Stacking of joints, lines of energy, lengthening the spine, all of these phrases are common to yoga classes across the country. Some teachers use props to help students get into the best possible alignment. Other teachers don’t seem to care at all what students poses look like. Does it make a difference? “Why does alignment matter?”
First, let’s define alignment – The precise way in which the body should be positioned in each yoga pose in order to obtain the maximum benefit from the pose and avoid injury. An example: The proper alignment for cat-cow stretch is to have the shoulders over the wrists and the knees over the ankles.
Alignment is important. It keeps the body safe, it allows the energy to flow within the body, and enables us to enjoy our practice with fluidity and ease. Meaghan and I like to say “Alignment is like the canyon walls that provide the channel for the river to flow.”Energy moves through the body most effectively when our body is aligned optimally with precision. If you do a standing forward bend and you shift your hips back behind your ankles, then you can potentially hyper-extend and damage your knees. There are countless other examples of how poor alignment can lead to yoga injuries and there is no doubt that good alignment prevents injuries.
Although some alignment principles are universal, they can be adapted. Note that each yoga style has its own take on alignment and here is where it can get confusing for students. If you are new to yoga, this can become overwhelming when you are told one thing by one instructor and something completely different from another. Beginning to understand which alignment principles are universal will help sure up some confusion. Also, if you receive contradicting instruction, then it may be necessary to ask for clarification.
Here are some alignment principles to keep in mind in any style of hatha yoga: Align the base of the posture first and foremost. For example, placing the feet properly in standing poses will prevent placing undo stress on the knees and hips. Stack and stabilize the joints, keeps these mobile places in the body safe and supported.Always utilize the breath when entering and exiting the poses. It is during our transitions that we are most likely to get injured. When we hold our breath, the tension/pressure in the body builds and there is no release valve other than physical locations in the body, which is a recipe for potential injury. The yoga practice is meant to help us experience joy and freedom. Injury, albeit a great teacher, is not the direct path to finding the happiness that yoga brings.
Now that we understand that alignment is important, and what principles are universal, is there anything else that we should know? Yes. Understanding what the alignment will accomplish will determine how or why it is taught, and bring understanding to why some alignment principles vary on a case-by-case basis.Incorporating the universal principles for safety we can explore poses and make adaptations to achieve different results. For example we can align in triangle pose with a wider stance to increase the stretch for the legs and bring the bottom hand closer to the floor. When students and teachers know what they are attempting to accomplish with a given pose, then the proper alignment becomes clear.The “perfect” pose is the pose that best suits the needs of the person doing the pose at that moment.
Alignment is important – but not alignment for alignment’s sake. Alignment is a tool that we use to produce particular results. Remember, it is the results that we value, not the tool. Trying to to perform postures the “right way” is confusing the ends and the means of the practice. Saying that every body should be in the same alignment is like using a hammer for every household need. Using a hammer to tack in a nail to hang a picture is effective. Using a hammer to sweep the kitchen floor is not a great idea. In the same way, you may well have had a powerful experience or resolved a postural issue as a result of aligning a pose in a particular way, but that’s not to say that specific alignment is the most beneficial way for everybody to practice the pose. Yoga is, after all, a path of self discovery and uncovering. May we all enjoy the journey safely.