Within the yoga community there is a big question of whether or not yoga alignment is important. When you look at the body from a functional perspective, how the body moves can make or break a person’s health and harmony on all levels. Seeing value in alignment has nothing to do with creating rigidity and mimicking a yoga pose by what the picture in the manual says. Sadly, too many yoga teacher trainings are led this way. What is important is to understand the mechanics of how the body actually moves and what the pose is trying to do for us, rather than trying to look like the pose.
In a yoga pose, if the foot is rotated just a few degrees this may cause knee pain. A person may blame the yoga pose rather than admit a lack of body awareness and proper alignment. When someone’s back hurts in Cobra pose that may be a lack of understanding the role of the core and positioning of the pelvis (and they are probably hanging in their shoulders).
Of the many reasons why you should pay attention to how the body moves, here my top three reminders about alignment. These staples are taught in my yoga classes as foundational building blocks. They can assist students in cultivating more body awareness as well as develop a better understanding of movement as well as the value yoga provides the body off the mat.
- The foot bone is connected to the neck bone. Say what? Yes, everything is interconnected. We are not separate. Each muscle may have a specific name but we are really one big unit made up of building blocks. All the individual blocks make the tower, house or castle. Standing in Mountain Pose unaware that your feet are heavily rotated outward or that one foot is more forward than the other or that you have collapsed arches may cause pain, discomfort or frustration. Unfortunately, alignment awareness has to start with you. And it’s not so much the alignment of our postures but rather the alignment of our body’s and then our body’s in postures (see the difference). In addition, your teacher must also have this awareness because he/she is the one (hopefully) who will assist you in cultivating alignment in yourself. So, when you hit the mat or go for a run you will be able to notice your alignment for yourself.
- Just because your body goes that way doesn’t mean it belongs that way. Our bodies are pulled or moved in directions that they shouldn’t. And, when it comes to yoga, sometimes teachers may be too lax with their cues like move deeper into the pose. I myself have used this cue in the past and then started to ask myself what does that exactly imply? For many students, deeper means to go as far as they can and many times at a cost. To me, going deeper means that you need to find where your body doesn’t move and navigate your way there. The deeper you are thinking of (like in a deep lunge) is probably already over stretched and weak. Where you need that deep stretch is where your body doesn’t go–where there is more restriction, where the ego feels you are too beginner-like. Far too many yogis have injuries that may have come from their own yoga practice. Finding ways to release the tight spots will serve you in the long run, not only for a better, more quality pose, but your body off the mat as well.
- Knowing the purpose of the pose provides benefits off the mat too. Why do you tell your students to keep their front knee in Warrior II from falling inward? Is there a reason for that? What are they cultivating when they pull it open? What areas of the body should they be using to do this–is the big toe is coming off the floor and the belly spilling forward? I cue to aid alignment one place and then another area of the body goes awry. Forcing our bodies (or our student’s bodies) into shapes that they are not capable of simply because yoga is supposed to be good for you will not only cause harm but frustration for the student. I remind my students continually that all of our joints are set differently, some deeper and some more shallow which makes some of us have greater ease in poses like squats and warriors. Understanding functional movement can help us realize the purpose of alignment. It’s not to look like the cover of Yoga Journal Magazine (which isn’t realistic for the majority of the population) but to help us see beyond the pose itself and teach us about off-the-mat body awareness.
Alignment is a blueprint – a path to follow. The reality is that in yoga, we are teaching specific poses. But as a teacher, there needs to be greater dialogue to help all of our students understand what they are doing and why. Once I started doing that, it was not only easier to teach my students, but the students started taking what they learned with me on the mat and applied it to their running, biking, walking, sitting, and other activities–with huge success. They did so not because they understand yoga but because they understand the functional purpose of alignment and why it matters.