At the heart of a strict alignment focus in yoga may be the belief that “optimal” movement and alignment can prevent pain and other problems, but new information from biomechanics and pain science is challenging this viewpoint.
“Alignment” is a common and loaded word in yoga. “The word ‘alignment’ is used in lots of different ways in modern postural yoga,” says Noah Mazé, co-founder of The Mazé Method. “The usages of the word, and its meanings, vary greatly across a spectrum of practitioners and teachers.” One of its meanings, according to Mazé, is “something like an ‘architecture’ or ‘pattern.’” Alignment in this sense “is used to clarify the goal from a shape perspective.”
Alignment-focused cues may simply conjure the shape of, say, chaturanga. But, according to Mazé, “Alignment can be used to explicitly or implicitly mean that there is a best way, or a correct way, to do the pose/movement from a scientific or evidenced-based methodology.”
Many of us teachers are already flexible about alignment in the first sense. We already encourage students to adapt chaturanga to their needs, to, for instance, lower their knees to the floor, or to stay up higher, bending their elbows less than is traditional in the interest of keeping their shoulders from rounding forward. But it is alignment in the second sense that is now being questioned: Is it in fact harmful to do chaturanga with rounded shoulders? Is it harmful to deviate from a neutral spine by slouching, to forward fold from the back rather than hinging from the hips, or to let the knees track toward somewhere other than the center of the feet?
“None of these movements are inherently wrong, harmful, or bad,” says Shelly Prosko, the pioneer of PhysioYoga, a blend of physical therapy and yoga; an educator specializing in chronic pain; and a co-editor and co-author of the textbook Yoga and Science in Pain Care.
“The definitive language that deviating from ‘correct’ alignment will erode the joint can perpetuate the idea that the body is a machine that is prone to wear and tear instead of a living, adaptable biological system that can be challenged,” she says. “And for some people, these cues that indicate their joints and body will wear and tear and erode can have a profound negative impact on their lives and adversely influence function and even their pain.”
“I don't know why we feel like the body is so weak that it can only handle physical loads in some proposed ideal position, a proposed position that, if you look through the literature (which is still incomplete), has surprisingly little support for it,” says Greg Lehman, a clinical educator, physiotherapist and chiropractor, and strength and conditioning specialist who has taught at the Pain Summit in San Diego.
This is not to say that alignment doesn’t have value or isn’t worth teaching for other reasons, but that it may not always serve the purpose we think it does. “Just get away from the idea that there is some best way to move to prevent injuries,” Lehman advises.
Because that idea—that there is a best way to move—is pervasive, it’s worth exploring the limitations of an alignment-based practice and even some of its negative consequences.
Focusing on alignment may not be optimal under the following conditions:
1. When we don’t know what it’s based on.
“I think the biggest issue is that teachers need to know why they are giving the cues they are giving,” says physical therapist and educator Shanté Cofield, aka the Movement Maestro. “Is it because someone else told them that that is the ‘right’ way to do a pose? What does ‘right’ even mean?”
Prosko encourages us to think critically about our alignment information: “Reflect on what you think is true. Be open to trying different things. Curiosity and humility are important in yoga and in science,” she says. She encourages us to be curious about what standard, and whose standard, we are using to determine whether or not a student is aligned.
For yoga teachers, according to Mazé, “It is also important to keep in mind that any theories or conclusions in scientific fields are debated and contested, and new theories emerge based on changing evidence.”
For instance, we may have heard about, and proclaimed, the importance of hinging from the hips rather than rounding the back. But do we have support for this claim? According to Lehman, “To argue that it’s unsafe to ‘round the back’ rather than [move from] the hips, we start getting into an area that is perhaps more driven by opinion than strong evidence for safety.”
Even the argument that keeping a neutral spine is important is contested. Jules Mitchell, who teaches biomechanics to yoga teachers worldwide and is the author of Yoga Biomechanics: Stretching Redefined, has journeyed from teaching students how they “should” move, to teaching in a way that is more inclusive and explorative, encouraging students to do their homework, “to research who determined what good posture is and what bad posture is, and how posture became medicalized and monetized.”
Some cues and priorities have fallen by the wayside. Many of us teachers have forsaken the once-common cue to tuck your tailbone and now refrain from cueing students to keep their shoulder blades perpetually down, away from the ears, instead of letting them upwardly rotate when their arms lift. Are we sure the cues we are giving as absolutes are from sources that are reliable enough and from evidence that is strong enough to stand the test of time?
