Looking for some valuable alignment principles to enhance your yoga practice? First off, it might be useful to define what I mean by alignment. It’s how your body takes shape in any yoga pose; ideally, to strengthen your steadiness and stability. This support helps a yogi find ease, even in more challenging poses. Safe alignment also situates the body to reduce harmful stress on joints, ligaments, or other tissues to prevent injury.
The key things I ask myself when it comes to alignment are:
1.) Is it steady? I.e. look at your foundation, is there a way it can become more stable?
2.) Is it comfortable? I.e. there is no pain, sharpness, heat, or numbness (I realize that holding chair pose for 10 breaths might not be “comfortable” but it should be pain-free)
3.) How does my breath feel? I.e. is it strained? Does it flow easefully? These are the points you want to be aware of in a pose with the goal of finding ease.
Outside of these 3 main points there are a few other key alignment tips that apply for most poses. There are exceptions to every rule, but these can be a great starting point to refine your yoga practice.
Shoulders Away From Ears
This one happens a lot in yoga, even for myself! For most of us, the spaces around the shoulder are one of the first areas to hold tension with stress. Anytime your arms are raised a good cue to think about is to relax/soften/release shoulders away from ears.
Sometimes I hear the cue to draw the shoulder blades towards one another on the back of the body and open chest. Although this isn’t “wrong” and it’s essential for many poses I question the value of drawing the shoulders back during a neutral pose like tadasana (mountain pose) or sukahasana (easy sitting pose). For some this might be useful, especially if your shoulders tend to roll forward. However, some students may hyper-retract their shoulder blades causing tightness between them. With time and repetition, it may even turn into a postural imbalance. I like to encourage a “neutral shoulder” so the outer edge of the shoulder lines up with the ears. Of course this won’t quite be the same for everyone but it’s a good starting point.
You may have heard the cue “tuck the tailbone.” In some cases I see this as being a useful tool like when tucking the tailbone for marjaryasana (cat pose). Alternatively, in some standing shapes it may cause a muscular imbalance and even lower back pain by flattening the lower lumbar spine. Poses to be cautious of tailbone “tucking” would be tadasana (mountain), and virbhadrasana ll (warrior 2). The other option is to lengthen the tailbone towards the mat/earth/floor. This encourages a neutral pelvis rather than a tilt forward OR swaying back.
Finding Your Foundation
Often the joint that’s misaligned isn’t the origin of the problem. Torque on the knee or hip might actually stem from weight distribution in the foot. Another example is wrist pain; the way weight is placed on the palm will affect how it feels during weight bearing poses like plank or downward facing dog. I remember when I first started practicing yoga, the pressure in poses like downward dog were unbearable for my wrists. I could barely hold it for more than a few breaths! Here’s my tips for hands and for feet:
Spread your fingertips wide (without feeling pain through the webs of your hands), then press down through the tips of your fingers and the base of your knuckles. Feel the space, or sensation of space, through the center of your palm.
This technique can take stress off the wrists and assist in creating stability (Finally, no more slipping on the mat!).
Ground down through both balls of your feet (the big ball below the toe and the little ball on the outside edge) and all the way back into your heel. Feel the slight pressure along the outside edges of your feet with the sensation of the inner arches lifting. Keep your toes soft.
Killing it at balancing asana is only a small part of why this awareness in the feet is important. It will evenly distribute weight and encourage arch support. This means less stress for joints like the knee and the hip which can prevent injury.
Soft Jaw and Facial Muscles
It is so common to hold tension in the face. Having this reminder is great because it tends to come up in many poses and it’s not always obvious. As you practice, check in with how your jaw feels along with the area around your eyes, even soften the space between your brows.
These are only a few tips to help refine your practice. Trust yourself in finding what works for you. Have an asana you’re curious about? Let me know your alignment questions in the comments below!