Updated: Jun 22
For many yoga practitioners “alignment” is synonymous with “the best way to practice a pose”. And I know that this perspective has very often been sold to us as the correct way to practice yoga asana, the best way to avoid injuries, and even the means through which we will gain the most benefit from a pose. It's kind of the same "if I get X, then I'll have Y" thinking that we have with a lot of things. In our practice, it's akin to thinking that if we have the perfect meditation posture that looks like a Buddha statue then we will be great meditators. But the body is a complex web, to say the least, and our practice in the large sense often becomes as muddled with ideals and perfectionistic thinking as all of the other parts of life. So this piece aims to break down why alignment-focused yoga/postural practice is limited in its overall efficacy and where alignment in practice is actually most needed.
People can be injured in any movement practice, so what I write here is not an indictment of yoga or even of alignment-based yoga styles. For those who have practiced with me over the years, you know that for many years I considered postural alignment as integral to a well-informed practice. Yes, when we're a novice ourselves or teaching beginners, it's important to have the basic framework of a posture - the width or length of stance, the direction the feet, hips, and shoulders are facing, and an idea of what the general shape of a pose is. But, an over-emphasis on one “best” form of alignment in asana is usually problematic, and more so, an over-emphasis on asana, gymnastic skill-building, and the perfectionism of the body ends up missing the point and potential of the yoga path.
To me, the word bhavana captures the important distinction between physical exercise and yoga practice. Bhavana translates to cultivation, development, or bringing into existence. Some may be familiar with the phrase "metta-bhavana" from our semester exploring the Brahma Viharas. And since it is the law of nature that nothing arises out of emptiness, we are always cultivating - or developing - something. So, what are we cultivating? Are we cultivating the ability to be distracted, to strive, to yearn, to push away, to deny? These are qualities at which we are already so adept and proficient! To realize the path of yoga, we must first develop an appropriate attitude towards practice. This attitude informs right/wise intention which serves as the northern star of our practice.
When “alignment” in yoga asana focuses on specific angles, or clean lines, it often has more to do with aesthetic, geometric, non-individualized cues and perfectionism. Some examples:
(in parsva utkatasana/twisted fierce pose) “Keep your knees together and twist” - for most people often places unnecessary stress on the SI joints and lumbar spine,
“Bend your front knee to 90 degrees” - actually quite difficult for the skeletal shape of most hips, as well as too demanding for some people at certain times in their lives,
(in utthita trikonasana/triangle) “square your hips to the side/front of the room" - unless you're made of gum, generally not possible for anyone's body for poses where one leg is forward and one leg is behind.
Individual Anatomic Variation
Anatomy is neither as angular, nor as general as we might think. Evolutionarily speaking, human anatomy is functional, not aesthetic. Functional means allowing us to perform the necessary tasks to sustain life (not necessarily asana). Human anatomy is also more variable than most of us are taught. This variability shows up in our bones, and therefore in our joint shapes. It also shows up in the qualities of our connective tissue.
Connective tissue is largely responsible for whether one is “flexible” or “inflexible”. Your connective tissue type is genetically set. What’s more, your joints and soft tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc) differ from the person nearest you, even if that person is a family member.
What about the well-known Ashtanga yoga founder Pattabhi Jois saying, “practice and all is coming”? When applied to asana, this implies that anyone can achieve a stretchy state or shape if they try hard enough and long enough. Genetics says otherwise. And while we're here, hyper-specific alignment cues in a group setting deny the heterogeneity of the human body and are inherently ableist. You can be/become a seasoned and advanced yoga practitioner and use a wheelchair, or be recovering from an injury, or require any number of adaptive strategies that differ from the "ideal" in the body. At the very least, as we age and move through life, our bodies change along with our needs. Some poses become easier, while some slip away. That's ok.
Mechanics vs. Biology
Many asana alignment ideas are based in a mechanical model of the human body: one that views joints as mostly rigid hinges and tissue as pliable as we will it to be. However, the body is biological, not (only) mechanical, and biologic systems (living creatures) are so much more complex than our anatomic parts. Human movement is governed by a combination of measurable mechanical components (joints, tissues, muscles) and forces, and at least as much by less visible systems like our psychology, our nervous system, pain signals, and our level of fatigue.
The big question is: how does “alignment”, the idea of making specific shapes with our joints for a few minutes at a time (or less), fit in to the complex interwoven reality of a living organism?
Alignment as a Substitute for Safety
The idea existing in yoga land “If I am aligned, I’ll be safe,” is a massive oversimplification of our complex biology.
Due to the inherent variability present in the human body at any given time (structure, hydration, energy/fatigue, strength, etc.), alignment, put simply, will not keep you “safe”. There are many often taught and generally accepted alignment instructions that are potentially harmful. Safety depends on many other factors that exist outside of yoga asana, or at least outside of a group yoga teacher’s ability to assess within any given class.
Style by Style
Another component of alignment is how it can differ drastically between yoga styles, and even between teachers within a yoga style. Pilates, dance, and other disciplines which, at this point, are deeply cross-pollinated with how yoga asana is presented also bring their own ideals.
This can confuse yoga students, and/or create silo thinking , like “This style is right” or “This style is wrong”. But who has the authority to say there is one right or wrong in alignment?
The idea that there is one right way to move or hold a pose is, again, ableist as well as reductionist and counter to movement science fundamentals. In addition to the vast differences in human bodies, there’s the fact that bodies move best when they have options.