2. When it does not acknowledge individual differences.
Mary Bond, structural integrationist, educator, and author of Your Body Mandala—Posture as a Path to Presence, says, “There is no ideal body, no perfect performance, and everybody is different in capacity, range of motion, shape of bony interfaces, ligamentous resilience, muscular strength, degree of innate coordination, history of injuries, fascial adhesions and compensations, etc.” In short, “We cannot all do the same thing the same way.”
Many alignment cues are meant to apply to everyone—all students should keep their shoulders back in chaturanga, all students should keep a neutral spine, all students should hinge from the hips and track their knees a certain way. But purportedly universal cues may not acknowledge the differences among human beings.
“While we have much in common—our DNA is mostly the same, and as adults we each have about 206 bones and 900 pairs of muscles—we are also all different,” Mazé reminds us. “Alignment is not one-size-fits-all. We are not just the sum of the combinations of our genetic code, we are each our own person.”
According to Mazé, that means that “What is optimal alignment in a pose or movement is going to be a bit different for each of us. The point is not conformity to an objective standard of ‘perfection,’ but rather the complex notion that each of us has the capacity to be healthy.”
Jenni Rawlings, a yoga teacher who emphasizes anatomy, biomechanics, and movement science, and also writes for Yoga International, says, “I don’t think there are any alignment cues that are so good they should be considered universal.” She advocates that we always look at alignment “within the context of who is doing the movement and why.”
3. When we see misalignment as being directly connected to injury or pain.
Mitchell questions the assumption that misaligned shoulders in chaturanga, or any other misalignment, will cause injury. “From my perspective, the ability to control one’s shoulder position in chaturanga is more important than the actual position. As far as getting injured, it’s impossible to predict!”
It is incorrect to say that if we veer from alignment “standards,” we will experience pain or other problems, Prosko says, adding: “These absolute claims are unsubstantiated, and we know that pain is more complex than this. It’s inaccurate to make global statements that apply to everyone that claim specific alignments are superior to others in the context of pain.”
Prosko points out that we may be able to adapt to a range of different positions and alignments, so no position—including slouching—is inherently bad.
“You could slouch all day if it feels good for you,” she says. She also acknowledges that we may wish to cue a neutral spine for reasons other than injury or pain prevention (slouching posture may negatively influence some of the body’s systems and even our mood, she says), but cues indicating that a neutral spine is linked to pain prevention or even efficiency may put us on unsafe ground: “If a human ‘trains’ to slouch all day, they could potentially adapt and become ‘efficient’ in that posture. Over time, that person could actually be more effective and efficient doing things in the slouched position than in a neutral position.”
But then again, if slouching hurts, it might be best to take a break from it—to do something else for a while. “That’s when we need to start offering variability of movement,” Prosko says. “Then, later, you can reintroduce slouching into your movement repertoire (as one of the many natural ways to move) once your back is desensitized again.”
Lehman is also unwilling to vilify any particular alignment. “Slumping, slouching, lifting with a bent spine are all normal and prevalent movement patterns, patterns that are poorly related to current pain and poorly predictive of future pain,” he says. “And even when a pattern of movement or alignment might be related to pain, the relationship is often weak. I don't want to say that movement patterns and alignment are always irrelevant. Talking in absolutes like that isn't helpful. But I would say that the alignment/movement pattern is probably a tiny contributor to someone’s pain.”
“An important point to make here is that yoga teachers still need to become skilled at cueing students to become aware of their own alarm signals and discernment skills,” Prosko says, since pain-causing misalignments certainly deserve addressing. She discusses cueing that can enhance students’ awareness and confidence—hence their safety—in this article she co-wrote with physiotherapist and Pain Care U director Neil Pearson for YI.
4. When it leads us to believe that aligned movement is always safe movement.
Just as misalignment, as mentioned above, does not automatically mean we will experience problems, alignment doesn’t automatically mean safety. One of many myths about yoga injuries is that injury will not occur if our alignment in a pose is “correct”; for a variety of reasons, a well-aligned pose can still result in injury. According to Mitchell, pain science seems to support the assertion that “Pain and other problems are not avoided by an optimal movement repertoire, just as an optimal movement repertoire is unlikely to resolve pain and other problems.”
“Even what we may consider as ‘aligned’ may eventually lead to pain in some and not in others,” Prosko says. “Pain is complex and is not directly nor solely related to structure or alignment.” She points to shoulder and hip injuries “in yoga professionals who have practiced over the years following ‘correct alignment’ cues.”
She also mentions that slouching is not the only spinal position that those with back pain exhibit: “Keep in mind that many of us can become sensitized to any prolonged position or overly repetitive movement that is beyond our tissues’/bodies’ ability to adapt. For example, a person may sustain a perfect neutral spine throughout the day every day, and might still experience pain.”
