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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Of Downward-Facing Triangles: The Sacrum

I just returned from retreat in St. John (USVI), where I spent my afternoons between yoga sessions face-down in the water (snorkeling) enraptured by the worlds below. Every time I went snorkeling, I saw things that made my eyes go wide and a little laugh of incredulity escape my mouth.

My favorite fish, the one that left me wonderstruck every time I saw it because it seemed so improbable a creature, was the spotted trunkfish (sometimes called a boxfish). When you see this fish, you can't help but wonder: of all the things that the universe could have become, how is it that it become that flat-bottomed fish with a triangular-shaped body, little horns, and pouty lips? Amazing. (Go to for pictures of this guy.)

Which brings us to the downward-facing triangle. This image represents the movement from vast, unbounded possibility into the particularity of manifestation. Think of the base of the triangle (which is the top part of a downward-facing triangle), as that wide expanse of possibilities, and the apex of the triangle (which is at the bottom), as the particularity, the thing that was created. Of all the things that the universe could have created, it created just what it did. It created you. My teacher Douglas Brooks likes to say that "you are the point the universe was trying to make." You are the point, you are the apex. This is one reason why Anusara Yoga uses the downward-facing triangle in its logo: this embodiment, in all of its wondrous, complex forms, is the gift.

The sacrum is that downward-facing triangular bone (really 5 fused vertebrae) in your body that sits/glides between your pelvic bones just below the lumbar spine and above the tailbone/coccyx. It is a key juncture point in the body, and the alignment of the sacrum in relation to the pelvic bones (they meet at the sacro-iliac joints) is crucial to creating a healthy, spacious lower back. And, like all of ourselves and our embodiment, it's a wondrous and strange thing...

Here's how the sacrum moves in alignment through the Universal Principles of Alignment:

Open to Grace is about receiving this embodiment, for all its wondrousness and wackiness, as a gift. It means coming to terms with what we've been given and recognizing that there's nothing that you have to get that's outside of you, but rather that you, just as you are, are the point, the apex, the universe was trying to make.

This first principle includes an inner alignment of the self. Oftentimes, the pelvis is rotated toward one side, and this ends up torquing the sacrum along with it. For example, if the pelvis is rotated to the left, the left side of the sacrum will be pushed back, and the right side of the sacrum will be pushed forward. So what ends up happening is the sacrum gets jammed up against the right side, and will more commonly "go out" or get stuck on the right side. Imagine backbending over a sacrum that is turned like this, and you can see how it might be painful.

To find out whether your pelvis is rotated to one side, try this (an exercise I learned from Doug Keller's infinitely wise book Yoga as Therapy): lie on your back, with you knees bent in and your feet on the floor. Gently flatten your lower back to the floor. (Please note that I am not recommending flattening your lower back as a way of alignment; this is really just so you can feel what is going on.) Keeping your feet on the floor, slowly bring your knees a few inches to the right, and then a few inches to the left, noticing when you roll onto a little knobby place (the PSIS) around the back of your pelvis. The side that protrudes more, or the side that you feel first as you're moving your legs side to side, is the side to which your pelvis is rotated.

Notice whether the side to which your pelvis is rotated happens to be the side where your hip is more open, the side where standing poses are easier to do when that leg is forward. This was true unanimously for the Nerds in class; see whether it's true for you.

OK, so to align the sacrum along with the first principle of Opening to Grace, turn your inner body back to neutral (away from the side where the PSIS was protruding). Also watch how the inner body tends to shift when doing asymmetrical poses -- when one leg is forward and one leg is back. In general, the pelvis will tend to turn away from the front leg side, so finding balance will usually mean that you'll need to turn the pelvis/sacrum toward the front leg side before doing any of the other actions. And this inner alignment will need to be stronger when you have your tight-hip-leg in front.

With Muscular Energy, there is a hugging to the midline that includes an embrace from the outer hips in toward the sacrum. Once the inner body is aligned, Muscular Energy will stabilize the pelvis in its neutral position, as well as stabilizing the sacro-iliac joints. This action of hugging the midline around the hips is particularly important in twisting, and in addressing hyper-mobile sacro-iliac joints/ligaments.

When Inner Spiral reaches the pelvic region, it tips the top of the sacrum in and up, creating more of a lordotic curve. In all asymmetrical poses, the back leg will generally need more emphasis on inner spiral, and this includes the movement all the way up through the sacrum and waistline.

Pelvic Loop (which involves the sacrum more specifically than Outer Spiral), does exactly the opposite: it draws the bottom of the sacrum down and in. The energetic flow of the Pelvic Loop starts at the lower waistline, flows back and down, and then takes the bottom of the sacrum down and forward through the pelvic focal point, lifting the deepest part of the abdominal core. This is the action of the downward-facing triangle.

When the pelvis is the focal point, Organic Energy splits at the juncture between the bottom of the sacrum and the top of the tailbone. Organic Energy always flows down first (this is what the universe did to become us), so the pelvic bones and tailbone move down, while the entire sacrum and low belly lift up and out of the pelvis.

