The idea of yoga alignment is nothing new to most yogis.
Anyone who’s been to a yoga class understands that all poses or asana have a basic framework. So why do certain teachers offer different cues or perspectives? I know some students are desperate to know how to perfectly practice each shape. On the other hand, the anxiety of doing any pose “the wrong way” throws off a lot of yogis on the mat. The confused looks, the blank stares… maybe you’ve been the one scanning the room wondering where you are in a sequence. Beyond the feeling of being lost, the concern that yoga could be doing damage is a real fear for many students. So how can you stay safe and practice asana effectively? To answer this question, we’ll be exploring how to refine alignment based on your unique structure. Before we get into the nitty-gritty, there are a few bases to cover first that could be mind-blowing.
Leslie Kaminoff, author of Yoga Anatomy, has been quoted saying that asanas don’t have alignment. This belief creates a lot of freedom for yogis. When this realization hits home it opens the doors to so much creativity. Suddenly, there are SO many ways to practice one pose with tons of different approaches. The only real focus should be on context. For example, if you have a super flexible yogi does it make sense to focus on stretching? Maybe not. It’s the same idea for yogis with injuries or an imbalances. The belief that not every pose is ideal for every person and not everyone should practice in the same way. Which brings me to my next point…
The philosophy of “Sthira Sukha Asanam”—all postures should be steady, stable, and “comfortable”
Whenever I practice or teach I always look to find steadiness and stability in any pose. This principle is essential for any shape in the physical sense but also applies to breathing. Asking myself “what makes me more stable” or “what helps me breathe better” suddenly transforms the practice to an internal experience rather than how it looks.
When I say “comfortable” it means that holding some poses for longer is not a walk in the park. Sometimes it takes some serious “tapas” or austerity to get through it. Chair pose can be serious business if you’re holding it for 10+ breaths! The point is to watch for tingling, numbness, sharpness, or heat—basically anything that could signal damage. Always avoid pain or even stretching sensations directly in the joints since joint laxity (loosening of the joint) can lead to instability and is tough to reverse.
So without further adieu, here are some ways to explore your own anatomy and discover what is best for your practice.
Alignment in Downdog: shoulders
For downdog, I regularly hear “external rotation” being taught as the action for the shoulders. Although it’s not wrong, this isn’t ideal for everyone. For me, having the shoulders away from the ears is essential. I find this action helps me with my breath while reducing tension.
To play with the shoulder alignment in downdog try taking your shoulders from external rotation (armpits in), to a neutral shoulder, then to internal rotation. Go back and forth between the two extremes a few times and find the space that feels the most steady, stable, and comfortable for your shoulder joint. If it’s in external rotation that’s great, but if it’s neutral or even slightly internally rotated there’s nothing wrong with that either.
Alignment in Tadasana: feet together, or apart?
I remember being in India and one of my teachers favored keeping the feet together for tadasana. When I asked him why, he hinted that it was stronger. I’ve always felt more steady, stable, and comfortable with my feet under my hips. When I practice with feet together there is a different energetic quality, but I can still get that same strength in my legs with the feet apart.
To explore the difference, join the feet, keep the knees soft, and actively press the legs together. Then, experiment with placing feet hip distance but keep the same strength in the thighs. Lucikly, right or wrong doesn’t apply here, instead practice the option that allows you to find sthira sukah asanam.
Alignment in twists
There are a few myths out there about the sit bones in seated twists. Those pointy bones under your seat, a.k.a. the ischial tuberosities, are often seen as the “anchor” that any pose needs. This belief can create instability since the sacrum and the pelvis are meant to move together, not independently. The only exception is in very rare cases like childbirth. When practicing, try using other spaces as an anchor that are already grounded like the foot and the leg in ardha matsayendrasana (half lord of the fishes).
Another potentially destabilizing cue is to “twist from below the navel.” The lumbar spine is perfect for lateral flexion (side bending), along with flexion and extension. But, surprise! Twisting isn’t something the lumbar spine is meant to do. The thoracic spine which is around the ribcage can twist. To encourage stability, the twisting could be from above the navel rather than below.
I hope you enjoyed these perspectives on yoga alignment! Did this spark any questions? Leave a comment down below! Curious to know more about alignment? Join me for my webinar this spring!
I am so glad you addressed feet apart or together. The way my legs are built causes my knees to naturally knock in together and keep my feet apart. When I bring my feet together it feels uncomfortable and unstable. When I first started practicing yoga, I remember repeatedly getting flack for not keeping my heels together at a bikram studio I was going to and it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. I slowly began abandoning my practice and it wasn’t until a few years later that I truly fell in love with yoga when I found some great teachers that taught me to be more forgiving of my body and embrace modifications and props when needed.
I’ve had similar experiences too Krystal! I’m glad you can relate. So important to recognize how different bodies and experiences can really be. Glad you gave yoga a second chance 🙂