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This Is How the Planes of Movement Can Help You Identify Imbalances in Your Body

Understanding the three anatomical planes of movement (sagittal, coronal, and transverse) can help you recognize patterns and imbalances in your body, allowing you to move with more intention—in your yoga practice and beyond.

As yogis, most of us want to understand how we move—and as we become more aware, we head down a path toward even more curiosity and self-awareness. I see this evolution in my students all the time. The first spark—maybe someone realizes she’s tighter in her left hip than in her right—is often revelatory. Soon after, this student may notice that because of the tightness, she favors her right side. Then she may discover it’s causing her back pain. With each discovery this student makes about her movement, she becomes more conscious, inquisitive, and, ultimately, more knowledgeable about herself. 

Understanding how you move your body is key to getting stronger, staying injury free, and feeling more balanced, grounded, and (I would argue) happy. And a great tool to help you do all of this is to look at movement through the lens of the three anatomical planes. 

Once you know how to work with these planes, you’ll begin to recognize the ones in which you feel most (and least) comfortable moving your body. Then you may discover you’re missing whole segments of movement in certain planes—knowledge that can then inspire you to start moving in the directions where you need to wake up. In doing this, you’ll ultimately learn how to wake up in your life too, helping you navigate this world more fully. Here’s what you need to know to understand the sagittal, coronal, and transverse planes, and why it’s so important that you do.

The Sagittal Plane

This plane dissects the right and left sides of the body, as if the edge of a pane of glass were dropped down the center of your crown through your midline. Sagittal plane movements take place where this imaginary pane of glass sits—or parallel to it—meaning any time you’re in flexion (for example, forward folds) or extension (such as backbends), you’re moving in the sagittal plane.

It is probably the most familiar, and most used, plane for all of us: When we drive, hunch our heads over our smartphones, sit on the couch holding the remote control, ride a bike, and walk down the street, we’re moving in the sagittal plane. In yoga, any time you take your arms forward and reach them overhead—whether you’re doing Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute) or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand)—you’re moving in the sagittal plane. 

Where’s the distortion?

If you’re a teacher and notice something’s off when a student practices a pose but you’re not sure in which plane the problem is occurring, communicating how to correct what’s off may be challenging. Recognizing a distortion in a specific plane is the secret to quickly and clearly helping your students get into their fullest expression of a posture. To practice seeing bodies this way, let’s look at Vrksasana (Tree Pose) with a distortion in each of the three planes. Here are two distortions in the sagittal plane:

< her pelvis is tipped anteriorly and her spine is overarched?

THE FIX She’ll want to bring her pelvis and spine to neutral, lengthen her tailbone, and draw her sternum toward her navel.



<her pelvis is tucked and her spine is flexed (rounded)?

THE FIX She’ll want to press the top of her standing thigh back and press her shoulder blades into her chest.

See also The Truth of Tree Pose

The Coronal Plane

This plane dissects the front of the body from the back. This time, imagine a pane of glass dropping through your midline and dissecting your front body (anterior) and back body (posterior). Coronal plane movements occur where this imaginary pane of glass sits, meaning any time you abduct (move away from the midline) and adduct (move toward the midline). You’re moving in the coronal plane when you step one leg to the side, turn a cartwheel, or bust out your best “Stayin’ Alive” dance moves, John Travolta style. In yoga, think of moving into Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose) or Parighasana (Gate Pose)

Where’s the distortion?

Here’s Vrksasana (Tree Pose) with distortions in the coronal plane:

< she is sitting in her standing-leg hip?

THE FIX
She needs to hug her standing-leg thigh in toward her midline.

< one hip is higher than the other?

THE FIX
She needs to press her lifted thigh down (adduction) to level her pelvis side to side.

See also 8 Steps to Master and Refine Tree Pose

The Transverse Plane

This plane divides the body into upper and lower portions—as if the same imaginary pane of glass cuts through your belly button. All movements in this plane involve rotation, either inward (internal rotation) or outward (external rotation). You’re moving in the transverse plane when you turn your head to look out your rearview mirror before merging into another traffic lane, or when you do “The Twist,” à la Chubby Checker. In yoga, spinal twists such as Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose) and Parsva Sirsasana (Side Headstand)—and even rotating one leg out at its hip socket to prepare for Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II)—are movements that happen in the transverse plane.

Where’s the distortion?

Here’s Vrksasana (Tree Pose) with distortions in the transverse plane:

< the lifted knee and pelvis are rolling forward?