OK. To summarize:

  • Open to grace: turn the inner body so that the sacrum is facing straight ahead
  • Muscular Energy: hug to the midline, so that the sacro-iliac joints stabilize
  • Inner Spiral: the top of the sacrum draws in and up; more on the back-leg side
  • Pelvic Loop: the bottom of the sacrum draws down and in; more on the front-leg side
  • Organic Energy (when the pelvis is the FP): the pelvic bones and tailbone move down, while the whole sacrum lifts up and out of the pelvis
You must be asking: can you really feel all of those different energy flows in this one bone at once? Is it really that wondrous, and complex? Yes. Maybe you won't see it move in all of these ways at once, but your awareness can direct energy flows, even when there is very little outer movement.

Try these poses, using the 5 principles outlined above [more on the sacrum and twisting to come in a future Nerd]:

Tadasana: Line up the lower body as described, and then get a friend (or your own hands) to hold on to your pelvis and root organically down into the earth as you stretch your arms overhead and lift your sacrum and low belly up toward your fingertips

High lunge: try this with one arm (the same side as the back leg) lifting to the sky, while the other hand anchors your pelvis downward. This will help you to feel the lift of the top of the sacrum in and up on the back leg side, while the front leg side gets heavier.

Standing poses (lunges, parsvakonasana, parsvottanasana): in all of these asymmetrical standing poses, play with getting more inner spiral on the back leg side (until the top of the sacrum tips into the body) and more pelvic loop on the front leg side (until you feel the tone and lift in your lower belly)

Surya namaskar variation: from plank pose, bring your knees to the floor and kick your feet up towards your butt. Keep the arms straight, soften your upper back, and draw the bottom of the sacrum down and in to come straight from this pose into makarasana (pelvis anchored to the floor)

Pigeon pose/thigh stretch: to move into the thigh stretch, bring one arm (same side as back leg) up to the sky to help influence the lift of the sacrum on that side; once you've established that, take it into the thigh stretch, and add the other elements.

Ustrasana: as a symmetrical pose, this is a really great way to realign the sacrum/pelvis. Now you don't have a front/back leg, so you're working just with the asymmetries of yourself. Spin your inner body at the pelvis to square and embrace that with muscular energy. When you do Inner Spiral, emphasize this action on the side that you tend to rotate towards. When you do Pelvic Loop, emphasize this action on the side that you tend to rotate away from. And as you go back into the pose, keep all of that while anchoring the pelvis down and lifting the sacrum up.

Upavista konasana: for all forward bends, the top of the sacrum must draw in and up before moving past 90 degrees in the pelvis. This is a crucial alignment for the health of the lower back.

Janu sirsasana: ahhh, a twist. This is one of the poses that I hear most commonly counter-indicated for lower back problems (herniations, SI instability, etc.), but it can be done safely if following these principles. Remember, it's an asymmetrical pose, so the sacrum will need to tip in and up faster on the back leg side, while it will need to go down and in faster on the front leg side.

More on twisting to come in a future Nerd!


David Murphy said...

Hey Zhenja,
What an awesome post! I have a question about the difference between outer spiral and pelvic loop though. It seems like a lot of times in classes we're told to start with outer spiral and then maybe for expedience sake, do something that sounds like a combo of outer spiral and pelvic loop. So should we think about outer spiral as more the hips (illia), and pelvic loop more about the sacrum itself moving?

Since I read your post I've been muddling over how sacrums work for a couple days, and here's what I've come up with to answer my own question from a biomechanical perspective.

I get the feeling that the cue of "up and in" for the sacrum really makes the most sense when one leg is forward and the other leg is back. In normal function, the sacrum , and really the whole pelvis, sidebends towards the front leg and rotates towards the back leg to follow the movement of the hips, sort of stacking up on one another like a spiral staircase. As the sacrum sidebends to the front leg and rotates forward with the back leg, the top and forward corner of the sacrum will be up on the back leg side. Then "up and in" really makes sense.

This is where it get's interesting though: Judging by the shape of the SI joint, if both sides are moving simultaneously, I'm pretty sure inner spiral would squeeze the sacrum to tip the top of it back and up, rather than in and up. This movement would also contribute to the lift and rotation of pelvic loop, yes?

From what I can tell, inner spiral creates a more core, boney, leveraged lift for the sacrum (drawing to the midline, the illia squeeze together and the sacrum gets pushed up between the hips like the keystone in an arch), while outer spiral is a more of a muscular stabilization of the same thing with the hip rotators holding directly onto the connective tissue of the sacrum, holding the whole thing together. So from that I kinda get that inner spiral aligns and lifts the core (more opening to grace and organic energy), while outer spiral creates superficial containment and stabilization (more muscular and organic energy). So what do you think?

I can't wait to read your next post!

All the best,


x HC said...

Dear Zhenja,

Just a general! Your ipod has fantastic alignment instructions. Really top level.

As a dedicated anusara yogi living in the south of France (where no Anusara is to be found) your ipod classes are such a gift.

I will be listening to them all the time in the future, to be certain. What an inspiration!

Thank you for your generosity,

CrowMagnum said...

Do you have any advice for the non-yoganerd who is looking for ways to correct a SI joint disfunction or illial rotation who feels inspired by your post but does not understand it?