We hear the term “alignment” all the time in yoga class, but what, exactly, does it mean? Here are five misconceptions about alignment that still need straightening out.
Merriam-Webster says that “to align” means ‘to place in a straight line or correct relative positions.’ And it seems like a harmless enough term – indeed, it sounds a lot like what many yoga teachers actually do: they line up the arms and legs and torsos and necks until their students’ postures (asanas) look “correct.”
So what could be wrong with “alignment” as a concept? It’s just a word, after all – no more or less weighted than any used to define the hard-to-capture practice of performing yogic postures for health, well-being, and self transformation. Unfortunately, the way many students – and even some teachers – interpret this concept; it can sometimes wind up doing more harm than good.
Below are the five most common misconceptions about yogic alignment – and some suggestions on how you can reframe the concept for yourself – and make your practice more joyful, effective, sensual and satisfying.
You were born with perfect symmetrical alignment but through behavior and environmental conditions, you lost it.
This is one of the most common misconceptions in yoga: we used to have perfect symmetry, and if we hadn’t injured ourselves, or succumbed to the conveniences and comforts of modern life, perfect alignment and flexibility would come naturally and a more ‘advanced’ yoga practice would be within our grasp. In other words, we only have ourselves to blame for any limitations in our yoga practice.
The truth, however, is that we are born asymmetrical: one leg is longer, one arm is stronger; the liver is off to one side, while the heart is skewed toward the other side and the right lung is larger than the left. And, of course, everyone writes with a dominant hand, sees more clearly through a dominant eye, and kicks more forcefully with a dominant foot. However, we do not go to bed off balance and we do not feel out of alignment just because we brushed our teeth with our right hand and did not switch to our left half way through.
Certainly, life experiences, mood and behavior affect the tone of your muscles and your physical posture for both good and ill. But winning the genetic lottery of inheritance plays a far bigger role in determining alignment, flexibility, and our capacity for performing the most acrobatic or extreme yoga postures than most practitioners believe. Some children are able to touch their feet to their head behind their backs virtually from birth; others will never be able to. Some rank beginners wander into a yoga class and pull off a deep backbend pose like upward bow (full wheel) on their first day, while some lifetime yogis simply cannot.
When you realize everybody’s alignment is unique, your yoga practice shifts. You stop seeing the poses as idealized linear shapes that you try to achieve, but as tools for learning and moving towards a deeper level of self-understanding and acceptance. Rather than making corrections, you start making more energetic connections. You no longer use your body to get into a pose, but instead use the pose to get into your body.
There is a perfect posture waiting to be mastered.
Throw all this natural misalignment and asymmetry into a yoga pose and it becomes clear that ‘perfection’, in human form, is an illusion. In every yogi, in every asana, bone eventually comes into contact with bone, and no yoga teacher in the world – no amount of chanting, visualization, or deep breathing – will get you any deeper. At that point, whether or not you’ve achieved an asana worthy of the cover of next month’s issue of the Yoga Journal is determined almost entirely by the shape of your bones, your genetics.
The best any of us can do is create an individual interpretation of each pose – our own expression of the asana, like a musician’s take on a well-known song. Yo Yo Ma may play “Ode to Joy” in a way few can match, but your nine year-old niece’s interpretation of the same song might bring tears to your eyes because of her commitment, enthusiasm and generosity of spirit. We can find lots to appreciate in both versions.
When you’re not in proper alignment you will ultimately hurt or injure yourself.
When you’re talking about the interrelated parts of a machine, the term “alignment” makes perfect sense. Aligning your tires, for example, prevents accidents, prolongs the life of the tires, and makes your car function better.
Many yoga teachers make the same claim about the human body, however, often using the very same language: Our bodies are like machines, they suggest; they work better and last longer when all the separate pieces are properly aligned. Well, do they? In a sense, we’ll never know. Perfect, mechanical alignment doesn’t happen in the body – any body. Bodies are not constructed in straight lines but in curves: blood vessels snake languorously through the body, and bones and teeth contact one another on surfaces that are invariably convex or concave. Try standing relaxed with your feet together – as in mountain pose – and close your eyes. What do you notice? Even mountain pose is a balancing posture requiring countless tiny, moment-to-moment adjustments among many opposing asymmetrical forces.
A 1994 study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that 82% of people experiencing no low-back pain actually showed signs of disc bulges and herniations. The point? The vast majority of us go through life quite happily and comfortably ‘misaligned’ – as literal embodiments of the Japanese term “wabi sabi’ – beautifully imperfect.
Injuries do occur in yoga classes, mostly in the soft tissue of the knees, ankles, shoulders, and lower back. But it’s unlikely that they result from ‘imperfect’ alignment, which varies widely from one body to another. More likely, these injuries occur because people ignore the signals their bodies are sending them about what is safe and what is not safe for them – and may not ever be – and instead try to push themselves to achieve an idealized version of an asana that their body is not ready to perform.
When we practice poses with proper alignment, energy flows freely throughout the body.