THE FIX
She needs to work her lifted leg more here, rotating the thigh out at the hip socket so she can press it farther open.

< one knee is too far back, pulling the pelvis and her spine with it?

THE FIX
If she can press the top of her standing thigh backward, she’ll be able to bring her right knee (and that side of the pelvis) forward.

See also Make It About the Midline: Tree Pose

Why Should We Understand the Planes?

In a word: proprioception. This refers to the body’s ability to sense joint position and movement, enabling you to know where your body is in space without having to look—and to know how much force is needed to create movement. It helps us feel grounded and balanced, and it allows us to move in and out of yoga poses safely. Proprioception can be enhanced over time with mindful, repetitive movements, such as asana.

One of the obstacles to healthy proprioception is chronic, unconscious, habitual patterns in the body. Whether these patterns arise from injury or overuse doesn’t matter; they affect your posture and keep you moving in habitual ways. To wit: Take a moment to think about your highly mobile shoulder joint, which is built to move in many different directions. If you start to favor moving it just one way—say, reaching your arms forward and up in the sagittal plane and avoiding reaching them out to the sides in the coronal plane—that pattern can create an imbalance in the joint, leading to chronic pain and even injury.

One way to wake up from these unconscious patterns is to try less familiar movements and shapes in the planes you tend to avoid, which will help bring flexibility to stuck areas and strength to weak ones. Exploring simple movements in all three planes, especially your nondominant one(s), with an open, playful attitude—frustration and shame are not helpful here!—can help you develop new neuromuscular pathways and more balanced movement patterns. Over time, there’s a good chance you’ll find this leads to more efficient posture, improved balance, and healthier joints.

If you’re a yoga teacher, including poses and cues that take your students through all three planes (whether you name them or not) can help them develop healthy and balanced bodies. What’s more, using the framework of the planes to see distortions and imbalances in a yoga practitioner’s body can help you use more effective cues.

As you try to understand and analyze how you move separately in each of the planes, keep in mind that the goal isn’t to dissect the body. After all, the body exists in all three planes at the same time. The point of this work is to try to bring the body into balance in all three planes, at all times, to create a feeling of wholeness. This, I believe, is one of the keys to feeling more embodied, both on and off the mat.

See also Basic Anatomy for Yoga Teachers: Flexion vs. Extension

Put the planes into practice

Want to get comfortable with these anatomical planes and expand your movement range (or teaching skills)? Start here:

STEP 1 Make lists of your 10 favorite, and 10 least favorite, poses. Consider which poses you tend to practice at home and which ones you avoid.

STEP 2 Determine the primary plane for each of the poses on your lists.

STEP 3 Name the planes in which you seem to be most and least comfortable.

STEP 4 Create a list of poses from your least favorite plane, and plan to practice these poses several times a week. Are these poses challenging for you? Are they easy? How do you feel when you practice more from the plane in which you’re least comfortable? Get curious.

STEP 5 After a couple weeks of practicing your least favorite poses, go deeper with your line of questioning: What has practicing movements you’d been avoiding revealed? (Yes, I am talking poses—and anything else you tend to avoid in life.)

If you’re a teacher, take these same steps when it comes to assessing your go-to sequences: Look at the poses you teach often, as well as the themes that you choose for your classes. Which plane is over-represented? Which one(s), if any, are under-represented? Do you tend to teach the plane that is your personal favorite and avoid the one that’s your least favorite?

Finally, whether you’re teaching or simply moving through your own home practices, commit to creating sequences that include poses that highlight your least utilized plane. How do you feel when you practice (or teach) them? How does your body feel after a few weeks of moving in your less utilized plane? Do you feel more embodied? Are your movements more balanced in all three planes? See if these simple inquiries help you feel more awake and whole.

About Our Expert 
Teacher Annie Carpenter is a yoga teacher and teacher trainer in San Francisco. She’s also the creator of the SmartFLOW method, which she teaches in classes, workshops, and her 200- and 500-hour teacher trainings across the globe. Learn more at anniecarpenter.com. 

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Why Your Diaphragm Could Be the Core Strength Game Changer You’ve Overlooked

Most yogis are familiar with their diaphragm in the context of pranayama practice, but core work? Not so much.