Lehman offers another example: “Plenty of runners who have supposedly ‘perfect’ running technique will develop pain and injuries.” Certain movements or loads may also simply be beyond our tissues’ capacity, leading to injury despite “healthy” alignment. “It is certainly possible that we can do too much too soon and fail to adapt,” he says, offering up the example of heavy lifting: “If you are not prepared to lift 50 pounds and you immediately start lifting 50 pounds one hundred times per day, with little recovery, poor sleep, and a lot of life stressors, then you are just as likely to experience pain if you lift with so-called ‘perfect’ technique or if you lift with a rounded spine. That small kinematic [technique] variable is really inconsequential.”
5. When we are in low-load situations—as we are most of the time in yoga.
Yoga’s low loads and low speeds may not make alignment especially consequential. “A lot of those optimal positions are useful in high-load, high-rate situations,” Mitchell says. “They might also factor in certain performance measures—speed, strength, power, etc.—but that doesn’t mean they carry over into yoga, which isn’t high load or high rate.”
“I think there is reliable evidence suggesting that our joints are generally safer in certain positions when there are high loads involved in those positions,” Rawlings says. “But in low-load positions, such as the movements we do in most yoga practices, I don’t believe the evidence supports the notion of inherently safer positions.
In this view, “misaligned” shoulders, spines, and knees in yoga may not be bearing enough weight or vectoring enough force to cause worry.
6. When it limits possibility.
Another pitfall of a strict focus on alignment may be that students begin to think that their shoulders should be back, their spines should be neutral, their knees should be pointing a certain way all the time. According to Lehman, “We have built-in redundancy and natural variability. This means we have a number of ways to solve the same movement problem. When it comes to pain and injury, this is a good thing and strongly argues against the ‘right’ way to move to prevent pain.”
“The more varied the movement strategies, the better,” says Bond. “One of the four keys to fascial health is innovative movement. The movements of modern life occur largely in the sagittal plane—i.e., in front of our bodies—and at a middle level. Our activities require very little reaching up or bending down. Lack of varied movement in space also constrains our perceptions. Diminished spatial perception creates compression in the body.”
Prosko is of the opinion that “Variability of movement is a pretty cool capacity we have as humans.” We don’t have data to tell us that one way of moving is more conducive to well-being than any other way, she says, adding, “I would say the ‘best’ way to move is a lot of different ways. Our body likes variability. The more efficient we are at being in different positions and performing diverse movements, the more resilient we can become.”
Prosko advocates helping our bodies be strong in multiple alignments. If we always and only train the knee to align with the second toe, and we become experts at that knee tracking, what, she asks, would happen if we go hiking or rock climbing and our knees have to deviate from that alignment because of the unevenness of the surfaces? Our knees, not being accustomed to move in diverse ways, “don’t have the tissue tolerance in those ranges. There’s potentially more risk for injury if the tissues aren’t strong in those ranges.”
Cofield says, “Gravity is going to take you where it wants. Learning how to be ‘sturdy’ in a single position, when everything is perfectly aligned, including the stars, is not a bad place to start, but when it becomes the entire goal, the final destination, the be-all and end-all, we’ve missed the mark. Life is unpredictable.”
By contrast, encouraging different types of movements and alignments may be a worthy challenge. “I believe that for the long-term health of our tissues and joints, it’s important to find a balance between consistency of movement and variety of movement,” Rawlings says. “In the yoga context, if we always practice our poses in the exact same alignment every time, our body will soon adapt to these positions and plateau. If we instead introduce some variable alignment in our asanas, this gives our nervous system something new to learn (which is great for neuroplasticity and brain health), and it also gives our tissues the chance to continue adapting.”
7. When it sparks fear of movement or even an expectation of pain.
“I see this everywhere, not just yoga,” says Lehman. “We scare the hell out of people by making them hypervigilant and viewing their body as something that needs protecting. In my opinion, we have way too many rules on the supposed ‘right’ way to move. And in a subset of people, this might crank up their protective response...People just end up not trusting their body and that can be quite negative sometimes.”
That some of the alignment cues we give in yoga can perpetuate a “nocebo” effect—the opposite of a placebo effect: in a nocebo effect negative consequences occur because we are primed to expect them—is a thesis central to Mitchell’s book, Yoga Biomechanics: Stretching Redefined. Mitchell says, “My yoga education was based in right and wrong. It took me a long time to undo all that and change the way I teach to help students develop autonomy on the mat.”
