What’s in this article?
- What is alignment?
- Where did yoga alignment come from?
- Alignment in styles of yoga
- Why think about alignment?
- Will the “right” yoga alignment solve our posture challenges?
- When alignment isn’t what we expect
- When to consider not making a change
- Four elements of yoga alignment
- Is yoga “safer” if everything is in alignment?
- Some examples of alignment ideas to unpack
- Other poses where yoga alignment cues are common
- It all comes back to teaching to the individual
Alignment in yoga is a popular topic of discussion. It seems everyone has an idea of what the “right” way to do a pose is. That right way is often framed with the idea of alignment. Additionally, many yoga students and teachers have an idea that alignment is related to safety or reducing injuries in some way. But, is that really true? In this article, I want to dive more deeply into this concept of yoga alignment. Let’s break down this concept and then put it back together with some examples of where it’s relevant and where we might be off track.
What is alignment?
Alignment, most generally, refers to how we arrange our body position in relation to gravity. Alignment, conceptually, is not good or bad. It’s just a description of how we are arranged in space. We have a default alignment that we hold as our body position when we’re doing daily tasks. That’s the position that we assume without thinking about it. We can also refer to alignment that we intentionally try to achieve when doing some specific activity. For example, that might include the way we organize our body to do a dance move, shoot a basketball, or do a yoga posture.
Where did yoga alignment come from?
Where did the concept of yoga alignment come from? It seems most likely to me that it originated from the Iyengar approach to yoga. BKS Iyengar’s book, Light on Yoga, first came out in 1966 and his approach to asana was one of the earliest ones that made it to the West. My teacher, John Scott, described the Iyengar approach to yoga asana as a function-follows-form approach. That is, in his perspective, Iyengar yoga emphasized lining up parts of the body to create an idealized form of each asana, with the understanding that practitioners would experience the function or action of the pose in deeper ways as they practiced over time. Practitioners supported themselves with props as needed to achieve the ideal form.
Alignment in styles of yoga
That approach is different than the Ashtanga style, which John described as a form-follows-function approach. Students in the Ashtanga style were encouraged to allow their pose to be a bit “messier” and prioritize the action or function (opening tissues and creating flexibility) of the pose over the initial form. This was with the understanding that as the student progressed over time, their body would arrive at something closer to the ideal form. Other styles of yoga tend to fall somewhere in between these two approaches to yoga alignment.
Both of these approaches to yoga are valid, and neither is better than the other. If our ultimate intention in the broader sense of Yoga is to unite the small self with the larger consciousness, then the form we use to arrive there is kind of arbitrary. If you know me, then I’m for what works. That said, asana is a physical practice and we are doing yoga asana in physical bodies. So it makes sense that establishing how to do that most effectively and with the least injury or harm to ourselves and our students is a worthy discussion.
Why think about alignment?
How we align ourselves in gravity affects the pressure on our joints and on our tissues. It affects what we feel. With respect to yoga specifically, our alignment affects whether we feel a stretch sensation, whether we feel balanced, and how hard we have to work to hold a pose. So from that place, “good” yoga alignment supports our experience of a pose. That includes alignment directions that reduce potential injuries, and increase stability and ease of breath. What that looks like in practice is specific to each person and their situation.
Check your anatomy
Where it starts to get tricky is often not in the idea of alignment itself, it’s in two issues. One issue is the specific things that have arisen as part of a yoga-community-wide telephone game, that get passed along as the “right” way to do a pose, but are not actually based on any anatomical reality. If the direction we’re intending is itself the result of fuzzy logic then we’re sending students toward a dead end.
Use clear cues
The second issue is the verbal cues that are often used to send students in a particular direction with their practice. To really wrap our heads around when and how to use ideas of yoga alignment well, it’s important that we distinguish alignment ideas from the verbal cues (often somewhat silly ones) that we use. The direction we want to send a student may be a sensible one, but if our cues aren’t translating then the student isn’t going to experience our intention for them.
So, when we’re considering an alignment intention for a student, we need to ask two questions:
- Is the alignment idea based on anatomy and appropriate for this student?
- Does the verbal cue I’m using make sense anatomically and does it make sense to the student?
Verbal cues are necessary. If you’re teaching a led class, how else are you going to speak to the whole group at once? What’s important is to keep verbal cues grounded in anatomical reality. Avoid one-size-fits-all cues that suggest there is only one right way. It’s also important to keep checking in with your students to see if the cues you’re giving are translating into the directions that you’re hoping to convey. What you think is a great verbal cue doesn’t matter if it’s not translating for your students.
