What happens when the wheels of your car are out of alignment? The car will not drive straight and that might run you right off the road. Apply that concept to your body during a yoga practice...think of your feet like wheels on your car. If your feet are not aligned properly for an asana such as Trikonasana (Triangle) or Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II), the pose will not have proper form. It will not look right and more importantly it will not feel right. Over time, if a yoga practitioner is consistently out of alignment they will run themselves right off their yoga mat with potential injury or just plain frustration. With constant misalignment in a yoga practice, the body will not be working at its most efficient level and will not receive all the wonderful physical, mental and healing benefits yoga has to offer. It is crucial that yogis who are new to the physical practice learn the basics of yoga slowly and deliberately in order to build skills on how to move and stack their bones properly in each pose. I hope every new practitioner can adopt a healthy yoga practice that will keep them injury free, agile and mobile forever.
I believe that the words YOGA and ALIGNMENT could be interchangeable for many circumstances. The word yoga translates to, “the union of the body and the mind”, to yoke, to bring together. The word alignment means, to line up or to organize. These definitions seem similar to me and if I were to use these words as a verb: to yoga (to unionize) and to align, the intended outcome of these activities are pretty much the same!
When there is precise alignment a machine will work more efficiently. Our bodies are machines and unfortunately sometimes they break down; one small piece might come out of alignment such as a sprain or a fracture in the foot, ankle, finger, wrist, etc. or a huge piece of the machine might break down like an illness or disease might form bringing the whole human machine out of alignment. When these misalignments occur the body will not work as efficiently as it did before until it realigns itself and heals. In many circumstances, the body can be healed and realigned with yoga, a system of alignment, including but not limited to meditation, breathwork, asana, enough sleep, natural healthy foods and water, self-care, self-love and sometimes even mantra and chanting helps to align a body back into health. All of these aspects live under the umbrella of YOGA and must be practiced consistently for optimum health, strength, flexibility and proper alignment in the body and mind.
Using yoga props such as blocks, straps, blankets and chairs in unique and intelligent ways creates accessibility and can help maintain alignment in a pose for anyone at any level. Using a block on the floor in a forward fold is a supportive way to build the floor up to you to create space. There is no need to force a deep forward fold, jamming your hands to the floor when your hamstrings are screaming and your spine is completely rounding forward. This is not beneficial at all. An intelligent way to practice is to meet yourself where you are at that day. If you are tired and your muscles are tight, place blocks under your hands in uttanasana (forward fold), trikonasana (Triangle pose) and parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose). Do not have an ego about using props…. Confidently grab those blocks and utilize them in any way you can! This is the sign of an advanced practice! Using yoga props means that you are deeply in tune with your body and what you are capable of on that particular day. You are aware of maintaining the integrity of the alignment of that particular pose. A good example of a place to use a block in a hatha yoga practice is in parivritta ardha chandrasana (revolved half moon). I have short arms, therefore I slide a block under my hand in this twisting balancing pose so I can stay as horizontal as possible from the crown of my head all the way down to the heel of my foot, all the while trying to create more space down the spine for a healthy twist to happen in the thoracic (middle) spine. I witness many practitioners trying to jam their hand down to the floor whilst tilting their body downwards in order to reach the ground and in the process they have rounded their spine, they are dumping weight into the standing leg, their head is hanging heavy and the cervical spine is now not in line with the rest of the spine and they have completely lost the whole point of the pose. Whew! That was a little bit of a rant...but I truly feel passionate about using props when necessary! I could go on and on about misalignment verses proper alignment for each pose...but I’ll save that for another day, another time….
As a yoga teacher, I look at a classroom of students and I see misalignment due to not engaging proper muscles for the asana we are practicing at the moment. When the muscles are not engaged and the student is sitting in a lazy manner, the practice becomes sloppy, heavy and non-beneficial and potentially harmful. If you do not feel like engaging muscle, there is a cozy spot for you in any Yin yoga class. However, I am talking about a strength based Hatha yoga practice. Muscle engagement gives shape to the pose and keeps us strong and lifted in our asana. In addition, when lifting and engaging the agonist muscles (the key muscles that are being engaged in the pose in question) the antagonist muscles are receiving a nice deep stretch. For example, when you are in Janu Sirsasana, the quadriceps are the agonist muscles, the muscles that should be engaged and lifted. Then the hamstrings (the antagonist muscles), the muscles that are related but directly opposite the quads, can receive a deep long stretch. Therefore, proper muscle engagement is an important part of alignment in a strength based yoga class.
When you engage muscle you receive many benefits. One benefit is simply achieving the proper shape of the pose and a second benefit is an opportunity to explore the shape on a deeper level. Maybe even trying variations of the shape to explore above and beyond the general asana. With a deep consistent practice, you can build positive samskaras (stored memories/habits) in your mind and in your body. Then the asana/shape is second nature and that is when the fun begins! This is the time you can start to explore, play and tune into the subtleness of the shapes and transitions of your practice. This is a time you can find the moving meditation in your yoga. This is where the magic happens!
Every asana really does deserve its own article about alignment suggestions. If you would like in depth knowledge about alignment and anatomy for each asana check out Ray Long’s yoga anatomy books: https://www.bandhayoga.com . I highly recommend his books and studying with him if you have the opportunity.
Not every pose is for every BODY. We all come to our mat with different experiences, different proportions to our bodies, different levels of endurance, strength, flexibility, etc. Therefore all alignment cues are merely suggestions for your body. It is your job as a yoga practitioner to know if a certain suggestion is beneficial for you or not. There are many variations of the same pose for different kinds of people, different moods, different times of our lives, the time in our life when we are healing something or the day where we have too much energy and we are ready to try something challenging. So many different alignment variations for one pose! Well, we have our entire lives to possibly try them all! A healthy yoga practice evolves and changes throughout our life. This beautiful art form, science and lifestyle should keep you young, agile, adventurous, strong and flexible in our bodies and minds for as long as you live!
-Brittany Kovler, 500hr E-RYT