Re-aligning our Understanding of the Value of Alignment

The importance of physical alignment to safety has come under scrutiny. Turns out that “optimal” biomechanical movement or positioning may not after all do that much to prevent injuries. In fact, the language we sometimes use around it can unintentionally evoke a sense of fragility or even fear in our students.

Yet, we need alignment to do yoga. Without alignment cues, how can we create any pose? “On a basic level, we have to use alignment to guide our students into the general form of whatever yoga asana we’re teaching,” says Jenni Rawlings, a yoga teacher who emphasizes anatomy, biomechanics, and movement science and writes for Yoga International. “When we teach someone how to practice downward facing dog, for example, cueing them to place their hands shoulder-width distance apart and their feet hip-width distance apart is by its very nature using alignment.” 

Shante Cofield, aka the Movement Maestro, a physical therapist devoted to educating movement professionals of all stripes, says that while any discussion of physical alignment in yoga class is “not a means to outline injury prevention or explain the cause of one’s pain,” neither is it something we can disregard. Many alignment cues are biomechanical—that is, they relate to how we are structured and the movements we’re capable of making. “In reality, we cannot ignore biomechanics. Physics is a real thing.” 

Shelly Prosko, physical therapist, yoga therapist, and pioneer of PhysioYoga, who co-edited and co-authored the textbook Yoga and Science in Pain Care, is among the leading pain educators who discourage yoga teachers from cueing movements and positioning in a way that implies that the safety of students hinges on it. “We need to reconsider making global statements about certain alignments causing pain or eroding joints,” she says. “These statements are not accurate or substantiated.” However, she continues, “Let’s be clear: We are not saying that alignment isn’t important—cueing alignment can serve many purposes.” 

Indeed, teaching alignment can be of considerable value depending on the reasons behind it and its context. “I think the biggest issue is that teachers need to know why they are giving the cues they are giving,” says Cofield. “When we better understand the why behind things, we’re able to make better decisions.” 

If we instruct alignment for certain reasons, or in certain ways, it may indeed be a good decision to use it. Alignment can be valuable:

1. When it is seen as only one of many safety-enhancing factors in class.

That alignment has not been shown to do much to prevent injuries should not be entirely surprising. Many of the wisest yoga teachers see alignment as only one of many factors that work together to enhance safety. Annie Carpenter, SmartFLOW founder and alignment doyenne, acknowledges some of the interrelated components that assist in injury prevention: “I teach alignment, pacing, appropriate sequencing, and steady attention with an eye to injury prevention and longevity,” she says. “All these pieces need to come together and be sustained.”

Naturally, classes without warm-ups that include sudden acrobatic poses, or that encourage movement at the expense of mindfulness, can lead to injury, even if students are aligned.

In addition, Prosko says, “Safety in the external environment can help cultivate safety in the person’s internal environment.”

In her view, “Aspects of the surrounding environment that may induce threat into the person’s nervous system, influencing their physiological state (and therefore pain), could include any external cues, including language/words chosen, tone of voice and intention behind the words, or not allowing/giving permission,” she adds.

Loud music, glaringly bright lights, strong scents from unclean props, disturbing images, noise outside the room, the teacher’s position when students are in vulnerable poses, and adjustments or touch given without permission are among the environmental factors Prosko lists as being potentially disruptive to the nervous system. Fortunately, “I think most yoga studios already consider these things and do a good job at creating a welcoming and calming environment,” she adds.

Though we may not be able to depend on alignment alone to protect students, we can continue to incorporate it as part of a larger ecosystem of safety. 

2. When it facilitates self-awareness…and self-appreciation.

Perhaps alignment does assist in injury prevention—indirectly. While there isn’t evidence to support assertions like pointing the knees or positioning the shoulders in a certain way will prevent injury, alignment can enhance an overall self-awareness that enables yoga students to be better stewards of their own bodies.

According to Mary Bond, a structural integrationist and educator and the author of Your Body Mandala—Posture as a Path to Presence, “It’s important to teach basic biomechanics, not to limit movement, but to help people understand what they are doing with their bodies.”

Cofield affirms that biomechanical guidance can be helpful: “Many of us have lost touch with our bodies and we don’t remember or know what a movement is supposed to feel like. From a very young age we are taught to look to others for our cues, and so we stop trusting our instincts. As such, it can absolutely be beneficial to provide a starting point for students, with the ultimate goal being independence and self-awareness.”

And Carpenter says that “Alignment leads to mindfulness—which is at least as important as lining bones up.” She elaborates: “One of the great gifts of yoga is learning to be in (and enjoy!) the present moment. Many of us learn this skill via well-timed and methodically placed alignment cues that keep us awake to what we are actually doing. This sustained awakeness keeps us safe and teaches us to know what our edge is, what is working and what is not, and to be able to make ongoing shifts as needed.” Not only can this awareness support our safety in class, but it can lead to self-knowledge we can take with us, even outside the classroom: “We learn to know and accept our ‘self’ starting with the body and deepening to all other aspects of our lives,” Carpenter says.

