed how cohesive the color scheme looks? This is definitely intentional. Ava Johanna suggests using apps like Lightroom to create a preset (which is Adobe’s version of a filter) that you consistently apply to your photos. Doing so will help you develop a consistent aesthetic and color scheme that makes your grid look beautifully curated.
See also Tips from Social Media’s Top Yogis on How to Handle Haters and Trolls
Tip No. 4: Buy a tripod for your smartphone.
You can find some for less than $20 on Amazon, says Ava Johanna. That way, you aren’t dependent on having a photographer. “Set your phone on video,” she says. “Then, record a video and flow through different postures. Watch it back and pause in different poses so you can screenshot photos.” She also likes to make videos of the yoga flows she teaches in class so followers around the world can practice along.
Tip No. 5: Be real.
The most important piece of advice we heard is that you’ve got to keep it real with your audience. Kino MacGregor, an international yoga teacher and author who has garnered 1.1 million Instagram followers, says it’s crucial to not just do things for “likes” or get caught up in gimmicks. Rather, be real, she says: “The thing that you think is too real to share—share that,” says MacGregor, who writes often about her own struggles with body acceptance on Instagram.
See also 11 Best Yoga Podcasts Every Yogi Needs to Download Right Now
Tip No. 6: Add value to social media feeds.
In addition to connecting with your audience by being your true self and being relatable, it also helps to create content that’s shareable, says Erin Motz, the co-founder of Bad Yogi, which offers online yoga classes. Posting something that’s educational and super-cool to know can engage your audience. For example, in her highlighted videos on Instagram, Motz answers questions from her audience, shares stretches for runners, and points out a common mistake people make doing the Cobra Pose. Bad Yogi’s largest social media following is on Facebook, with 122,000 followers, but the most engaged audience is on Instagram, with 45,000 followers. It took her three years to build up those audiences.
Tip No. 7: It’s OK to ask for shares.
Your best bet is to be direct with your audience, says business consultant Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré. “You want shares? You want links? You want people to read your latest post because it’s the best thing you’ve written this year? Then it’s OK to ask, just not all the time,” DeMeré says. You’ll be amazed at how many people are willing to show their appreciation of your work by sharing it—but the key is to ask nicely.
See also Don’t Do It for the Gram: 18 Dangerous Instagram Yoga Photos
Tip No. 8: Avoid stock art.
You know the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words?” It can also be worth a thousand page views, if you choose wisely, says DeMeré. So, don’t settle for stock photography. So many businesses do this, says DeMeré, which means you won’t be able to catch people’s attention. You’ll gain far more shares if you use your own images in a how-to post or to help illustrate a story.
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