Oh Plank, the infamous yoga pose that teaches us to strengthen our abs, activate our legs, power up our arms and find length in the spine.
Ever feel as if your belly is drooping to the earth so much that your cow-like sway back could hold two buckets of water? How about the reverse when you find yourself showing off your bum, intentionally or not, sticking it straight up skyward? Why is this pose so challenging?
Break It Down
First, rather than avoiding the pose all together, like some of us do (ahh-hum), we must respect the benefits it provides us and honor why it is so important. Traditionally speaking, Plank is not actually part of the yoga asana poses. If you seek out Iyengar’s book, Light on Yoga, you won’t find Plank in the book, or even a Sanskrit name for it. That’s why it is just called Plank. Perhaps if we called it something more inticing, we would want to practice it more. Or maybe not…
Whatever we choose to call it, “the pose from hell”, or the “ouch pose,” the point is, we need it. As yoga developed in the western culture, Plank was created as a set pose into the flow of the Surya Namaskars (Sun Salutations or commonly known as Vinyasa’s). It was rather like a drive-by pose between the transition point of Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog) and Chaturanga Dandasana. It was not considered its own pose, like we treat it today, holding it for what seems like an hour at times!
Overall, Plank helps to cultivate strength and heat in the body, but most importantly, it aids in the structure and stability of our abdominals. The abs are a key muscle group that help with posture, low back pain, digestion, mobility and overall integrity of the body frame.
Examine The Body
Take a moment to evaluate the body and the structural make-up of the bones. In very simple terms, divide the body right in half horizontally at the belly button. On the top part we have the skull, the arm bones, ribs and then the spine. On the bottom part we have the pelvis or pelvic girdle, leg bones and ankle bones. The spine runs along the back of the body from the base of the skull, the cervical spine, and all the way down to the pelvis, which connects to the leg bones. We have front and back ribs. The front ribs around the chest encompass our vital organs for protection, the heart, lungs, and diaphragm. The back ribs run near to the thoracic spine protecting our vital organs and creating a safe haven for our heart to pump and lungs to expand and contract, breathing.
Moving down the spine we arrive at the lumbar spine, a common area of pain in the back and even a culprit for creating associated pain such as sciatica, tight hips and/or tense fascia late (IT band) tightness. Now examine the space on the front body where the abdominals are located. Are there any structural bones located there? No. Here is the area on the body were we are only put together with organs and muscles. Therefore, in order to keep a strong front body for stabilization, agility and freer movements, we must tighten, strengthen and tone those bad boys!
Plank is great for this. And don’t you think for one minute that modified plank won’t work either; it does! There are lots of variations of plank that you can practice to build core stability. Today, we will focus on the key components that comprise a healthy and safe plank into our yoga practice.
Believe it or not, people do get hurt in yoga. It’s life. Stuff happens. What has been found repetitively is that most injuries occur during the transitions from one pose to the next. Often we get so caught up in the pose that we are about to shift into that we lose the mindfulness or just check out, maybe looking around wondering “am I doing this right”. So, we must realize that any pose needs attention as we transition into it. Think of your first interview with a company or even a first date. Are you walking in without consciousness? No. You very aware of your surroundings, the clothing, the smells, the appearance of the space, the initial handshake, and even your chattering nervous thoughts pitter pattering away at your skull? You go into the transition with a heightened sense of awareness. We must treat our transitions in yoga with the same precision.
Use the breath as a guide to practice mindfulness in your transitions. Let’s say you are in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Dog Pose) and the teacher instructs you to ” inhale come forward to plank aligning your shoulders directly over your wrist.”
Before you even make a move, begin with the breath, let it fill the bowl of your belly, expanding it with air, observe this central point that we tend to loose during plank, bring mindfulness to your abdominals and notice how the air fills you like a balloon. Then as you begin to slowly shift your weight forward, firm up your muscles everywhere. Bring that much consciousness to your very body; think of your muscles activating to find stability.
You have probably heard over a hundred different versions of the same thing told to you while you are in plank. And all the while, as the teacher sounds like s/he is the cartoon teacher’s voice from Charlie Brown, you are thinking, “oh my god, how much longer?” Well, here is a little yoga teacher secret, the more you listen and anatomically begin to understand what we are saying, the less amount of time we will probably hold the pose. Man, I wish that were true. Sometimes we just really need to hold a pose to break through its barriers or to just get stronger! Sorry.