Noah Mazé, co-founder of the Mazé Method and international yoga teacher, sees alignment as a gateway to appreciation of our bodies and, indeed, our lives. “Alignment as an intrinsic quality speaks to the innate intelligence and organization of our bodies,” he says. “Life is truly remarkable, and we can learn to get more in tune and receptive to our embodied intelligence.”

We can teach alignment in order to help students listen more closely to their internal signals and to back off when movements don’t feel right. It can also encourage a sense of appreciation that may help guide them to make decisions that support their bodies’ well-being. 

3. When the language around it is inviting, explorative, and playful, and does not contain value judgments or threats.

To empower students to make good decisions for themselves during class, yoga teachers can de-stress their effort to attain poses and alignment in a way that does not override students’ own internal signals. Carpenter says: “We can communicate that it doesn’t matter when or if a specific shape or pose is ever achieved, or attempted, for that matter.” Rather than giving commands (Do this), teachers can give invitations (Do this if it feels right today) or offer inquiries (Can you lift your inner arch and press down through the mound of your big toe?) to take the pressure off students.

In addition to stoking students’ ambition, certain language can also provoke fear in students. Prosko believes that when we use words like Be careful not to… or In order to protect/save your spine or otherwise imply that students risk peril if they do not create a certain alignment, we “may perpetuate a threat or physiological danger state of defense,” which causes students to fear certain movements or even primes them to feel pain. “Instead of language that promotes ideas that our bodies are vulnerable, weak, and fragile,” according to Prosko, “we could just simply say, ‘See what it feels like to maintain an elongated spine as you fold forward’; ‘What happens if you hinge from the hips as you fold forward?’; ‘Now try rounding the spine—how does that feel different?’”

We can teach alignment by asking questions such as the ones Prosko suggests above and here; not only is this language missing danger-signaling words, but it can also tune students in to their own viveka, or “discernment.”

Similarly, Jules Mitchell, who teaches biomechanics internationally and is the author of , prioritizes teaching by “experience, sensation, and curiosity.” She does not suggest that yoga teachers eschew alignment—only that we change our language around it to become more descriptive rather than judgmental. For example, she suggests that “Instead of ‘In order to protect the knee, keep the knee over the ankle,’ we might say, ‘In warrior II, we stack the knee over the ankle.’ This instructs the pose but doesn’t assign values like safe or unsafe.” 

4. When it makes us feel better, physically and emotionally.

While alignment alone may not directly prevent problems, it is possible that certain alignments may simply help us to feel better.

When we are aligning ourselves or our students, “We are looking for balanced joints, not compressed ones; for balanced development of muscles, which leads to easeful and efficient movement, and the free flow of prana (subtle energy) through the whole body,” Carpenter says. If a particular alignment creates a sense of sukha, of “ease,” in a pose, it may be well worth pursuing. 

Certain alignments may also improve our outlook on life. “Yoga and science tell us that certain positions can alter our mood/emotions,” says Prosko. “This is conjecture, but certain alignment cues may help us explore different positions that make us feel different emotionally. So we can also use alignment cues in this way—to see if they influence how we feel.” 

In other words, we can cue the creation of a neutral spine if that spinal alignment makes it easier to sustain the pose or makes our breathing more relaxed, and if it helps students to feel more energetic and optimistic.

5. When it allows for individual differences.

Fortunately, cueing alignment doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all undertaking.

“Each yogi must be encouraged to feel, listen, sense their own experience,” says Carpenter. “We are not looking for everyone to have the same, prescribed positions. We are looking for each yogi to find their optimal positioning (which, yes, is always subtly shifting!).” She adds that “To be able and encouraged to make our own choices, set our own boundaries, and choose when and with whom to open ourselves to, on the mat, and off, is good yoga.” 

Bond says, “Awareness of one’s own body—embodiment—is the key to moving well and avoiding injury. Trying to emulate someone else’s performance—a teacher or another student—takes one out of their own somatic experience. So the ‘best way to move’ is very individual. It depends on where each person is on a particular day. For example, after three weeks in bed with the flu, the body’s fascia is short and tight from having been immobile. So expecting one’s asana to attain pre-flu expansiveness could risk a hamstring tear, sacroiliac subluxation, or sprained spinal muscles.”

How does it feel to point your knee this way? What is the right amount of bend in the knee for you today? Move your shoulders back as far as feels good to you today. These are among the many possible invitations that can convey alignment ideas while allowing for differences from one person to the next, and from one day to the next. 

6. When it acknowledges and creates inner connections.

A sophisticated approach to alignment would consider the body as a whole, instead of viewing—and cuing—the body piecemeal (for example, by instructing the feet, knees, and shoulders discreetly, without noticing how their movements and positions affect the entire body). 

Rather than seeing pain or injury as deriving from any single “misalignment,” Bond has a more holistic perspective: “The problem may be the ability of the whole system to adapt to the flow of movement being performed.”

Bond is often looking to see if a movement is “connected” rather than “disconnected”: “Does the action or gesture flow through the whole body from joint to joint like water in a stream?” To assist that flow, teachers can take a wide view, looking at the way their instructions ripple through the entirety of a student’s body (and making sure that alignment is sustainable by the whole).

