September 28, 2021

There is no Universal Alignment in Yoga

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Thoughts on Universal Alignment cues, Ableism, fitness and exclusion on the yoga mat.

Something I cherish about being a physical therapist* is the opportunity I’ve had to work with patients of all ages (pediatrics to 99 year olds), and in all sorts of conditions (literally from a cardiac transplant ICU to sports medicine settings). Although mostly I am not with physical therapy patients in a yoga context, these humans have taught me a lot about teaching asana.

Universal Principles of Alignment

Years ago, I studied a style of yoga that used the phrase “Universal Principles of Alignment.” This style of yoga was poetic and magnetic. These principles were vague enough that they could be interpreted energetically, but they were also definitively physical cues meant to be applied to the human body in asana.

Although there was plenty of unique phrasing to this style of yoga, the concept of one size fits all alignment and/or cues is not rare in the yoga world. (And I get the desire for this — I often notice my yoga mentees want clear, universal answers).

As a student, sometimes these “universal cues” didn’t translate to my body.

I happened to notice neck discomfort and capillary breakage in my face after long holds in headstand (encouraged in another yoga style). I noticed stiffness that could be present when I stood up after a class full of “hip openers”. Maintaining a “heart open” posture didn’t feel awesome in my low back after a while.

Intellectually I recognized how the cue “shins in” was anatomically impossible (no muscles exist that contract to bring your shin bones – tibia – closer to one another).

There were many generalizations transmitted to me in asana classes about how the body “should” appear on the mat and off. There was limited acknowledgement of the distinction between literal and metaphorical “openness”.

What it feels like on the inside

Many times in yoga asana classes I felt lithe, moldable and capable.

Other times, I felt broken. I wondered if I was too analytical, if there was something disconnected between my heart and my flesh, that I just wasn’t getting the inner spirals might be symbolic. After all, some say “practice and all is coming”.

I looked around the room to seemingly blissed out yoga devotees that didn’t question the cues or the concept of universal alignment, and wondered why they didn’t seem to work for me. (You never know what is happening in someone’s head, though).

I was also partly (thankfully was born with a healthy dose of skepticism) under the spell of a yoga style that made extraordinary promises to students. It had propelled, uplifted and created beautiful, poetic and highly successful teachers that I wanted to emulate.

The problem must be me” – an actual thought that sometimes floated through my head. This from a human with a body that — by all external measures — was extraordinarily capable.

One Size Fits All = Ableism

But another part of me thought about the physical therapy patients I’ve had the privilege to treat over the years, and how they have become my best, most grounded teachers.

That part instantly saw the impossibility of the word “Universal” when describing anything about the human body.

  • What about my friends who suffered stroke?
  • or spinal cord injury?
  • or who were born with cerebral palsy?
  • What effect does alignment perfectionism and the language we use on the mat have on our self-worth?

We could formulate hundreds or thousands of questions like these.

With time comes perspective, and I can confidently say there are no universal cues for asana. I also recommend we all steer clear from teachers who claim the opposite. They are probably selling something trademarked.

There is no universal alignment in asana.

There is no universal alignment in asana. To imply otherwise erases a wide swath of humanity from physical yoga practice.

This is called ableism.

Fitness spaces, yoga asana classes among them, are rife with this erasure of the diversity of human experience.

“Ableism is the discrimination or prejudice against people who have disabilities. Ableism can take the form of ideas and assumptions, stereotypes, attitudes and practices, physical barriers in the environment, or larger scale oppression. It is oftentimes unintentional and most people are completely unaware of the impact of their words or actions.”

Truly accessible yoga is never going to look the same from one human to another. (I’d like to refer readers to the Accessible Yoga Association for the best resources on this subject).

What does this mean for challenging yoga practices?

The question that might come up for those thinking about ableism and yoga classes:

How do I teach or practice my preferred, physically challenging form of asana knowing that it is not accessible to all? Or even a gentle class that wouldn’t work for someone in a chair? Or a chair class with a huge spectrum of physical ability?

As someone who teaches physically challenging (but practical and strength based!) classes (see them here Yoga Anatomy Academy On Demand Studio), I’m sharing my current thoughts below. I expect this list to shift and mature over time.

To teach classes that welcome human variability:

  1. First and foremost stop stating or implying that universal alignment or cues exist.
  2. Practice Svadyaya, self study or introspection that includes part or all of the following list.
  3. Understand that it’s ok to teach or be part of a yoga class that doesn’t work for every body, is challenging or fitness oriented. Please do not try and convince everyone that they need to try the same yoga class that works for you. Know that not all meditations or pranayama are universally appropriate, either.
  4. Know and respect that the classes that work for you today may not meet your needs as your body changes over the decades.
  5. Become aware of the cues you use and / or those used by your teacher. Notice if they have space for subtle or large variance in human bodies. (As an example: “First fingers point straight forward” in down dog or plank does not allow for common variations in elbow skeletal morphology). Offer or encourage cues with a variety of options (not “modifications” from the hardest or most perfectionist version. Intent is everything here.)
  6. Be skeptical of cues you may be repeating that glorify geometric lines and shapes (ex: 90 degree angle in the front knee).
  7. Notice the overall dynamics of the classes you teach – Give students or yourself permission to self-pace and individualize practice from the beginning.
  8. Recognize that there is no one size fits all, in asana, or in fitness or in meditation/pranayama/contemplative approaches. No group class can fully adapt itself to each and every permutation of human being. Teachers need not be expected to make it so, however yoga teachers do have an obligation to teach generously to those who show up.
  9. Stay humble.

What would you add to this list? We look forward to hearing in your comments below!

* Physical therapist is a US-specific term. In the rest of the world, my profession is known as physiotherapy.

If you’d like to go deeper on topics such as this one, improve your understanding of anatomy and yoga anatomy, consider signing up for our Online Yoga Anatomy Mentorship, where you will be mentored by me:

P.S. After writing this post, I came across this podcast episode talking about the SAME EXACT subject. It was as if part of the podcast episode was these words jumbled around in a slightly different order. It’s so refreshing to find other yoga folks with similar points of view.

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