As much as possible in a mixed levels group class, we need to tailor verbal cues to the range of individual practitioners. We need to be mindful of beginners that may not have the same range of flexibility or strength as more long-term practitioners. Or, their sense of where they are in space kinesthetically may not be very strong yet. And at the same time, we don’t want to hold students back in a place where they never have the opportunity to challenge themselves. It’s tricky. And many of these generalized “rules of alignment” have arisen out of this need to teach to a range of students all in one class. Some rules of alignment can potentially help beginners practice within a safer range while they’re still evolving their own kinesthetic awareness. So, clear alignment cues can be especially important in those situations.
Will the “right” yoga alignment solve our posture challenges?
Another issue with the concept of alignment that I want to address is the idea that it is somehow magical. By that I mean, I keep hearing versions of an idea that if we just get the right alignment in yoga it will solve all other challenges in the posture and prevent all types of injury. In an idealized world, we all have a right and left side that are in total balance. Our top half and lower half are in balance. Our arm lengths are equal, our pelvis is balanced. All of that is perfect and therefore, we’ll all be in perfect alignment.
But almost none of us live in that place. We have patterns in our bodies from work and activities we do. We’ve had injuries and we have genetic things that create some imbalance in our body. So the ideal of a perfect alignment is unrealistic. Additionally, too much focus on alignment creates this sort of black-and-white, right-and-wrong version of how yoga is supposed to be done, rather than a focus on tailoring yoga practice to each individual.
When alignment isn’t what we expect
As an example, many years ago I had a student who was in downward facing dog and one of her feet was two to three inches forward of the other one. So we started moving her foot back over the course of a five-day practice week. And by the end of day two, her back had gone out. She ascribed that to us changing her feet. I can’t say a hundred percent if that was the reason or not. But there definitely seemed to be some type of connection with that.
When to consider not making a change
Sometimes it is better to leave things out of our idealized version of alignment. Because sometimes where you see the problem is not really where the problem is. What you see is not always the cause, often it’s a symptom. It’s a knock-on effect from something else being out of balance. So keep that in mind. When one thing has caught your eye, step back for a second and take in the whole and see if that thing that’s caught your eye is connected to something else.
Start by observing the person’s actual alignment and then slowly move towards some change. Even better is to ask the question, why? Why is this the way that it is? Is it something that I can change or should change? Is it going to be to their benefit to change it? Or, am I noticing their pose just because it doesn’t fit my idealized version of the posture? It’s an open question. These are much harder questions to ask.
Four elements of yoga alignment
I’ve identified four elements that come together to create what we might refer to as “good alignment.” Those four things are: safety, intention, the practitioner’s body, and the style of yoga practice. Those elements converge to create an idea of what the alignment is supposed to be and/or why you’re choosing to do it.
- We’re trying to create some sense of safety. By that, I mean not letting somebody put their body in a position where they are overstressing something.
- You’re trying to create a particular situation, a sensation like lengthening maybe, or an emphasis in a specific pose for that person.
- Practitioner’s body
- That includes their skill level, kinesthetic sense, history of injuries, how they use their body in their day-to-day life, etc.
- Style of yoga
- Specific styles of yoga sometimes have differing opinions on what a triangle looks like, for example, or how you’re supposed to set up your feet in a particular pose.
Is yoga “safer” if everything is in alignment?
Let’s talk more generally about yoga alignment and safety. Equating the “right” yoga alignment with perfect safety is another of those alignment myths. It’s another idea that I’ve been hearing from students as I travel. Specifically, I mean that I sometimes hear from folks in the yoga community an idea that we can make yoga perfectly safe by using the right alignment. And of course, that just isn’t true. What’s missing in that idea is the understanding that everyone doing yoga is an individual and has an experience unique to that moment. “Safe” is specific to each person. And so is the “right” alignment.
Some examples of alignment ideas to unpack
So, let’s take a couple of examples, to dig further into the kind of broader thinking I’d like to bring to the concept of alignment. I’m going to encourage you to dig deeper into why or why not to suggest a particular alignment. The two examples I want to talk about are tucking the pelvis and bringing the knee over the ankle. Both of these are very popular verbal cues for a particular alignment. So let’s break these down.
Should we tuck the pelvis?
The verbal cue to tuck the pelvis most commonly comes up in utkanasana, sometimes called chair pose. Another version of this same cue is to “tuck the tailbone.” It’s not limited to that posture, though. So, let’s walk through those questions I was posing earlier in this article. First, why are we asking people to tuck their pelvis? What value does this have? What I often hear as a rationale for this cue and its variations are things like: releasing the low back, reducing the arch in the low back, or reducing too much anterior tilt in the pelvis. But, anatomically, do these reasons make sense?
