5 Common Alignment Cues I Ignore (and Why)


As a former collegiate wrestler, I am a very coachable yoga student. However, there are times when my tendency toward compliance proves detrimental. For example, in chaturanga, aka a "yoga push-up," the cue “Squeeze your elbows in against your ribs” never worked for me. As someone with shoulders on the tight side, when I followed that cue, it made the heads of my humerus bones tilt forward, causing my shoulders to round while I was bearing weight on my hands, and with repetition, I ended up hurting my shoulders so badly that I couldn’t practice for months.

Now, in order to honor my body, and stay pain-free, I politely disregard some alignment instructions. 

Alignment cues are not one-size-fits-all. Everyone’s body, and therefore everyone’s experience of a pose, is unique. Personally, I’ve found that being slightly more nuanced in my own practice goes a long way toward keeping my body healthy and teaching me more about my own mechanics.

For example, an instruction such as “Point your knee straight forward” doesn’t provide nearly as much information as “Point the center of your kneecap over your second toe” (though that particular cue won't be appropriate for every practitioner). This precision helps me develop a much more embodied experience of my alignment. 

Each person has to discover which cues do and don’t work for them through their own practice. I’m going to share with you the most common alignment cues that I’ve found through trial and error don’t work for me. I’ll also explain why and how I modify them. Your experience may or may not differ.

1. “Squeeze your elbows in against your ribs.” 

Related Pose: Chaturanga, four-limbed staff pose

Why I Ignore This Cue: As I mentioned earlier, if I squeeze my elbows close to my body in chaturanga, the head of my humerus (upper-arm bone) rotates forward in the shoulder socket. This results in a slouched position while weight-bearing, which, over time, results in shoulder pain for me. 

How I Modify It: In order to keep my shoulders happy when I lower from plank to chaturanga, I keep my hands wide enough so the centers of my wrists align with my outer shoulders (for me, this means my ring and pinky fingers are off my mat) and my wrists are straight across my mat. Then I allow my elbows to move away from my ribs just far enough so that my shoulders are higher than my elbows, and I keep my chest broad as I Iower. When I’m doing it correctly, my shoulder blades feel much more integrated and engaged on my back. All students should adjust their chaturanga to fit their unique bodies. For tighter or stronger students, taking their elbows a little wider can provide more space for their shoulders to set back evenly. Over time, as their shoulders and upper back become more open, they can start to draw their elbows closer to their ribs while keeping their shoulders aligned. 

Suggested Refinement: “Bring your elbows only as close to your body as you can while keeping your chest broad and shoulders higher than them.”

2. “Feet together.” 

Related Pose: Uttanasana, standing forward fold

Why I Ignore This Cue: Everyone’s musculature, bone structure, and, therefore, the shape of their legs, is slightly different. The inner and outer seams of most legs do not create straight lines when the feet are together. Instead, the legs often bow, either inward or outward, from the inner hip to the inner ankle or the outer hip to the outer ankle, respectively. This creates muscle tension on the IT bands and may create unnecessary torque on knees. 

Keeping the feet together in uttanasana is also a very deep hamstring stretch. Most students are not flexible enough to do so while folding forward without externally rotating their thighs and rounding and straining their low backs. 

How I Modify It: I step my feet at least inner hip-width apart, about three to four inches. I make sure the centers of my knees align with my second toes. If I am feeling particularly tight, and feel any strain in my back, hamstrings, or hip flexors, I will take my feet wider, even as wide as my mat, to create enough space and stability to fold forward without discomfort.

Suggested Refinement: “Step your feet as far apart as you need to, and bend your knees as much as you need to, so you can touch the floor with your fingers without straining.”

3. “Move your hand to the center of your mat.”

Related Pose: Vasisthasana, side plank

Why I Ignore This Cue: Moving my hand to the middle of my mat means that my wrist does not line up with my shoulder, which feels unstable and precarious for my shoulder. This position of my hand in relation to my shoulder makes it challenging to keep my shoulder from collapsing while bearing most of my weight on my hand.

