Updated: Nov 14
Have you ever worried if you do it "right", have "proper" alignment, or have gone "deep" enough in a yoga class? I admit, there are a lot of "" in that sentence. This is because the question of alignment, and how yoga poses are supposed to be executed and look like, deserves reflection and evaluation.
Merriam Webster tells me that alignment is: the proper positioning or state of adjustment of parts in relation to each other. For our yoga poses, this means how we position our different body parts to create the shape and feel of the pose. But what is "proper"? Our perception of different asanas is formed by the books, pictures, and teachings of masters like BKS Iyengar. By the posts of Instagram celebrities with seemingly endless flexibility and strength. By the rules of yoga competitions. It is some sort of ideal we strive for.
It is easy to get carried away with trying to achieve this ideal. I remember a yoga workshop where a yoga teacher pulled and pushed and prodded my body to get it into a position it clearly didn't want to go into. Until I resisted. This is exactly the number one mistake to avoid when working on alignment: Don't ignore your own body (nor your students'/clients' bodies). One of my favourite yoga quotes is from another yoga master, Vanda Scaravelli who said: "Don't sacrifice the wisdom of the body for the glory of the pose."
Every body is unique
There are two aspects to alignment in a yoga pose:
Functional. Functional alignment means working with the natural movement patterns and biomechanics of your body. It is less concerned with how a pose looks but how to work with your body's unique composition and way of movement.
Aesthetic. Aesthetic alignment is primarily concerned with the look of poses, and compliance to certain standards. An example would be the premise that in Warrior 3 the hips stay absolutely level. There is nothing wrong with that, as long as you keep respecting your body.
Alignment has to be a flexible concept which offers a goal (rather than an absolute goalpost) to work towards, based on an understanding of your own body. It is about finding the safest way of experiencing the benefits of a pose. With the help of alignment, you can reduce the risk of injury while at the same time challenge yourself and expand your abilities. It includes variations and modifications of yoga poses to suit your body, experience and ambition.
5 points for approaching alignment in yoga
To summarize, keep these 5 points in mind when you do your next yoga practice and try to "improve" your alignment.
No pain! Anywhere at any time. If there is pain, stop doing what you are doing and return to a neutral position like standing, sitting or lying down.
Observe. As you follow the instructions and demonstrations of your yoga teacher, observe how your body reacts. Use this as an opportunity to learn about your body. Note what works and what doesn't. Speak to your teacher to discuss questions and get feedback.
Find balance. Can you create a balance between effort and ease? Is there a way of staying in the pose in a more relaxed way? No gritted teeth please.
Keep breathing. Can you keep your breathing steady? Aim for regular, deep breaths. Stay with the natural rhythm of your own breath rather than following your teacher's rhythm or counting.
Transitions. Coming safely and economically in and out of a yoga pose is as important as staying in the pose itself. Practice transitions as you would practicing a pose.
For yoga home yoga practices which focus on alignment as well as joyful, mindful movement, join the YogaVita community. Try one of my YouTube videos.
"It is through the alignment of the body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence.” (BKS Iyengar)