I know, I know – why would you want to find plank? Plank was just fine lost, thank you very much! I get it – plank is a pain (literally sometimes). There’s nothing like the audible groan that goes around the room when I say, “come forward into a plank pose”, especially when students expect me to keep them there for a while.
But plank pose is important. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the number one strengthening pose that prepares the body for arm balances and inversions. It also helps us develop a strong core, which is essential to protecting the often beleaguered lower back. The legs come into play in a big way too – so basically it’s a one stop shop for full body strengthening.
Unfortunately, plank is an easy pose to cheat. Especially in flow or vinyasa practices where you literally pass through plank on your way to other things. So much of finding correct alignment in poses time after time is muscle memory – but if we don’t spend some good quality time with plank pose, our muscles never get a chance to learn what the correct alignment is. The two main issues I see with plank are 1. collapse in the core/lower back – this kind of looks like a hybrid plank/upward dog and 2. butts high in the air in a kind of hybrid plank/downward dog.
I, myself, used to be an offender of the latter variation until a teacher (who was awesome and I still miss her) came over and sat on my butt until it was in the correct place. “Hey!” I said, somewhere between annoyed and laughing, what’d you do that for?? She replied, “Stop cheating plank – I know you can do it correctly. Stop doing yourself a disservice!” Touche. Grumbling, I noticed that my newly realigned pose didn’t feel anything like the “plank” I had been doing a minute ago and, when I came back up into the pose with the best of intentions, I really had to stop myself from doing it the way I had been before she sat on me. That, my friends, is the power of muscle memory.
Now, I don’t make too much of a habit of sitting on my students unless I know them really really well, so I needed to come up with another way to help them find the optimal plank alignment. My eureka moment came when I was practicing a version of balancing table/half plank with the foot on the ground to strengthen my hamstrings. When I was correctly aligned in the pose, I was basically doing plank with my upper body and half my lower body. My hips were even, my core and leg muscles were engaged and my butt was where it was supposed to be. All I needed to do was add my other leg in and *tada* there was my plank pose. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly closer than it used to be.
The key is to set up the alignment as much as possible in the first pose (half plank) before you raise the other leg and bear all of your weight. Ideally, your hips are even, your core is engaged, your tail bone is long, your heel is reaching back and down and your thighbone energetically reaches for the ceiling. Then with as little disturbance to the body as possible, raise your lowered leg (the one with the knee down in the half plank) to meet the other. Depending on how you’ve been practicing the pose, you might find yourself in a very different plank than you are used to. It’s important to hold the new plank pose for at least a few breaths at a time to cultivate new muscle memory.
Of course if you hold it too long, say for a photo, this might happen… 🙂
“But Annie,” you say, “Holding plank is the worst thing ever and makes my wrists hurt. Is there a way to work on plank alignment without actually doing plank?”
I’m glad you asked that – yes there is. Once again, we turn to my favorite yoga prop, the wall.
Stand an arms length away from the wall. Press your hands into the wall at shoulder height with your arms straight (watch for hyper extension). From here, you can work on strengthening the shoulders, engaging your core and your legs and tucking your tailbone under. The alignment isn’t exactly the same (your feet would be floating off the floor in tradition plank) but it’s definitely a good start.
Is there a pose you hate but you know it’s good for you? Did you ever have an alignment aha moment about a pose you’d be doing forever that changed how you approach it? Let us know in the comments!