Many practitioners believe that when you perform a pose with perfect alignment, something semi-magical happens: Energy (prana) effortlessly flows through your torso and extremities. Your nervous system lights up like a Christmas tree. All obstacles to the flow of energy are entirely removed.
In practice, the opposite is true: you go into a pose in order to create an obstacle to the flow of prana. Stretch a muscle, twist your spine, or bend a joint near its end range, and blood and lymph inevitably have a harder time circulating. All you have to do is spend a few minutes in virtually any pose to prove the point: no matter how perfectly aligned your outer form appears, certain areas of your body eventually become numb.
Come out of the pose, however, and prana gushes into your extremities like water through an unkinked hose.
Think of a yoga posture, then, as a constraint for the flow of prana – a crimp in the energetic hose – and think of a yoga class as a series of challenges for your capacity to remain equanimous even when obstacles are present. Can you keep breathing, extending your awareness, activating your hands, feet, fingers and toes, even when you start to tire, even when your muscles are shaking a little, even when you really want to come out of the pose? A yoga class is a pranic ‘obstacle course’ which you can eventually learn to negotiate with more and more ease and mastery. Learning the subtle art of keeping calm and balanced even in the face of difficulty is a powerful lesson – and one with profound implications outside the yoga studio as well.
There are universal principles of alignment that are good for every body.
Don’t let your front knee travel in front of your toes in lunging poses or you’ll hurt your knee! How many times have you heard this? Probably enough so that you carefully avoid it – never realizing that both knees travel in front of your toes in any yoga squat. Whoever came up with this rule clearly never noticed, either.
Another common one: Keep your elbows close to your body in chaturanga dandasana (yoga push-up) or you’ll hurt your shoulders!
For some people, that’s true. But depending on the architecture of the shoulder joint, the elbows-in position can also cause more inflammation and pain than an elbows-out position.
The natural asymmetry and variation of the human body makes it very tough to come up with universal rules that always apply to every body, all the time. Ask five yoga teachers for a detailed description of how to perform triangle pose (trikonasana) and you’ll get five subtly different answers. Inevitably, each responds based on a backlog of experience, which they’ve found to be effective for themselves and perhaps their students as well. But no description will always work perfectly for every-‘body’, no matter how eloquent or perceptive the teacher: It’s why there are a couple dozen different common styles of hatha yoga, and over 5,000 yoga studios in the US alone. Every teacher has insight and inspiration, and every teacher has blind spots.
Those of us who practice and teach yoga are like the blind men in the fable who describe the elephant in a different way depending on which part of the animal they’re touching. None of us are wrong, exactly – indeed, all of us have a firm grasp on some part of the truth. But no single teacher can wrap his or her arms around the whole practice, or perceive the whole truth within each and every student.
In a sense that’s what makes yoga an exciting and dynamic art, and not a finite, fully-graspable science – it’s an expression of an individual in space and time, not a playing out of a set of principles which are inherently limited and predictable.
In truth, the human body itself is the most effective and perceptive teacher in the yoga room – and the best yoga teachers themselves understand that. Their teaching is as much inside-out as it is outside-in: they guide their students towards the awareness of sensations associated with each asana more often than they stage a pose for students to copy. The most masterful yoga teachers, therefore, aren’t necessarily the ones who can achieve the most impressive-looking yoga poses but the ones who can speak the language of sensation most clearly and vividly: Feel your chest opening towards the floor and notice your hamstrings lengthening in downward dog; sense your upper arms near your ears in warrior one and observe your top hip rotating backward in triangle pose. Approached like this, any inappropriate competitiveness or overreaching dissipates, and a class becomes a simple, joyful and sensual exploration rather than a “posture race.”
Many high-profile master teachers from disciplines like voice, music and movement long ago recognized the effectiveness of this kind of teaching – with across-the-board impressive results. In his book The Use and Training of the Human Voice, the late Arthur Lessac compares the phonation of each letter to the playing of an instrument in an orchestra, complete with instructions on the feelings that occur while you ‘play’ each one – and almost nothing about how each is supposed to sound. Similarly, Australian musician Neil Moore, founder of a method for music instruction called “Simply Music”, doesn’t even start to teach music theory or reading notes at all until a student has been playing for almost a year, instead teaching piano by breaking down songs into easily repeatable physical images and patterns. And teachers of the Feldenkrais Method take a wholly inside-out approach to movement re-education, verbally guiding students through increasingly complex and challenging movements, using precise details on how each movement feels, never telling or showing students what action or physical pattern they are trying to master until they have discovered it entirely for themselves.
It’s a rare but invaluable yoga teacher who can pull this off, but the best ones put you so “in your body” that even a challenging yoga sequence can become as joyful and expressive as a jazz improv: loose but controlled, disciplined but fully in the moment. Students who experience this feeling – either by working with a great teacher or by discovering it on their own – will not only have a juicier time practicing, but will experience tremendous growth as well. It’s the great, paradoxical lesson of yoga, and one that most of us need to learn again and again: that it is only when we let go of our ambition to improve, and silence the insistent voices that urge us towards some illusionary plane of perfection, that real transformation actually occurs.