Yoga for Paddling: Alignment Principles

'Yoga for Paddling' author and longtime instructor Anna Levesque shares tips for kayakers, canoeists, and standup paddlers

An excerpt from Chapter 3 of Yoga for Paddling by Anna Levesque

THE POSES I'VE CHOSEN for this book target the muscle imbalances that can be caused by paddling. Going a step further, this chapter introduces alignment principles. These are subtle actions that you can perform while holding a pose that enhance the pose's effectiveness in bringing your body into optimal alignment. Optimal alignment allows you to bring steadiness and ease into each posture by balancing the imbalances in the musculoskeletal system.

These alignment principles are small adjustments. For some, they may be challenging to perform, or difficult to even feel in the body. If you've never explored alignment, it may feel very foreign. Working on alignment may make you feel as if you can't go as deep as you're accustomed to in a pose, which is entirely normal. My students often express surprise at how challenging it can be to work these principles into the poses. I've heard them say things like: "I can't believe I'm sweating so much considering that I'm not moving as much as in a flow class."

I compare the experience to a paddler who has been paddling for several years without any formal instruction and then takes a class from a competent instructor. The paddler may be so accustomed to paddling only with his or her arms that torso rotation may actually feel wrong and difficult. Your experience with alignment principles may feel similar if you've been incorporating imbalances into your yoga practice…

3. Take Your Sitz Bones Back and Apart

Your sitz bones, or ischial tuberosities, are the pointy bones in your butt cheeks that you sit on. When you actively take them back and apart, you tilt your pelvis anteriorly (forward). This means that if your pelvis were a bowl filled with water, it is tilted such that the water gently pours out onto the floor in front of you. This is how your pelvis wants to sit. The key is to initiate this movement with your sitz bones, not your low back (low back activation can lead to too much anterior tilt). When activated, this principle releases hip flexors, restores lumbar curvature, promotes length in the spine, and reduces back pain. It also tones the lower abdominal muscles. It does require some hamstring flexibility.

Importance for Paddlers

This alignment principle will have a specific effect on the posture of each paddler depending on which discipline they practice. Let's go through each.

Kayaking

Sitting in a kayak with legs apart and externally rotated, while also engaging the inner thighs in the thigh braces, can lead to rounding of the low back. My PT calls this "sacral sitting"—when we sit on the lower part of the sacrum rather than on the sitz bones. Over time, sitting with the pelvis tilted posteriorly (holding the water in the pelvic bowl instead of pouring it forward onto the floor) leads to low back pain and injury, including lumbar disk herniations. Taking the sitz bones back and apart works to counteract the rounding of the low back and establishes a neutral pelvis as the foundation for the spine, so the spine can be free. This allows kayakers to sit up tall, which is the foundation for effective kayaking technique.

Canoeing

Kneeling in a canoe actually makes it easier to tilt the pelvis anteriorly (so that water pours out the front). In fact, canoeists should be very aware of the curvature of their lumbar spines. It may be that any imbalance that they experience is from too much anterior tilt of the pelvis. If engaging this alignment principle feels like crunching in the low back, then focus on lengthening the sitz bones down (pressing them into the floor) instead of back and apart. This will give length to the low back.

Canoeists who have tight hamstrings are more prone to rounding of the low back, and the cues of "back" and "apart" can be beneficial. It can help to look in the mirror from the side and determine if your low back is rounded or arched. I also recommend bringing awareness to how the low back and pelvis feel while sitting in your canoe. This is where a book cannot do the job as effectively as an experienced yoga teacher. Having said that, bringing attention to your pelvic area with this alignment principle is a good beginning to increased body awareness.

 

SUP

When paddlers stand on their SUPs, the imbalances and related compensations in their bodies become very obvious. Muscles must work harder to balance and stabilize on a SUP, leading to further chronic contraction in the most powerful muscles, like the hip flexors. Taking the sitz bones back and apart, while shifting the center of mass into the heels to engage the glutes, allows the hip flexors to lengthen. This principle can be very beneficial for SUP paddlers.

In a similar vein as kayaking, SUP paddlers who paddle with their pelvis tilted posteriorly increase their risk for back pain and injury. A posteriorly tilted pelvis also makes it harder to balance and rotate the core. The hinge at the hips, a key component of a powerful forward stroke on a SUP, will happen more easily and with more power when the sitz bones are back and apart.

I've also seen SUP paddlers with too much anterior tilt in their pelvis develop low back pain. As mentioned above in the paragraph for canoeists, check your alignment in a mirror, and if you see exaggerated anterior tilt, focus on pressing the sitz bones down toward the board or floor instead of back and apart.

 

How to Do This Action

At first it's a good idea to become familiar with this action by sitting cross-legged, reaching back, and manually moving the flesh out from under your sitz bones. You should feel a shift from sitting on the back of your sitz bones to sitting on the front of your sitz bones. Your pelvis should be tilted anteriorly (so that water pours out the front onto the floor). You'll notice that you can sit up taller and that your thighs and knees will lift slightly. You may need to sit on a few folded blankets if your hips and hamstrings are chronically tight. Don't be afraid to use blankets to help you sit up! I always sit on blankets for meditation. I would rather work toward optimal alignment with the help of blankets than be stubborn and suffer from imbalances.

Another way to engage this action is to think of pressing the sitz bones into the floor to sit up taller (thinking of pressing them down can also bring them back and apart). Once you are familiar with what this feels like in a seated position, you can perform the action in other poses. Keeping soft knees, or knees slightly bent, also gives the pelvis more freedom to tilt anteriorly.

 

Continue to an excerpt from Chapter 7: Windshield Wiper Pose

For all excerpts, plus info about the author, please visit the C&K home page for Yoga for Paddling

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