Happy Hips and a Downward Dog Discovery

Originally written by Zara M on  08 November 2013

The Yoga 4 Tango class last weekend promised to provide some “aha” moments. My personal revelation came initially in the form of a downward dog discovery, when the instructor illustrated her trick to eliminate common scrunched shoulder problems, in order to get the pose just right. It was beautifully simple, and showed that an understanding of anatomy and how the movement of your body works can help to simplify things in Yoga, so that you practice the poses correctly, and they feel comfortable. The Yoga class was rich with anatomical theory, which I found very interesting.

I am going to share with you the downward dog trick, so listen carefully. From child’s pose, when you raise yourself up into downward dog, instead of immediately straightening your arms, keep them bent. Then as you rise and straighten your legs into downward dog, slowly and purposefully bring your bent elbows inwards, towards your body as you straighten your arms. It will stretch the muscles out in your upper back and across your shoulders so that they don’t automatically scrunch, but instead they will relax. The downward dog is supposed to be a resting position, so shoulders shouldn’t have any tension in them. Getting the pose right and being well grounded helps to alleviate the tension.

I think what ignited the light-bulb in my head was actually seeing the contrast in the muscle arrangement when the instructor demonstrated it to us. I don’t normally think about which muscles do what, and what is connected to where. As far as I am concerned they are underneath my skin; out of sight, out of mind. Watching the muscles as they changed positions in the back when the instructor demonstrated her adjusted downward dog transition, made it all more visual though. I figure now, that if I can visualize what my muscles are doing because I have a clearer understanding of how my anatomy works, I am more likely to achieve more accurate poses and not develop any bad habits which could hold me back later on.

Understanding how anatomy works came into play when we started to explore the positioning and connection of muscles related to the hips and pelvic area. I was interested to discover that many problems people have with their bodies, such as back problems and leg pain, can actually be more to do with how we use the muscles that connect in our pelvic area and allow for most of our larger bodily movements. If we do not use or stretch these muscles enough then they can become shorter and less flexible, which is what can cause all sorts of problems related to the spine and posture, because these shortened muscles pull the spine out of shape.

Every social Tango dancer knows how important posture is! Not only does it make us look beautiful when we are dancing, but good posture also helps to keep us grounded, aligned and balanced, and not to mention connected to our partners. Good posture helps us to be better leaders and followers, but because we don’t necessarily know what it is about our inside anatomy that is affecting our posture, it is difficult to understand why we find it so challenging to get it right, and for it to feel natural.

I first became aware of the difference between good and bad posture when I started dancing Tango, but because I couldn’t visualize any anatomical understanding of it, I made common mistakes, such as forcing my body to “look’ right by sticking my chest out too far and arching my spine so that my bum was also protruding in a duck-like fashion. If only I had known back then that by forcing my pelvis to tilt in such a way, I was doing the opposite of aiding my posture.

You’re actually meant to tuck your tailbone in because then when you bend the legs slightly you are working muscles that are hidden deeper inside of your body, which connect all of your bits together and allow for more flexibility and movement in your hips; which is essential for dancing Tango. I won’t try to name any of these muscles or explain how they connect together, because I’m not entirely sure, and I don’t want to give you the wrong information. All I know is that I was quite surprised when I performed the exercise in the class, tilting my hips forward instead, to feel the hidden muscle working. I hadn’t even known those muscles were there!

Apparently it is even more important for people who assume sitting positions for extending periods of time, to stretch out and work the muscles around the hips, because sitting doesn’t help these muscles maintain their natural resting length. Instead they acquire a new resting length, which is significantly shorter; which can in turn cause inflexibility around the hip area. One or two of the other students are regular cyclists and expressed that the sitting positions they assumed when cycling caused their spine to curve, affecting posture. For cyclists, and people like me who sit at a desk for extended periods of time, it is all the more important to focus on creating “happy hips” by practicing the kinds of yoga poses we did in the class. There was lots of slow stretching, and breathing further into stretches that specifically opened up the hips and lengthened the muscles in the thighs.

I am becoming a lot more conscious of how my body works in everyday life; and I appreciate more now more than ever, the control I have to alter certain things about the ways in which I use my body, in order to create a healthier posture, and a healthier future for my dancing, yoga and life in general. Yoga4Tango is teaching me how to connect with myself and maximize the potential of my body so that I can enjoy what I love to do, which is dance.

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