As a yogi, you know how important good breathing is for your overall health and wellbeing. Your breath affects all of your vital systems, right down to the cellular level. It impacts your sleep, memory, energy level, and concentration. But in a busy life, even for yogis, breathing well can be easier said than done. Poor posture (all those hours hunched over a keyboard or steering wheel), emotional stress, mental pressure, conscious or unconscious movement patterns, and lack of movement can all contribute to restricted, shallow breathing and tension in the diaphragm, your primary breathing muscle. Though you may not be aware of poor respiratory mechanics throughout your day, the effects can be profound. Did you know that the way you breathe (or don’t) also influences how effectively your muscles work? 

See also The Science of Breathing

How Your Diaphragm Can Affect Core Strength

The diaphragm isn’t typically talked about in the context of your core. But located right at the center of the abdomen, it connects to many of your body’s stabilizers. Working in close relationship with the deep abdominals, the pelvic floor, and the multifidus muscles in the lower back, the diaphragm is part of your intrinsic core. You can think of these muscles as forming the sides of a pressurized container: the pelvic floor is the bottom, the deep abdominal and back muscles form the sides, and the diaphragm is the lid on top. If any of these muscles don’t perform their important tasks perfectly, the container will start to lose pressure, weakening the stable base you need to move effectively. The result is a decrease in overall strength due to the lack of support from your core, which can cause all kinds of compensation patterns.

The brain organizes how all the muscles work together to make your movements fluid and effective. If one muscle is stuck or not working properly, something else will have to step up to create stability and make movement happen. So if your diaphragm is tense and less flexible—in turn causing the other core muscles to weaken—other nearby muscles, like in the hips or the more superficial parts of the trunk may be recruited to compensate for the lack of core stability.

An overactive diaphragm may also cause strained breathing and even cause neck tension. Neck muscles are secondary breathing muscles, helping with inspiration, and thus also frequently get involved in issues with the diaphragm and core. Ever felt your neck tighten up during ab work? It may be compensating for missing core strength.

Additionally, the diaphragm connects to and affects the thoracic and lumbar erectors, quadratus lumborums in the low back, and the psoas muscle that crosses the rim of the pelvis to connect the legs to the spine. These are all important muscles in moving and stabilizing the spine, and any one of them not working properly can have system-wide effects in the body. So as you can see, the proper functioning of the diaphragm is essential for a body that moves effectively and effortlessly. 

Lucky for yogis, the practice offers many wonderful tools to unravel the negative effects of modern lifestyle. Simple diaphragmatic breathing, restorative postures, meditation, mindful movement through yoga poses, the coordination of breath and movement, and a focus on alignment can all help relieve tension in the diaphragm and deepen the breath. When the diaphragm is less tense, your core muscles have a better chance of stepping up to their primary task. As you optimize your breathing, you might see all kinds of other changes happening you didn’t expect.

See also Anatomy 101: How to Tap the Real Power of Your Breath

3 Ways to Relax the Diaphragm and Connect to Your Core 

About Our Expert
Gry Bech-Hanssen is currently working toward her 500-hour yoga teacher training with Tiffany Cruikshank. Based in Oslo, Norway, she has a background in contemporary dance and has been teaching movement for well over 10 years. She teaches yoga and pilates in groups and therapeutic private sessions, and is also trained in Structural Bodywork, massage, and Neurokinetic Therapy. Gry is passionate about using yoga in combination with all the other tools in her tool box to help people make lasting changes in their bodies and lives. You can find more about her at www.somawork.no.

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What You Need to Know About Your Thoracic Spine

Here’s how to strengthen and gain mobility in your upper back

Got back pain? You’re in good company: About 80 percent of Americans experience back problems at some point. Most people attribute back pain to their low backs (lumbar spine) or necks (cervical spine), but oftentimes issues in the thoracic spine—the upper back—are actually to blame.

Although the thoracic spine doesn’t get much attention, it’s literally the backbone for your lungs and heart, surrounded by your rib cage, which protects these vital organs. Of the spine’s 70 joints, 50 percent are in the thoracic spine. If you factor in the additional 20 specialty joints (called the costotransverse joints) that help your ribs articulate and move, you’ll quickly understand that your thoracic spine is a workhorse responsible for two-thirds of the movement in your torso—so the odds of something going awry are high.

Despite the thoracic spine’s potential for movement, the unique design of your upper back and rib cage does not allow for as much movement as you may think. This is to protect your lungs and heart: excess motion here could impact these key organs. What’s more, the vertebrae of the thoracic spine interlock with one another and act as a hard stop during back bends—again, to defend your internal organs.

These movement-inhibiting mechanisms are important. However, if you lack the proper amount of mobility in your thoracic spine, then the most mobile junction of your spine—T12/L1, the lowest point of the thoracic spine and the highest part of the lumbar spine—may become hypermobile to make up for it (particularly in backbends). Lack of thoracic spine mobility can also create an excessively mobile cervical spine.