How I Modify It: While moving into side plank on the right side from downward facing dog, I do not lift my right hand, but I do rotate it a quarter inch to the right. This almost imperceptible adjustment means that my lower arm doesn’t have to externally rotate so hard to keep my right wrist parallel with the front edge of my mat as my arm moves into the side plane of my body. My right elbow crease rotates toward the webbing between my thumb and index finger and my right upper-arm bone rotates as well, so that my shoulder stays integrated and stable in its socket. This prevents my shoulder from collapsing.

Suggested Refinement: (On the right side) “Rotate your right hand to the right enough so that you don’t have to externally rotate your lower arm to keep your wrist parallel with the front edge of your mat.”

4. “Place your hands so your index finger points straight ahead.” 

Related Pose: Tabletop, plank, downward facing dog, and all other weight-bearing poses on the hands

Why I Ignore This Cue: This cue works great for some people, but not at all for others. Although it gets my hands in the general ballpark of being aligned, it doesn’t quite allow the entire perimeter of my hands to connect to the floor while maintaining a slight lift at the base of my wrist. It also doesn’t allow my wrists to be parallel with the front edge of my mat. My index knuckles get light on the mat, and my weight collapses into my outer wrists, which leads to wrist pain for me. Also, when I line my hands up this way, the inner seams of my arms and the creases of my elbows collapse toward each other, causing a ripple effect all the way up to my shoulders, which then tend to round toward each other and forward. Since I practice these weight-bearing poses often, shoulder pain can develop rather quickly.

How I Modify It: The skin where our forearms and hands meet creases when we bend our wrists to set our hands on the floor. It is easiest to see this while in a tabletop position. I make sure my wrist creases are parallel with the front edge of my mat whenever my hands are on the floor. This ensures that my hands are truly aligned in a way that evenly connects their entire perimeter while maintaining a slight lift in the heel of my hand.

Suggested Refinement: “Place your hands so that your wrist creases are parallel with the front edge of your mat.”

5. “Sit on a blanket.” (for students with tighter hamstrings)

Related Pose: All seated forward folds with straight legs 

Why I Ignore This Cue: This cue is intended to help students tilt their pelvis forward and maintain a slight arch in their low back (i.e., a “neutral spine”). If I sit up on a prop in straight-legged forward folds—such as paschimottanasana (intense Western stretch), upavistha konasana (wide-angle seated forward bend), or janu sirsasana (head to knee pose)—I tend to hyperextend my knees: With my hips elevated, my calves reach the floor while my heels don’t.

There are certain exceptions to this, of course. Poses in which one leg is in ardha virasana (half hero pose), such as triang mukha paschimottanasana (three limbs, facing one-foot intense Western stretch) or krounchasana (heron pose) are different. The position of the bent leg makes it more challenging to achieve a neutral pelvis and spine. To accomplish this, I place a blanket or block under the buttock of the straight-leg side to even it out, but I still have to be mindful not to overstraighten my extended leg.

How I Modify It: Rather than propping myself up in straight-legged seated forward folds, I place my hands behind me on the floor and lean back slightly into them, then straighten my legs only as much as I can while keeping my heels on the floor so I don’t hyperextend. Leaning into my hands helps to create leverage so I can tilt my pelvis forward and establish a healthy lumbar curve. I recommend staying in this upright, seated position (as opposed to folding forward) until your legs are completely straight and your low back feels as if it is lifting rather than slouching.

Suggested Refinement: “If your knees bend or your low back rounds, start with your hands behind you on the floor, point your knees straight up and flex your feet, root your legs and heels down as much as possible, and create a gentle arch in your low back. You can then fold forward as long as you can keep your legs rooted and maintain that slight energetic lift out of your pelvis in your low back.”

Remember, while it is important to be an attentive student and listen to your teacher’s instructions, it is also crucial to know yourself and what is safe and comfortable for you. There may be times when it is necessary to modify the verbal cues you are given. Everyone’s body is different, and everyone has a different history with injuries. Through my own mistakes, and conversations with my teachers, I’ve found that the subtle shifts I’ve shared about how I think about my alignment are pivotal to helping me continually benefit from—and become stronger in—my practice.

About the Teacher

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Jake Panasevich
Jake Panasevich is a lifestyle science journalist and a yoga and wellness expert. He taps into his access... Read more