Yoga Explained - Mountain Pose
Were you ever told growing up to "stand up straight" or "don't slouch"? At the time, it may have sounded like an annoying parental comment to be swatted away and ignored. The painful truth is: they were right. Most of us have developed some bad postural habits over the years that we're probably not even aware of and those habits may be having more of an effect on our health than we realize. Mountain Pose (also known as Tadasana in Sanskrit) is basically learning how to stand properly. You may be thinking: "I know how to stand up straight" but when we start working with Mountain Pose, we stumble upon all those bad postural habits we thought we didn't have. Let's start off with the most common posture these days, what yoga teacher Tias Little calls "Slumpasana":
So... my head is tilted forward, the muscles in the back of my neck are tensed, my shoulders and mid-back are rounded, my chest is caved in, my belly is lax and protruding forward. Notice the position of my ear in relation to my shoulder and the top of my foot. What kinds of problems can this type of posture cause? Headaches, spinal disc compression, neck and shoulder pain, overstretched upper and mid back muscles and shortened chest muscles, shallow breathing, low back issues. If not corrected, this could lead to kyphosis of the thoracic spine (hunchback) and a flattening out of the lumbar spine which, when healthy, has a natural inward curve (lordosis).
Another common postural issue arising these days is what's been coined "tech neck": looking down at our smartphones, causing undue tension in the neck and shoulders, a slump in the shoulders and cementing even further bad posture in the body. Our head weighs about 10 or 11 pounds and when we start tilting it forward, we exponentially increase its weight. Imagine the effect that's having on your neck, shoulders, back and chest. Whenever you're looking at your phone, notice your posture.
What's the difference between Slumpasana and Mountain Pose? Let's take a look:
Notice the straight line from my ear to my heel. This is an indication that my joints are pretty much stacked one above the other, which is what we're aiming for in Mountain Pose: hips are centered over the heels, shoulders over the hips and head over the shoulders. We're basically positioning our skeleton the way it was designed to be positioned to allow us to stand up "straight" with very little effort. I cringe a little at using the term standing up "straight" because we do want to allow the natural curves of the spine to be present. Notice the gentle curvature of my cervical spine (back of the neck) and lumbar spine (lower back); notice my chest is open and lifted - it's much easier to take a full breath in this position, and my belly is naturally drawn in because it has space to do so.
How do we actually "do" or practice Mountain Pose? Here are a few helpful cues:
stand with your feet about hip width apart
notice if your thighs are pushing forward (very common). If so, draw your thighs back, centering your hips over your heels. You can also imagine drawing the heads of your femur (thigh) bones back. Even though the hips are centered over the heels, you can still distribute weight evenly on the soles of the feet. That being said, it's ok to feel a little more weight in the heels.
draw the shoulders back and down gently, then draw the shoulder blades towards each other a wee bit. These are slight movements, subtle adjustments - nothing too dramatic.
allow the natural curves of your spine to remain present (i.e. don't suck your stomach is so tight, it flattens your lower back). Our spine is at its most stable when its curves are present.
center your head over your shoulders and gently draw the crown of the head towards the sky (or ceiling)
if you're like me and you tend to tilt your chin up, draw it down a little. Or if you tend to draw it down, draw it up a little.
the arms can rest on either side of the body
Optional (if you want to do further exploration here):
engage the glutes (butt) muscles. You'll notice this will externally rotate the hips a little so its sister movement is to then engage and draw the inner thighs inward. As you engage the thigh muscles, you may notice your kneecaps lifting.
with the shoulders drawn back and down, you can then draw the shoulder blades towards each other, activating the rhomboid muscles right between the shoulder blades, then attempt to draw your shoulders forward but resist the movement, keeping the rhomboids engaged, and this will activate your pectoralis minor - a key muscle in helping to open and lift the rib cage.
lift and spread the toes and lift the arches of your feet. Gently shift your weight from side to side, front to back or in circles, to feel the four corners of the soles of your feet (mound of big toe, mound of pinky toe, inner and outer heel). You can then relax the toes down but try keeping a lift in the arches and notice how this activates your inner legs.
Different yoga lineages teach different things regarding the position of the feet in Mountain Pose. The two most common are these:
I much prefer the one to the left: feet hip-width apart. Why? When the feet are close together (photo to the right - big toes touching, heels slightly apart), this increases tension in the glutes and lower back. I also feel less stable when my feet are close together. Feel free to try both out for yourself and notice the difference.
In conclusion, you won't find Mountain Pose on Instagram - it's not that sexy. It is, however, a foundational pose, and the Mother of standing poses - all standing poses start from here. And it will teach you about good posture, which is key to health and well-being.
Energetically speaking, in Mountain Pose we ground ourselves in Mother Earth, knowing we are an integral part of the Universe, as we reach the crown of the head towards the sky (the limitless possibilities of our Spiritual Self), finding strength to stand tall, and confidently abide within ourselves.
Some of my fave peeps who helped me learn Mountain Pose: Andrea Peloso, Judith Lasater and Ray Long.