But since we are in the pose now, let’s break down the anatomy and find a happy place within it!
1. Arms & Hands
Typically we always want to stack up the body in a way that allows the bones to align upon one another. I always tell my students to think of the way a building or house is created. We don’t start with the attic. We begin with the basement or store-away component rooted in the earth first and then work our way up. Since in plank, especially when you first begin to practice it, the hands and arms really feel a lot. It is important to draw yourself forward so that the shoulders are directly over the wrist. Some of us will need to move our feet back or arms forward to make that happen. Now power up your hands. Don’t just let those knuckles curl up and take a nap. Create power in your hands by rooting down into each knuckle of your fingers. Pressing vigorously more so into your thumb and index finger, feel as if you could push off of the floor rather than collapse into it.
2. Shoulders & Chest
Check in with your shoulders and see if they are doing that awesome trick of creeping up into your ears? Yeah. That probably happened. Now, slowly begin to feel as if the tips of your shoulder blades are being drawn down your back towards your bum pulling your shoulder heads back into the socket of the shoulder more. By doing so, can you lengthen your sternum towards the front of your mat now? Keeping the gaze just in front of your fingertips, let the nap of your neck be long, releasing any tension in the neck and shoulders.
3. Abdominals & Pelvis
I truly think this is the most challenging piece in the Plank breakdown. The pelvic tilt, anteriorly or posturaly is most commen in this pose where we avoid the core strength building. We see it most often with the sway back or the butt to the air. Thus, here is where we say “Hello abs!” First, to find this, lets drop to the knees and engage your core by coming to a flat back in your spine. Inhale, expand the air into the space of the ribcage, feel how they press down as they fill. Exhale, lengthen the tailbone to the heels. The front hip points will reach forward towards your sternum (the long bone between your breasts) as you keep drawing the tailbone in a straight-line down towards your heels. I find it most helpful to think of the back body and the front body working together to stabilize the core. If you feel good here, keep what you have created and slowly left the knees off the ground, stepping your feet back to the full length of your plank. You may have lost the pelvic tilt and the abs already got lazy. All good. Let’s come back to it again. Inhale into the entirety of your belly, sidewaist and ribcage. On the exhale, imagine you are being stretched long, pressing the tailbone to your heels. As you do this, draw the hip points towards the base of your sternum and feel the top of your sternum pressing towards the front of your mat, forward, not down. This action will remind your shoulders to work, pressing them down your back.
4. Legs & Feet
I feel as if the feet are like this little magic trick in plank that we forget to activate because we are so busy thinking about the sensations of the abdominals. First, use those legs. Press your heels straight back and the pose will take on a whole new element. I always feel lighter in the pose when I do this. Now that we have attention to the legs, let’s power them up. Drawing your attention to the inner edges of the thighs, the space between your legs, start to roll the inner thighs up to the ceiling. The tailbone may want to come with you when you do this and lift to the sky, don’t let it. Keep lengthening it back to those pushed back heels! Activate the outer edges of your ankle bones now and firm them into the midline of your body. This will not only strengthen your legs in plank but it will also teach your whole body to work in unison while practicing plank.
Next time you find yourself in the Plank pose, maybe you can call upon these helpful tools of alignment, starting with the arms and hands and working your way down the body to the legs and feet. I find that this is most helpful to keep the mind concentrated and in connection with the breath, rather than jumping out of the pose all together! Happy (Yoga) Planking!
Kristina Kuzmich, born and raised in the Midwest, first found Colorado through Naropa University in 2004, and instantly called it “home.” Kristina is a 200 E-RYT and a Licensed Massage Therapist residing in the Vail Valley, and is the founder and owner of Mindful Evolution Yoga. She is the Yoga Director for the Aria Yoga Program at the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa, the only certified SmartFLOW © Yoga Teacher in Colorado and is proud to be a yoga ambassador for lululemon athletica and Manduka. A lover of dark chocolate and mate tea, an avid hiker, snowboarder, writer and community worker, she insists on traveling the globe in her diligent pursuit of perpetual growth. She is a junkie to the card game, Rummy, and while not shy to share her obsession for fairy tales, particularly devouring up The Brother’s Grimm, Kristina has an exploratory skill in creating meals in the kitchen. She isn’t afraid to dabble into her favorite styles of wine (all things French), share her opinions when asked, and will continually practice seeking the truth and finding clarity, though the wine may cloud that at times.
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