Anatomy of tucking the pelvis
Generally, my answer to the question above is no. Think about it. We do backbends, right? The arch in your low back is maximized at that point. And of course, the lower back is designed to have a curve in it. Certainly, if someone has a very strong lordotic curve in their lumbar spine, then maybe you want to cue them to move towards a bit less curve. But that is specific to an individual, not something I’d recommend to everyone across the board as “right yoga alignment.”
Interestingly, one large source of back pain for us in the West is too much sitting. And what happens when we sit for long periods of time? We tend to reduce the lumbar curve. One reason that happens is that many people don’t sit on the front of their sit bones. They sit right on them or behind them a bit. And over time, that reduces the lumbar curve. So, a suggestion to reduce the lumbar curve might be appropriate for an individual student. But it’s unlikely to be necessary, or even a good idea, for most students, most of the time. And, on the extreme end, if someone already has compression of the vertebral discs at the front of their spine, then reducing the curve in their lumbar spine could even be potentially injurious.
Adding nuance to your cues
So, what do we say in a led class to help that one person in the room who maybe has too strong of a lumbar curve? Maybe you know this because they’ve mentioned that their back hurts or feels crunched when they do a particular posture like utkatasana. So, rather than just parroting what you’ve heard someone else say, consider taking the time to add a few more words and make your cue more nuanced. It could be as simple as something like: “If you feel compression in your lower back, tuck your pelvis a little bit and see if that undoes it.”
Is bringing the knee over the ankle dangerous?
The other yoga alignment idea that I want to unpack in this article is the idea of whether we should take the knee past our ankle in poses like warrior two or side angle. On its surface, it’s one of the yoga alignment cues that sounds good. But, when we dig into it further, I question whether that idea of never taking the knee past the ankle is actually based on sound anatomy concepts.
There’s an idea that I keep hearing from students that someone has told them we should always stack our joints over one another. There’s some sense that we should be transferring weight through our bones and I wouldn’t call that false. But we don’t want to believe that to the point that we forget that we actually have muscles. Muscles add strength. They don’t just create movement, they stabilize. They strengthen joints. They’re designed to do this.
Anatomy of the knee over the ankle
I’ve heard people say that if your knee goes too far forward, it has more force in it. That’s true. Of course, it does. Anecdotally, you knew that already. If you bring your knee back, then that force will transfer into your hip joint. Absolutely that makes perfect sense. The problem is the research that has been done on this where they’re talking about force numbers that cause injury. They’re usually doing research on people who are lifting weights and squatting. In that scenario, that weight is on their shoulders. This is not a one-to-one comparison with somebody being in warrior. So it’s not valid to use that research to say no one should ever take their knee over their ankle in a warrior pose. We have to look at each individual student’s situation.
Distinguishing between forward and inward
Additionally, I want to be clear that I’m talking about the situation of bringing the knee straight over the ankle here. If the knee is falling inward, we have a different situation. In that context, you could reasonably argue that we’re adding shear forces through the knee. In that case, we have a knee joint that is flexed and we’re adding what is basically some medial rotation while we’re weight-bearing. This situation is more concerning and probably something that we generally want to avoid.
Finding nuance in knee over the ankle
Generally, we can be more nuanced about this verbal cue. A total beginner may not have the strength to take their knee out beyond their ankle, past their toes, and hold it there. That could be very stressful for their knee joint. But an advanced student, or somebody with a lot more strength, might be able to do that version of warrior and hold it for 15 minutes. And if we’re seeing students send their knee forward and letting it fall in, then we might want to cue more specifically to keep the knee tracking straight forward. So, how we cue that pose depends on the person doing the yoga and the intention we want to emphasize.
Let’s go back and think of those four elements of alignment. The beginner, from a safety point of view, might not want to take their knee as far forward. It makes sense not to let them go too far past their ankle. With more advanced students you can make an argument that one intention could be to increase strength in the quadriceps. That could be something you recognize that somebody needs. And taking the knee past the ankle will encourage more strength from the quadriceps.
Strict focus on yoga alignment, with cues like, “never take your knee past your ankle in warrior,” could potentially help newer practitioners from overdoing things. But it could also hold more advanced practitioners back in a place where they never reach further to see what’s really available to them. So again, we come back to matching the cue and intention to the specific person who is doing yoga and what they need.
Other poses where yoga alignment cues are common
There are a few other poses where yoga alignment cues are very common. Some of those are: chaturanga, triangle, revolved triangle, upward dog, and downward dog. I’ve written about these in more detail in past articles. But let’s take a brief look at these yoga poses and some of their common alignment cues here as well.
The biggest myth about chaturanga is that there is one single “right” alignment in chaturanga, and if you just do that magical alignment it will solve all of the challenges that chaturanga presents. Common cues that I hear around alignment in chaturanga are that you should stack your elbows over your wrists or that the elbows should be at 90-degree angles. As with many common alignment cues, neither of these cues takes the individual’s body and their relationship to this specific pose into account. In chaturanga, an idea of stacking the joints actually puts more stress on the shoulders and wrists. What’s often more effective is using other postures to develop strength in the key places, especially serratus anterior, using a distance between hands and feet that feels comfortable to the practitioner, and then building up slowly to a practice of more repetitions of chaturanga.
