Breaking the Yoga Rules: Why Parallel Feet Isn’t Always Optimal

I’ve always stood like a ballerina, with my feet turned out.

When I began practicing yoga, my natural habit of turning out my feet was uniformly discouraged, and I was encouraged to “fix” my position by placing my feet hip-distance apart and parallel. My teachers cautioned me that the foundation of a pose is a bit like the foundation of a building: When the foundation is strong, even, and steady, then the rest of the building is well supported; but when the foundation is shaky or malaligned, the building risks teetering to one side, like the Tower of Pisa. By turning my feet out, I was setting myself up to collapse like faulty Italian architecture. Paralleling my feet would set me up for success.

Appropriately educated, I dutifully paralleled my feet, with the centerline of each foot neatly aligned with the sides of my mat. However, studies with anatomy-focused teachers such as Paul Grilley revealed a problem with this convenient and universal cue: Placing your feet parallel to each other does not necessarily equal being well aligned in your hips.

The reason is skeletal variation. Our bones and joints are shaped differently from those of other individuals. While your hip socket may face straight out to the side, the hip socket of the yogi next to you may face more forward. This difference in orientation changes the way your femur descends from your pelvis.

Consider this: If your hip socket faces more directly to the side (as mine does), your feet may naturally want to turn out when the femur is in a neutral position in the socket (i.e., not internally or externally rotating). When I make my feet parallel, they may look neat and tidy, but I have to internally rotate at the hip to accommodate that position. A student with a hip socket that naturally faces more forward may have feet that naturally orient toward parallel. When this student’s hips are neutral (with no rotation), their feet make perfect 11s.

Which is more important for stability: the look of the feet or the position of the femur in the hip?

Adding to the confusion, your thigh (femur) or shinbone may twist in its journey toward your foot, which alters the functional orientation of your knee and your ankle joint. For example, a student who has a tibia (the larger shinbone) that twists outward in its descent from the knee to the ankle may have feet that look turned out, simply because the bone has turned. If this student parallels their feet, they will have to turn their thighs inward.

Which is more important for stability: the look of the feet or the position of the femur in the hip?

With a little consideration, one can see that it is logical that the position of the femur at the hip (the largest and most weight-bearing joint of the body) is more important for your stability and functionality than is the direction your toes face. Our attachment to placing our feet parallel may actually take some of us out of our most stable, natural alignment.

Of course, it’s challenging to explore this skeletal variation in a group class. Because you cannot easily see the orientation of your hip socket or the spiral of your bones, you must determine your best alignment indirectly by looking at your knees (when you stand in mountain pose, try facing them straight forward) and your feet (when your knees face forward, do your feet naturally turn inward or outward?).

Make sure to do these assessments when the arches of your feet are lifted and your legs are well engaged: A collapsed inner arch or weak hip stabilizer could cause your knees to drop toward each other (even if you have flat feet, engaging the arches will still help to align the knees properly). You can also infer the orientation of your hip sockets by paying attention to the range of motion at your hip joint and noticing which movements are accessible or inaccessible. For example, can you “square” your hips to the side of the mat in virabhadrasana II? If so, you likely have hip sockets that face laterally and permit deep external rotation. Are you comfortable sitting with your thighs internally rotated in virasana? You may have hip sockets with an anterior orientation, which facilitates internal rotation. By staying curious about your range of motion in a variety of poses, you will begin to develop a clearer picture of your internal bony landscape.

Even though my natural alignment is with my feet turned out, I usually still parallel my feet in yoga class. As long as I am turning my feet parallel by means of slight internal rotation at my hips (rather than from the knees), practicing with some internal rotation is an interesting opportunity to explore a non-habitual movement pattern. However, I no longer believe that having parallel feet is the only “right” option. As a student, I permit myself to be flexible rather than dogmatic about my alignment. As a teacher, I encourage my students to remain open and curious about their bodies and to feel the practice from the inside rather than to base their alignment on pre-determined aesthetic requirements.

So, the next time you practice, explore changing the position of your feet and noticing what you feel. Extend this exploration to different poses and parts of your body. After all, skeletal variation is not limited to the orientation of your hip socket and spiral of your shinbone! Every bone and joint in your body (shoulder, spine, wrist) has its own unique shape, and what works for someone else may not work in the same way for you.

Rather than doing a pose “right,” allow your appreciation of skeletal variation to transform your yoga practice into an open space for continual inquiry. Appreciating the internal diversity of the human body can also help us as teachers to cue a pose from a more functional perspective, and to investigate more closely before we automatically correct a student’s alignment.

Photography: Michelle Linteris 

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Rachel Scott

Rachel Scott

Rachel is an author, yoga teacher, and educational nerd who loves helping yoga teachers find their voice and develop their skills. As an instructional designer, she gives passionate yogis and studio... Read more>>