I used to teach universal rules of alignment under the guise of protecting my students from injury. My goal was always to have “perfectly” aligned students. I strictly taught parallel feet in mountain pose, a 90-degree bend in the elbows in chaturanga, and squared and level hips in revolved triangle.
But when I began studying anatomy and biomechanics in greater detail, I started to dramatically change my teaching language and methodology to accommodate for individual differences.
Clearly my body is not your body. Each of us is wildly unique on many levels. We have different facial characteristics, different mannerisms, different vocal patterns, different personalities—the list goes on.
So if we are so different, why should we all be expected to follow the same alignment cues in every yoga pose? And what exactly is the benefit of drawing our feet parallel in mountain pose if it comes at the potential expense of joints farther up the chain (like the ankle, knee, and hip)?
Our Internal Anatomy Is Far From Universal Despite What We May Have Learned
We often generalize and simplify anatomy but there is nothing simple about it. And simplifying such a complex topic can sometimes cause more harm than good.
For example, oftentimes, when we study anatomy in yoga teacher trainings, we explore the basics like bones and muscles and maybe connective tissues. We learn about sesamoid bones and the pesky psoas major muscle. Typically, we learn that biceps flex the elbow joint while triceps extend it. And while these basics can be helpful as we begin to grasp the complexity of human anatomy, they are often taught the same way that alignment cues are taught in the yoga classroom: as absolutes.
The truth is that nothing in life is so straightforward, especially not anatomy. And while we do have sesamoid bones (sesamoid bones are the small bones that are embedded in tendons and commonly found in the tendons of the hands, knees, and feet), their numbers and placement vary from person to person. Actually, the only sesamoid bones found in everyone are the patellae—and even that applies only to the average and “normal” population! While most people do have a psoas major muscle, roughly 27 to 60 percent of the population also has a psoas minor muscle. And the biceps do bend the elbow, but they also do far, far more than that.
Furthermore, nothing in the body works in isolation and our actual anatomy is certainly not broken down into parts. The idea of the biceps being a separate entity from the triceps only helps to simplify and compartmentalize anatomy for academic and pedagogical purposes.
What Our Bones Tell Us About Our Differences
Our bones are prime examples of how different we all are.
They are not identical and this is apparent by the fact that we are all different heights. Even if we compared a group of people that were all exactly the same height, some would have longer torsos, others longer legs. Some might have short arms, others long necks. Some might have wider pelvises, others narrow shoulders. One person might have large hands, another small feet. While one person may have broad collarbones, another might have narrow collarbones, and so on.
And because our bones are not the same shape or size (or even symmetrical in our own bodies!), this also inherently means that our joints are not the same either. A joint is the articulation of two or more bones and if the articulating bones vary in length and/or shape, then the joints will automatically have different ranges of motion.
In short, our individuality runs deep—straight down to our bones. And while this is poetically beautiful, it also poses a problem in the yoga world, which, as mentioned, so often touts “universal” alignment in poses.
Alignment Cues Are Universal
Like all movement modalities, yoga needs to correspond with the deeply individual anatomy of each person. If we practice or teach by blindly following “universal” alignment cues, we run the risk of damaging bones, muscle, cartilage, joint capsules, fascia, tendons, ligaments, or any other bodily tissues. What’s even worse is that we often offer alignment cues disguised as safety parameters, as I used to, by warning students that injuries could result if the pose is not practiced “properly.”
What is actually more likely to lead to injury is the perception that we are all universally the same on the inside and are therefore capable of practicing the same poses in the same way.
So How Can We Teach Without Using Universal Alignment Cues?
Although as teachers we have to say something about alignment in order to differentiate poses, we could be more particular about the language we use. Instead of using fear-mongering—warning about potential injury—we can instead use empowering language to give our students permission and freedom to explore alignment on their own terms. Instead of saying, “Bring your feet parallel in mountain pose to keep your knees safe,” we can encourage students to find their version of “neutral.” We could do this, perhaps, by cueing them to close or soften their eyes and move their feet naturally until they align into a comfortable, stable position. Then we could ask them to open their eyes to see what that looks like in their bodies.
We can provide open-ended cues rather than strict, steadfast ones. Instead of saying “Bend your elbows to 90 degrees” in chaturanga, we can invite students to determine what range of motion in their arms feels steady and secure for them, without giving an exact measurement of how far to lower. I like to cue my students to: “Lower to whatever point you still feel strong enough to press back up into plank.”
No one alignment is better than the other—it simply depends on who is practicing it.
We can encourage experimentation rather than aesthetic alignment. We can cue multiple variations and options rather than insisting that only one shape fits all. Mountain pose can be practiced with the feet together, hip-width apart, narrower, or wider. No one alignment is better than the other—it simply depends on who is practicing it.
The more we can encourage our students to familiarize themselves with their own individual anatomy, the more they will feel empowered to create shapes that feel intrinsically right. Instead of insisting that everyone mold themselves to fit the poses, we can mold the poses to fit the practitioners.
Our yoga should be as wildly different and unique as each one of us. After all, the practice of yoga is meant to be a personalized journey toward enlightenment. Why should our asana practice be any different?