Teachers can foster a holistic sense in their students by asking them to notice what effect moving the knee has on the weight distribution in their feet, or on sensation in and around the hips. That holistic sense also comes from establishing a sense of integration throughout class, encouraging students to cultivate a sense of the body-wide effects of the breath or the trickle-down of weight through the body to the floor.

7. When it possibilities.

Strict attention to alignment can erroneously lead us to believe that there is only one right way to hold our spines or move our knees—leading them to grow strong only in the designated alignment—and could ultimately disadvantage us by restricting ranges of movement. But alignment can also broaden our movement strategies and take us out of ruts by inviting us to move or position ourselves in new ways.

While Prosko suggests teachers may not want students’ knees to point over the second toe all the time, she says, “If someone has little body awareness and they habitually walk with knees falling in, why not give them the cue, ‘Try pressing your knee out a bit, and see if you can track your knee over the second toe.’ Great! They are doing something different.” That alignment cue is serving to “invite them to explore something outside their normal habitual patterns, or samskaras.”

We can teach alignment to inspire variations of positioning or movement that feel different and valuable. We can even give students permission to explore the boundaries of a pose, playing with variations on alignment that also feel good to them. Cofield says, “It’s more beneficial to explore and expose oneself to all angles of the position.” In her view, “Being able to be solid and sturdy in a single position is not true stability and has little carryover to life outside of the yoga mat. It is far more helpful to work on stability, the ability to actively come back to center, as opposed to trying to master the ability to never leave center in the first place.”

8. When it allows for gradual change.

While variation of movement can be positive, there is a limit to how fast we can enact that variation from our habitual position or strategy. Not everyone will be able to move their spines into a certain position or instantly track their knees a certain way.

“People injure themselves when they strive to achieve an ideal performance too quickly,” Bond says. “This is a problem of our culture in general—that the electronic age has provoked the habit of expecting instant results. Our bodies—organisms—change more slowly and intricately than do electronic patterns.”

With the lightest touch, Bond first encourages perceptual shifts. She often invites students to “constantly reinstate their perception of support from the ground and awareness of the space surrounding the body. This polarity of perceptions automatically creates more space within the body, which, in turn, allows joint mechanics and fascial interfaces to operate optimally.” Her strategy invites shifts in awareness that may then cause students to shift their positioning.

We can teach alignment softly. How far in the desired direction can a student’s shoulders comfortably go today? To make changes in shoulder alignment, we can draw students’ attention to their bodies in space. We can even use affirmations or explorations to make changes from the inside out. What happens to the shoulders, for instance, when we say, Today is going to be easy

9. When it helps to steer the effects of a pose.

Alignment cues can help direct the challenge of a pose in a way that feels productive and interesting.

Rawlings gives the example of salabhasana (locust pose), in which legs can either lift to emphasize the backbend, or stay down, in which case, “The loads of salabhasana will be directed more toward our hip extensor muscles.” She clarifies: “Which alignment we choose to teach becomes a matter of what effect we’re intending the pose to have in that moment. Are we wanting our students to work active lumbar extension? If so, we might teach the...version of the pose [with the legs lifted]. Are we wanting our students to connect to their posterior hips and potentially work on glute and hamstring strength? If so, we might choose to emphasize an active posterior pelvic tilt.” 

Rawlings adds, “We can use alignment to direct the loads where we ideally want them to go in our students’ bodies in the moment.”

10. When it empowers us to make changes when something feels off. 

While there may be little support for a blanket claim that everyone needs to take their shoulders back in chaturanga in order to prevent pain or other problems, if someone is having shoulder problems whenever they lower into chaturanga with inwardly rotated shoulders, then shoulder realignment would probably be worthwhile. “That is one of the best ways to justify making movement modifications,” says Greg Lehman, a physical therapist, chiropractor, and pain educator known for asserting, “Perfect posture doesn’t exist.” If varying a posture—sitting up straight, say, after slouching has become painful—proves to alleviate symptoms, it may make sense.

Rather than seeing our toolbox of alignment cues as law written in stone, we can view them as options available to us and our students on an as-needed basis. 

Takeaways

The value of alignment often depends on both the why—the reasons behind it—and the how—the language with which we deliver it. If teachers' alignment cues are delivered with sensitivity and used to help their students get to know themselves, get to know a pose, or to simply feel better, then they are certainly worthwhile.

“We can still cue people to draw their shoulder blades back and down and rotate their shoulders a certain way—that might be the most efficient way to perform a certain pose for most body types,” Prosko says. “But as to ‘What specific alignment is most conducive to well-being?’ We don’t have that data. What we currently know is that there is no one way. That’s what I would say is the key takeaway here.” 

Because the way of moving that supports well-being will vary from individual to individual and from one day to the next, alignment cues cannot be set in stone. Each of us may need some wiggle room to discover, then rediscover, the alignment that works best for us through a practice that is a continuous and dynamic self-investigation. As Carpenter says, “Know yourself—isn’t that the promise and the gift of yoga?”

About the teacher

Amber Burke lives in New Mexico and works at UNM-Taos, where she coordinates the Holistic Health and... Read more

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