The human body benefits most from variety: in movement, in posture, and yes, in poses we practice on the mat. This is why repetitive stress injuries, like elbow, wrist and shoulder tendonitis, SI joint instability, chronic low back and neck pain, and labrum injuries to the hip are so common in enthusiastic yoga practitioners (for whom the phrase "I practice yoga every day" means daily vigorous vinyasa).
Avoiding movements, which is often thought to make us safer, may be a necessary short-term strategy for healing a specific tissue injury, but can reduce our capacity over time. For example, rounding the spine is necessary for many functional tasks, like tying our shoes, sitting, and more. Rounding the spine is not a problem - it is one of the spine's main movements - rounding the spine continuously over a long period of time without also extending, laterally flexing, and twisting the spine becomes a problem. But many yoga instructors discourage rounding the back when reaching for our toes, and this habit on the mat can spill over into the lives of yoga practitioners off the mat as avoidance of rounding. Ultimately this leads to more problems.
It’s also totally ok to have your preference, to enjoy one style of yoga, or one style’s alignment cues, over another. For some, the detail of alignment-based classes will enhance focus. For others, the undulations of a flow class encourage a deeper level breath awareness.
Poses can be included in a practice for any number of intended outcomes. Teachers may teach bridge pose, for example, with an emphasis on:
core or gluteal awareness
chest & shoulder opening
or, frankly, anything at all
Peak poses, for example, are strategic in a class sequence. If a peak pose is novel to students, it can be hugely beneficial to give specific alignment cuing leading up to a pose where you “put all the pieces together.” This is not a wrong use of alignment. It is targeted to an end result.
The challenge is thinking we ALWAYS have to take on the pose in the same way every time over many years, and that our practice must always be focused on alignment.
A more effective way to practice asana
Instead of focusing on what a posture looks like or where the posture is happening, let's turn our attention inward (and for teachers, start to prioritize this) to how a pose feels : what the the sensations of the body are, how the breath is shifting, and what is happening to our awareness.
So, instead of saying "bend your front knee to 90 degrees" in virabhadrasana 2/warrior 2, consider using invitational language ("consider" or "try" or "play with") and instead cueing or paying attention to the possible actions and counter-actions of a pose to highlight your intended purpose, while ultimately de-emphasizing the shape. Some examples of how I language this:
in virabhadrasana 2/warrior 2, "press down into your big toe mound as you hug the outer hip in - do you notice how this sends the outer knee laterally towards the pinky edge of the foot?"
in setu bhandasana/bridge pose, "root into the feet, and feel the hamstrings and glutes engage to lift the hips. Let's play with this - how does it feel to really squeeze the outer hips enough to take the knees wide? And how does it feel to release the outer hip and engage the lowest fibers of the glutes as you roll the inner thighs down?"
in dolphin pose with hands interlaced, "press the forearms into the mat, push the knuckles towards the top of your mat, and try hugging the upper outer arms in while lifting the front ribs away from the floor to broaden the middle back"
These examples aim to empower practitioners to develop confidence, and ultimately to feel more at home in their bodies. They also teach us how to engage within a posture, rather than hanging into the joints and adding stress to the most vulnerable soft tissues for a yogi, the attachment points of muscles to bones - the tendons.
Keeping an eye on the big picture
Just this week, I overheard a newer teacher talking about why he stopped the class to clarify the difference between Baptist-style "flip dog" and wild-thing/camatkrasana (a marginal difference of either one or both legs bent). As he explained to a student after class, it had nothing to do with the purpose of the pose for the sequence, but so that they would all be doing the pose he instructed them to do, because that's important to him.
This still makes me cringe.
What delineates yoga teachers (and a yoga class) from group-fitness instructors (and a fitness class) is intention. Why do we come to a practice like yoga when we begin? What do we hope to gain from increased flexibility or strength?
At the heart, we come to yoga to learn to be at ease with ourselves, with our relationships, with our bodies. We come to reconnect to miraculous unfolding of our breath, to feel deeply embodied, to be slow, and to care. These intentions are rooted in the compassion that we all carry for ourselves in this unpredictable, ungovernable world of existence. To me, this intention is what effective teachers align to. Their styles and deliveries might vary drastically, but the core wisdom and understanding of the aim of the yogic practice is consistent.
How we do this as teachers & practitioners
My fellow teacher, Julie Baron, and I received a lot of laughs and eye rolls with our constant answer of "it depends" during the last teacher training we offered together. We want the world to be black and white, for there to be a right and wrong answer, for someone - finally - to give us the key. Yet, eventually we come to recognize that the how in this practice is the what. It's more subtle and it's a little more effort to teach because of that, but, in my experience, a so much more enduring, sustainable and transferable way to approach practice.
actively give yourself and your students the agency to play, to experiment, and to try different angles within a pose
use invitational, conversational language (with yourself and others) such as, "reach your arm alongside your ear. From the shoulder blade, now to try rotating the pinky edge of the hand down and feel what it feels like. Can you reach longer? Is there more space? Does this bring more tension or more ease to the neck?"
focus on actions & counteractions instead of angles. For example in warrior 2/virabhdrasana 2, "drop the root of the front thigh down as you lift the front hip point away."
Invite students to improvise! Encourage people to linger in a pose longer, to skip, to modify, and to find what works for them on that day. Remind them that this is not only ok, but the shortest route to an advanced practice.
encourage the practice of continually checking for tension. If there is tension in the body, there is tension in the mind - and is that what we want to cultivate?