Similarly, a common alignment-related cue that I hear is to stack the hips in triangle. While there may be poses and situations where stacking the joints makes sense, we need to zoom out and look at the whole body before we dive in and start changing things just because they’re not lined up. In a standing pose like triangle, it’s important to take a look at our base, the feet, and whether they are supporting our legs and pelvis in a balanced way before we try to adjust the pelvis at the top of that chain.
With a cue like stacking the hips in triangle, we also need to distinguish between whether this is an intention that we’re working towards, or meant to be literal. In this case, the intention of stacking the hips could go along with a broader intention to lengthen the side body in the pose. But, if we’re very literal about that cue, we might stack our hips at the beginning before we’ve really entered the pose. That can prevent us from allowing our body to explore the shape, which can paradoxically prevent us from accessing the maximum length that’s available when we reach in that stiff, robotic kind of way.
There are many frequently-used yoga alignment cues that I hear for upward dog. Some of those include cues about alignment for your hands, where your elbow creases should point, and ideas about where the shoulders should be in relation to your wrists. And similarly to chaturanga and triangle, I’m less interested in how things line up and more interested in what supports long-term functionality and reduces chances of injury for each individual in their specific body.
In a pose like upward dog, I see a lot of variation in students’ shoulder flexibility which can be expressed by where the elbows end up and which fingers are pointing forward. I tend to coach students to keep their wrists aligned with the front edge of the mat, if they’re going to line something up, since the wrists tend to function best when we allow them to hinge without too much rotation when we are weight-bearing on the hands. But even then, I meet students who need to turn their hands out a little more to accommodate tight shoulders, so I am always checking in with the specific student to see what makes sense for their body.
Like upward dog, I hear many common verbal cues to direct alignment in downward dog. Those include things like lining up the outsides of the feet with the outsides of the mat in downward dog, adjusting the feet in downward dog (dragging them in after flipping the feet when transitioning from upward dog to downward dog), alignment for your hands in downward dog, and whether or not to walk the feet in for downward dog. There might be valid reasons for using any of these cues for a specific student in a particular moment. But there are also good reasons not to use each of these cues.
When it comes to the cue to line the feet up with the outside of the mat, for example, I’m unlikely to use it because I’m more interested in where the knees are pointing since they’re the more vulnerable joint. For some people, pointing the knees straight might also mean that the outsides of the feet are roughly lined up with the outside of the mat, but for most the feet will not line up with the outside of the mat. Similarly, when it comes to placement of the hands, I’m not so interested in where the fingers are pointing. I’m more interested in orienting the wrists, a vulnerable joint in the arm kinetic chain, in a way that they can best hinge forward and backward and distribute force evenly throughout the wrist, since we’re weight-bearing in this pose.
With respect to placing the feet in downward dog, I really don’t see that it matters how you bring them into place, whether you drag them forward from upward dog then flip the feet, or just step them forward. I have the perspective that upward dog and downward dog are two different poses, and there are many good reasons why the distance between our hands and feet might be different between those two poses.
In revolved triangle, I often hear some version of a cue to line up the heel of the front foot with either the heel or instep of the back foot. Like triangle and other standing poses, I think it’s important to remember in this pose that our feet are our base. And what we do with our feet affects what happens in the chain of joints above our feet. So, in the case of revolved triangle, it may work just fine to line up our heels. But, if our hips are more on the tight side, then that alignment may actually create a base that throws off our ability to balance. That’s because if we line up our heels, our base is so narrow that it can prevent us from adapting with our hips above if we don’t have sufficient flexibility in the muscles around our hips.
It all comes back to teaching to the individual
As a teacher, I really want to encourage yoga teachers to stretch beyond just repeating things they’ve heard without examining them first. I’d like to see teachers taking the time to answer some of the why questions in their process of offering direction for students in their practice. I’d like to think that everybody gets into nuance with their students at some point along the journey. But, I don’t typically see that. When I ask teachers and students the “why” of what they’re doing, so often they don’t know.
So, I’d really like teachers to consider why before they offer a cue to their students to change something. What is the intention of the pose? Are we trying to be therapeutic? What system of yoga are we practicing? Who is the student doing the pose? How long have they been practicing and what are their goals? Also, work with the understanding that each individual’s practice will evolve over time. Alignment that is appropriate for a period of time for a particular student may no longer be the right fit after a few years. We have to keep that in mind and consider, does this cue or alignment still have value for this person?