I often hear from my Yoga students that they are reluctant to practice at home by themselves because they are afraid they'd do something wrong or in poor alignment. With this blog I aim to dispel some of the mysteries of alignment and to help those of you, who are willing, to relax with Yoga at home.

First and foremost, what is alignment? When we place our limbs just so, arranging our body into shapes, we want to get the most benefit from the pose, yet minimize the risks, while at the same time achieving specific function, such as opening the chest, strengthening the hips, introducing more space into the spinal column. There is also the issue of energy flow, or the way the pose makes you feel - calm, energized, light, centered.

Some Yoga traditions, especially Iyengar style Yoga, place alignment as the top priority, claiming that without "proper" alignment the pose would not deliver the full spectrum of benefits. Notice my the quotation marks, and you'd know where I am leading with this: since every human being is unique, there is no universal alignment that would be achievable and beneficial in equal measure for everyone. For some people whose body may not be physically able to assume certain poses just so, forcing or artificially propping them up in a pose would be a distraction in the best case and may even cause harm or injury in the worst case scenario.

In order to stay safe, we should pay attention to the way we arrange our bones, but there are actually not that many rules to keep in mind. It's like learning to play an instrument - there are just seven notes, and first you learn to make a harmonious sound one note at a time. Then you play two or more notes together, and eventually you are able to play Fur Elise. But there are still just the seven notes! I counted eight in our case, but you get the idea.

So, just like in the Sound of Music:

  • Do: When the legs are weight bearing, knees and toes should be pointing in the same direction to keep the simple hinge joint of the knee safe, and the pelvis should generally be in neutral or as close to neutral as the pose allows.
  • Re: Neutral pelvis is the holy grail of alignment. Excessive or diminished lumbar curve means more pressure on the front or back facets of the spinal vertebra and more danger to the disks between them. Even in poses that put us into a back bend or a forward fold (and especially during twists), we should strive to lengthen through the low back and tone the abdomen.
  • Mi: When bearing weight on the shoulder joints in Downward Facing Dog or plank, one should engage the muscles around the shoulder blades - rhomboids between them, latissimus dorsi below them, and cerratus to the side of them to stabilize the scapula down the back.
  • Fa: When bearing weight on the hands, spread and engage the fingers, pressing the knuckles down to distribute the weight evenly.
  • So: When bearing weight on the legs activate and spread the toes, grounding all four corners of the feet.
  • La: It is generally a good idea to engage our core muscles with the "zip up" in every pose but Sivasana or other relaxing poses, but especially if we need a bit of stability in balancing poses or support on exertion or during twists. Neutral pelvis makes core engagement easier and more functional (Re-La)
  • Ti: Keep the neck neutral and level with the rest of the spine (except in Bridge Pose or Plow, when the chin is tucked towards the chest, but even then, a neutral neck curve is even more important). Avoid dropping the head back - the cervical vertebra are usually very stressed from the amount of sitting that we do, and it is best not to stress them further with extreme angles. Trust me, there is nothing to see on the ceiling - instead, practice a hint of Jalandhara Bandha. I will have an entire post on this subject next week, because it is probably the most significant note to learn.
  • Do: And last but not least, one should avoid hanging in the joints without support, and this goes especially to the flexible people. Joints need to be supported with proper muscle engagement around them. For that reason, one should also avoid locking the joints, especially elbow and knee, and hyperextending them - when joints are locked, your muscles can't be of much help to them.

When joints are not weight bearing (say, you are on your back and your legs are up in the air), alignment doesn't matter so much, and it may be actually a good idea to move the joints and limbs every each way to mobilize them through a variety of angles and positions. It is best to begin a practice with simple, non-weight bearing movements to prepare your body. My next blog posts continue from here with some specific alignment instructions of the neck, shoulders, and pelvis, as well as recommendations on sequencing and content. Stay tuned!


Anna M.