To help keep your cervical spine and lumbar spine pain free, you’ll want to move the thoracic spine in smart, safe ways to maintain strength and mobility and prevent it from recruiting extra help. Here’s what you need to know.

See also A Yoga Sequence to Target Sources of Back Pain

The Thoracic Spine/Breath Connection

The hallmark of a healthy spine is that it can access all its inherent ranges of motion. Once you start leaving a motion out, the joints and tissues stiffen—and in the case of the upper back, this can translate into breathing issues. An excessively immobile thoracic spine can lead to a stiff rib cage, which can then restrict the capacity of your diaphragm and lungs. Because breath control gives us access to our nervous system and emotional centers, the interplay between the upper back and breath are critical for permitting relaxation, well-being, emotional attunement, and whole-body health.

A Yogic Self-Test for Range of Motion

Uddiyana Bandha (Upward Abdominal Lock) This challenges your thoracic spine and rib cage to use their full ranges of motion at the costovertebral joints. The motion takes the ribs to their most elevated state, causing the diaphragm to stretch laterally.

How to Stand with your feet slightly apart, eyes open. Inhale deeply through your nose, then exhale quickly and forcibly through your nose. Fully contract your abdominal muscles, pushing as much air as possible out of your lungs; then relax your abdominals. Perform what’s called a mock inhalation by expanding your rib cage as if you were inhaling, but don’t actually do so. This pulls the abdominal muscles up into the rib cage and creates a concave shape resembling an umbrella within the rib cage. Come into Jalandhara Bandha (Chin Lock). Hold for 5–15 seconds, then slowly let your belly descend, inhaling normally. Note: Perform this only on an empty stomach and only after an exhalation. If you’re pregnant, it’s OK to practice Uddiyana Bandha if you did so regularly before your pregnancy.

See also Work Your Core in Any Pose

Body of Knowledge: Anatomy of the Thoracic Spine

There are multiple muscles in your thoracic spine region, most of which also run through your cervical spine or lumbar spine regions (or both). Here, get to know the deeper muscles that attach to your thoracic spine, as well as those that share a soft-tissue relationship with the thoracic spine and rib cage.

Transversospinalis

As a group, these muscles connect different portions of each vertebra to adjacent or semi-adjacent vertebrae.

• otatores

• ultifidus

• emispinalis

Erector spinae muscles

As a group, these muscles provide postural support for your trunk and facilitate multiple motions of your torso.

• pinalis thoracis

• ongissimus thoracis

• liocostalis

Serratus posterior superior

This muscle connects your upper three thoracic vertebrae to ribs 2–5. It helps elevate your ribs when you inhale.

Respiratory diaphragm

This muscle attaches to the inside of your lower six ribs; you may notice it when it’s spasming with the hiccups.

Intercostals

These muscles are situated between each rib. They stabilize your rib cage and assist in breathing.

Levatores costarum

These muscles connect the transverse processes of each thoracic vertebra to the rib below and help you inhale.

See also Poses by Anatomy

A Vertebra, Dissected

SPINOUS PROCESS These are bony projections off
the back of each vertebra. Alongside each spinous process is an arch-like structure called the lamina, which provides
a major point of attachment for your spine’s muscles
and ligaments.

INTERVERTEBRAL DISCS These are the spine’s shock absorbers. Each disc forms a fibrocartilaginous joint (a symphysis) to allow slight movement of
vertebrae and hold adjacent vertebrae together.

TRANSVERSE PROCESS These bony projections off each side of each vertebra are the attachment sites for your spine’s muscles and ligaments.

VERTEBRAL BODY This thick oval segment of bone forms the front of each vertebra. A protective layer of
compact bone encircles a cavity of spongey bone tissue.

See also Poses for Your Spine

4 Poses to Increase Thoracic Spine Mobility

Take your spine through its five different motions—spinal flexion, spinal extension, lateral flexion and extension, and spinal rotation—with these poses. 

About Our Pros

Writer Jill Miller is the creator of Yoga Tune Up and The Roll Model Method, and author of The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body. She has presented case studies at the Fascia Research Congress and the International Association of Yoga Therapists Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research, and she teaches at yoga conferences worldwide. Learn more at yogatuneup.com.

Model Amy Ippoliti is a yoga teacher and faculty member at 1440 Multiversity, Omega Institute, Esalen Institute, and the Kripalu Center.

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