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Refine Your Upward Salute: 5 Common Misalignments in Urdva Hastasana
When you first start practicing yoga, simply knowing the general shapes of the poses is enough. As time goes on, and you become more comfortable on the mat, you slowly begin to refine your understanding of each pose’s alignment (which can become quite intricate depending on the style of yoga you study). What’s more is that you also develop a stronger connection to and awareness of your own body as you learn to apply the actions necessary to align each pose properly.
But what if the “proper” alignment of the pose doesn’t work, or isn’t appropriate, for a person’s specific structure? It’s important to remember that the alignment of the poses isn’t set in stone. There are many bodies (for many reasons) that just won’t align to the poses and should never be forced to do so. The larger conversation of postural alignment must include respect for the individual, leaving plenty of room for adaptation.
That being said, having a basic understanding of the alignment will go a long way in helping you discover how to adapt the poses (and interpret alignment instructions) for your individual needs. It’s also extremely helpful to become aware of some common tendencies and misalignments we all tend to share in the different yoga poses—most of which we don’t even realize we’re doing!
Over the next few months, we will be introducing common misalignments in various basic poses, beginning with Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute). The invitation is to try the pose in a slightly different way, paying close attention to how it feels in your body. Keep in mind, there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to alignment, only guiding principles that may or may not suitable or even accessible for your body.
5 Common Misalignments in Urdva Hastasana
While standing and reaching your arms overhead seems straightforward enough, there’s a lot more going on in Urdva Hastasana than first meets the eye, leaving some wiggle room to misalign the pose.
The Upward Salute is meant to awaken the entire body, engaging down through the legs and feet, lengthening up through the spine and sides of the body as the arms actively reach overhead. When done with some awareness of alignment, the pose can feel powerful and invigorating; without, the seemingly simple pose can feel clamped down or jammed somewhere in the body.
Here are some common misalignments in Urdva Hastasana:
Feet turned out. Standing with your feet parallel in Udrva Hastasana allows you to press down evenly through the four corners of your feet, engage your legs toward the midline, and draw up through your inner thighs —supporting the lift of your spine up and out of your pelvis.
When the feet and legs turn out in external rotation, the inner edges of the legs press forward as the outer edges of the legs/hips wrap back, narrowing the space of the low back. The weight of the body falls to the outer edges of the feet, particularly the outer heels, and the common tendency is to lock one or both knees back. Too much external leg rotation and the low back really starts to compress. The added weight of taking the arms overhead in Urdva Hastasana further compromises the back.
Try standing with your feet parallel, hip distance apart, aligning your second toes straight forward. It may feel awkward at first like your toes are turning inward but they aren’t.
Strongly root down evenly through all four corners of your feet, lightly engage your legs toward one another, lifting up through your inner thighs, as you reach your arms up. And then, to prove a point, stop pressing down through your feet and using your legs. What happened in your spine?
Re-engage your feet and legs as you actively lift through all four sides of your torso and reach through your fingertips.
(Side Note: Urdva Hastasana is classically aligned with the balls of the feet together, heels slightly separated, not all bodies are ready for that. I almost always teach the pose with the feet parallel, sitting bones distance apart, inviting students to bring their feet together as the class progresses.)
Buttocks squeezed together. When the feet and legs turn out, the natural inclination is to squeeze the butt cheeks together; however, even with the feet parallel, students tend to clench their buttocks without realizing it. Squeezing the buttocks forces the tops of the thigh bones forward, flattening the low back and making it difficult to lift up and out of the pelvis.
For Urdva Hastasana, we want the very tops of the thigh bones drawing back so that the groins, or the narrow spaces in the front hip creases, are soft and hollow and the low back stays open. Standing with your feet parallel and arms overhead in Upward Salute, root down through your legs, press back through the tops of your thighs, and gently lengthen your tailbone down (being careful not to over tuck). Rather than squeezing your buttocks together, lightly draw your low belly in and up to support the lift of your spine.
Exaggerated curve of the low back. On the other hand, rather than flattening the low back, some students exaggerated the curve of the lumbar spine; pressing their thigh bones back too far, lifting up through the sitting bones, jetting forward through their low front ribs, and bringing their shoulders back past their pelvis—creasing the most flexible area of their spines and compromising the health of their low backs.
One of the main components of Urdva Hastasana is lengthening up through all sides of the torso, front as well as back.
With your arms overhead, feet parallel, and tops of your thigh bones back, lightly lengthen down through your tailbone and soften your front ribs back.
As you press down through your legs and lengthen your spine up and out of your pelvis, lift through the backside of your body, creating length in your low back.
Palms turned out. More often than not, new students turn their palms out as they reach them overhead. Actually, it’s not so much that they turn their palms out as they forget to turn them up as they take their arms overhead in Urdva Hastasana. However, taking the arms above the shoulders with the palms facing out impinges the head of the arm bone in the socket, limiting the range of motion (and potentially leading to a frozen shoulder injury).
When the arms go above 90 degrees, the palms of your hands must turn up to reach overhead. Once overhead in Urdva Hastasana, the palms face one another (and are pressed together in the classical variation of the pose). From standing in Tadasana with your arms down at your sides, slowly reach them out and up rotating your thumbs back and pinkie fingers forward, turning your palms in to face one another.
Slouched side bodies. As mentioned, an important component of Urdva Hastasana is length through all sides of the body—including the side bodies. Length in the sides of the body, from your hips to your armpits, is essential to taking the arms overhead. Slouching also seriously impedes the range of motion through the shoulders and arms, and without the lift of the side bodies, the arms can feel extremely heavy.
Before taking your arms up in Upward Salute, press down through your legs and lift up through the sides of your chest, lengthening the sides of your body evenly. Once your arms are overhead, engage your legs, lengthen up through the vertebrae and actively reach through the sides of your body and out your fingertips. The reach comes from the inside rather than from the shoulder heads hiking up.
Interested in more yoga practice tips? If so, read more from Meagan McCrary here: Yoga for Tight Shoulders - 5 Yoga Poses to Open your Upper Back and Shoulders.
Design your practice for greater health - Study with Eva Norlyk Smith and Terry Smith - Happy Back, Happy Body: Yoga for Flexibility and Back-Pain Relief.
Meagan McCrary is an experienced yoga teacher (E-RYT 500) and writer with a passion for helping people find more comfort, clarity, compassion, and joy on the mat and in their lives. She is the author of Pick Your Yoga Practice: Exploring and Understanding Different Styles of Yoga a comprehensive encyclopedia of prominent yoga styles, including each system’s teaching methodology, elements of practice, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings, class structure, physical exertion and personal attention. Currently living in Los Angeles, Meagan teaches at the various Equinox Sports Clubs, works privately with clients and leads retreats internationally. You can find her blog, teaching schedule, and latest offerings at www.MeaganMcCrary.com.