For many yoga practitioners “alignment” is synonymous with “the best way to practice a pose for injury prevention”.
But this perspective is strange for a practice that is considered fundamentally healthy.
Why are so many of us so motivated to turn our toes to a certain angle by the fear of injury from yoga?
People can be injured in any movement practice, so the following is not an indictment of yoga or even of alignment-based yoga styles. A focus on alignment may also have more esoteric reasons, including training breath and mind, which this post will not be able to cover. But an over-emphasis on one “best” form of alignment in asana can be problematic. Here’s a rough outline of why that is the case.
When “alignment” in yoga asana focuses on specific angles, or clean lines, it often has more to do with aesthetic, geometric, non-individualized cues and perfectionism.
- “Lengthen the spine, lift the heart” (poetic cuing, but aesthetic unless needed for a backbend, and can cause individuals to contract their spinal muscles unnecessarily outside of a backbend),
- “Bend your front knee to 90 degrees” (hyper-geometric, actually quite difficult for the skeletal shape of most hips – potentially harmful),
- (in a supine twist) “Stack your knees on top of one another while keeping both shoulder blades on the floor” (based on 90 degree angles and does not recognize that for most of us, our bones and other important tissue limit this shape for a reason)
Individual Anatomic Variation
Anatomy is neither as angular, nor as generalizable as we might think.
Evolutionarily speaking, human anatomy is functional, not aesthetic. Functional means allowing us to perform the necessary tasks to sustain life (not necessarily asana).
Human anatomy is also more variable than most of us are taught. This variability shows up in our bones, and therefore in our joint shapes. It also shows up in the qualities of our connective tissue.
Connective tissue is largely responsible for whether one is “flexible” or “inflexible”. Your connective tissue type is genetically set.
What’s more, your joints and soft tissue (muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc) differ from the person nearest you, even if that person is a family member.
“Practice and all is coming”, when applied to asana, implies that anyone can achieve a stretchy state or shape if they try hard enough and long enough. Genetics says otherwise.
Hyper-specific alignment cues in a group setting deny the heterogeneity of the human body and are inherently ableist. (We wrote about how there is no such thing as a Universal Alignment previously.)
Mechanics vs. Biology
Many asana alignment ideas are based in a mechanical model of the human body: one that sees joints as hinges, and tissue as pliable at will.
The body is biological, not (only) mechanical.
Biologic systems (living creatures) are so much more complex than our anatomic parts. Human movement is governed by a combination of measurable mechanical components (joints, tissues, muscles) and forces, and at least as much by less visible systems like our psychology, our nervous system, pain signals, and our level of fatigue.
The big question is: how does “alignment”, the idea of making specific shapes with our joints for a few minutes at a time (or less), fit in to the complex interwoven reality of a living organism?
Alignment as a Substitute for Safety
The idea existing in yoga land “If I am aligned, I’ll be safe,” is a massive oversimplification of our complex biology. Kathryn Bruni-Young put it eloquently:
Rather than looking to alignment for safety, I look to capacity for safety. Rather than assessing someone’s alignment, [I assess] their capacity: How strong are you in a certain position? That’s going to tell me more than…”What does it look like?”Kathryn Bruni-Young
Alignment, put simply, will not keep you “safe”. “Safety” depends on many other factors that exist outside of yoga asana, or at least outside of a group yoga teacher’s ability to assess within any given class.
Style by Style
Another component of alignment is how it can differ drastically between yoga styles, and even between teachers within a yoga style.
This can confuse yoga students, and/or create silo thinking , like “This style got it right” “This style is wrong”. But who has the authority to say there is one right or wrong in alignment?
The idea that there is one right way to move or hold a pose is, again, ableist as well as reductionist and counter to movement science fundamentals. In addition to the vast differences in human bodies, there’s the fact that bodies move best when they have options.
The human body benefits most from variety: in movement, in posture, and yes, in poses we practice on the mat.
This is because we are most likely to be injured by 1) movements we have not been exposed to and 2) by repetitive movements done without appropriate rest (like when “yoga every day” means daily vinyasa), nutrition and other balanced movements.
Infants learn and explore multiple movement strategies to accomplish the same thing. They may cross the room crawling, scooting, furniture walking or even by rolling. We reposition ourselves (i.e. we move) even in our sleep. Being able to move in more ways than one is useful every day of your life, and fundamental from our beginning days.
Avoiding movements, which is often thought to make us safer, may be necessary for healing a specific tissue injury, but can reduce our capacity over time. For example, rounding the spine is necessary for many functional tasks, like tying our shoes, sitting, and more. But many yoga instructors discourage rounding the back when reaching for our toes, and this habit on the mat can spill over into the lives of yoga practitioners off the mat as avoidance of rounding. Ultimately this leads to more problems.
Choice, Delight and Exploration
It’s also totally ok to have your preference, to enjoy one style of yoga, or one style’s alignment cues, over another. For some, the detail of Iyengar classes will enhance focus. For others, the undulations of Prana Flow are more their vibe.
On different days you may have different motivations for your practice or your poses. Teachers may teach bridge pose, for example, with an emphasis on:
- hamstring strength
- core or glutes
- breath, gaze
- or literally anything
Peak poses, for example, are strategic in a class sequence. If a peak pose is novel to students, it can be hugely beneficial to give specific alignment (“pre-alignment”) cuing leading up to a pose where you “put all the [alignment] pieces together.” This is not a “wrong” use of alignment. It is targeted to an end result.
The challenge is thinking we ALWAYS have to take on the pose in the same way every time.
The topic of alignment is monstrous, and impossible to fully tackle in one article. Alignment touches on injury, safety, pain, function, evolutionary biology (what our bodies designed to do), perfectionism, repetitive movements, ableism, connective tissue pliability, mechanical vs. bio-psycho-social models of well-being, and so many more threads.
And yet, if you pull too hard on these threads, you might overthink alignment to the point of losing the fundamental shapes of asana.
Instead, ponder freely AND relish in what was taught to your by your lineage(s). Enjoy and try on different styles, knowing there is no “right” way. Experience the joy of exploration, hard work and rest in asana.
Also, remember the context: asana is just one of the 8 limbs of yoga.
Collectively let’s let go of alignment perfectionism as well as the idea that alignment will create safety. These concepts miss the point of movement, perhaps of asana in general, and certainly miss the larger purpose of yoga.
Want to hear more of my thoughts on this subject? Check out The Mentor Sessions Podcast with Francesca Cervero — my third time on that show. In this episode I talk all about how alignment makes folks anxious.
Do you love the depth and nuance of this topic? You will LOVE our Online Yoga Anatomy Mentorship. This mentorship teaches fundamental anatomy alongside powerful critical thinking to help you better navigate the complicated world of yoga asana and movement science. Learn more here.
As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments area below.