The problem is not necessarily the alignment cues themselves, but, according to Prosko, “It’s the extraneous cues we add on after them that can be unhelpful.” She gives these examples:
“Make sure you keep the spine in neutral to protect your spine,” “Bend from your hips rather than rounding your back to save your spine,” or even, “Careful not to round your back as you fold forward,” or “Keep your knee over the ankle to protect your knee joint.”
Cuing like this, which intimates that danger awaits if students don’t precisely follow an instruction, may cause students to be nervous about moving or even prime them to experience pain if they deviate from supposedly optimal alignment.
“I think that nocebo is an issue that needs addressing in the yoga community," says Rawlings. "Because we now understand that pain is a biopsychosocial phenomenon—not just a physical one—it’s becoming clear that the words and language we use about the body in our classes can influence our students’ beliefs about their bodies—i.e., the ’psychology’ part of the biopsychosocial model.” She adds, “If our words help encourage our students to view their bodies as strong, robust, and adaptable, this is likely to have a positive effect on how they feel in their bodies pain-wise. If our words instead encourage a more ‘fragilistic’ view of the body, as they do when we use alignment in a fear-inducing way in yoga classes, then this has the potential to become an input to our students’ nervous systems that might encourage an output of future pain.”
8. When it makes us feel doomed.
One response to allowing latitude in alignment may be that the effects of the “misalignment” just haven’t been felt yet: Even if there is no immediate pain, over time those forward-tipped shoulders in chaturanga, that habit of rounding the back rather than hinging from the hips, that chronic slouch or knee not aligning over the second toe will lead to problems. “However,” Prosko says, “I would challenge the belief that these movements will eventually lead to pain. In some people they might, in some people they may not.”
Lehman hears this “You’re going to pay for it later” argument frequently. “I think that is a pretty pessimistic view of the human body,” he says. “It’s like telling someone that practicing yoga or running might feel fine now, but in 30 years their joints will wear out from all that bending and pounding. Viewpoints like that really have a negative view of what physical stress and load do to the human body. Physical stress is our catalyst to adapt and grow and become stronger.” Lehman would “rather be a movement optimist.”
Rawlings is of the same view. She says, “We don’t have good evidence to suggest that ’misalignments’ cause problems down the line. If anything, because the tissues of our body adapt to the loads they experience on a regular basis, our body will most likely respond to the ways in which we track our knees or hold our spines by becoming stronger in those positions.”
9. When it becomes “magical thinking” or obsession.
According to Mazé, “The yoga tradition, as elsewhere, is rife with magical thinking and grandiose promises that when you achieve/experience/know the real pose, the true alignment, you will be cured of disease, you will experience bliss, and so on.” He says this belief may come from a guru who discourages questioning: “The correct alignment is what the guru teaches, as the guru has attained the state of superior knowledge.”
Mazé says, “Having been a member of several of these types of yoga communities in my life, I am suspicious of them and seek to not propagate or amplify that type of thinking or participate in those group dynamics.”
Not only could alignment be magical thinking in the sense that it emanates from a guru whose say-so overrides individual experience and comes with snake oil promises, alignment could also be magical thinking in the sense of a superstition: We or our students may come to believe that if we just do x, y, and z, no harm will befall us.
Some of us might become obsessive, ever increasing our list of “musts”: If only I keep my shoulders back, if only I do not slouch, if only I hinge from the hips, if only my knees track precisely this way, I will be protected, I will be invincible, nothing will go wrong with my body.
But acknowledging that alignment is not a foolproof armor, that indeed nothing is, allows for an experience of yoga in which we explore our capabilities—and limits—as humans and embrace both the strength and the vulnerability we discover.
None of these potential pitfalls means that alignment should be excised from yoga class. Lehman says to “Talk about alignment for other goals,” while Prosko encourages us to talk about it using different words: “Find language that helps people love and respect their bodies.” Some of those goals, and some potential language, are discussed more here.
Prosko understands that some of us yoga teachers may find this new information disorienting and even frustrating and encourages us to “Be self-compassionate. I know that there are so many messages these days—‘This is wrong, now it’s right. This was right, now it’s wrong’; ‘I can’t say anything anymore’—so, be patient and self-compassionate and take some of these ideas as opportunities to gain deeper insight into concepts like alignment and cueing.”
She says, “Don’t give up everything you’ve learned or are doing. Just be open to some different ideas for the purpose of better serving students.”
Just as the experts interviewed for this article urge us to move away from rigid concepts of “right” and “wrong” in alignment, it may make sense for us to move away from rigid judgments about what we are doing right and wrong as we begin to integrate these new perspectives in our teaching. Prosko advises, “Instead of being hard on yourself and thinking that you’re doing something ‘wrong,’ make it a fun exploration.”
Photography: Andrea Killam