Thoughtful alignment cues help make a solid foundation for any yoga practice.
Understanding and applying good form can prevent injuries while encouraging proper biomechanics. This can have a powerful impact on your life away from your yoga mat. With that said, from time-to-time there are alignment “rules” that are meant to be broken. These well-intentioned guidelines given by yoga teachers generally come from a.) the training that has been passed down to them or b.) a teacher’s direct experience they want to share with you.
So how can this be problematic? Simply put, not all bodies are built the same. Everything from tendon lengths to hip socket shapes will vary meaning that a “one-size-fits-all” approach can be dogmatic. There’s value in having a solid framework to draw from, yet there’s no reason for unnecessarily strict alignment. As a student, exploring your own experience allows you to discover what works and what doesn’t which is essential when developing your personal practice. For anyone who teaches, learning from your student’s feedback can help you develop useful strategies they can apply during or even after class.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty: if your first response to breaking the “rules” sounds like: “I always do that in (insert pose here)” Don’t let me rain on your parade. If it feels great in your body, that’s awesome. Just consider these rule-breakers to be “food-for-thought” rather than more rules to follow.
Without further adieu, here are a few common alignment cues I’ve heard over the years that you might want to think twice about.
Flex your foot in pigeon pose
How many times have you heard “Flex your foot to protect your knee.” Ok, so I get why a teacher might offer this cue. The idea is that when you dorsiflex (i.e. bring your toes towards your shin) the tibialis anterior contracts. This muscle shares a fascial connection with the TFL (tensor fascae lata). So, why does this matter? The fascial connection crosses the knee joint and the iliotibial band aka IT band which is known as a knee stabilizer. The idea is that keeping the muscle taught will stop the knee from moving which in turn, prevents injury.
Now, this is where it gets tricky: how many people can actually flex their foot without sickeling their ankle? The answer is definitely not many people! The few that can are those yogis who can sit comfortably with their knee at a 90 degree angle which requires a certain amount of hip mobility. Some students will never get this level of rotation in their hip socket (no matter how hard they try!) due to their bone structure. Not to mention that sickeling the foot could cause damage to the structures—like ligaments and other tissues—that support the ankle.
Ultimately, if you can flex your foot, great! However, don’t feel like you’re doomed to injure yourself with a relaxed ankle. Here’s what to try instead:
- Use a cushion or block underneath the raised hip (same side as the bent knee) to take pressure off the knee joint
- Bend into both knees if there’s excess pressure on your knee (90 degrees at your knees for the front and the back leg)
- A pointed toe is fine unless there are sensations in your knee. If that’s the case, try one of the other variations
- The idea is to prevent any meniscus tears or the lengthening of the ligaments that support the joint (which can cause laxity)
Shoulder down for (reclined) twists
I understand what the intention might be to keep the shoulders down. I imagine it’s to keep relaxed in the shoulders and to avoid neck tension. But what would happen if “gasp” we just let the shoulder lift and kept that same relaxation?! Ta da! The result will twist a slightly different area of your spine.
What to try instead:
- Practicing the twist BOTH ways (i.e. shoulder lifted and not). Try exploring the difference for yourself
- Experiment with props, underneath the knees if you’re keeping your shoulder down and underneath the shoulder if you’re allowing it to lift
- Ask yourself, how does it affect your body and your breath? Find which variation works for you.
Back foot parallel in Warrior ll
This alignment cue seems to stem from tradition. For most people, keeping the back foot parallel will cause your foot and knee to go in slightly different directions (i.e. knee tracking towards the front of the mat while the back foot points sideways). This adds additional torsion to the knee joint which can lead to instability. If you can keep the knee and foot aligned it closes off the SI (aka sacroiliac) joint which connects the sacrum (low back) to the pelvis. Changing this stance may reduce compression in the lower back and prevent strain in the SI joint on the same side as the back leg.
What to try instead:
- Turn the back foot in slightly, this will keep the knee and foot aligned while providing more space for the SI joint
Fix your sit bones in seated twists
Every pose has an “anchor,” meaning the area that connects you to the ground which does not move. The anchor acts as the foundation of the pose. For seated twists, the sit bones (aka ischial tuberosities) are NOT it even though it seems like the obvious choice. The sacrum and the pelvis are meant to move with each other rather than being isolated. Forcing them to work separately can create instability (slipped SI joints anyone? Ouch!).
What to try instead:
- Let the sit bones (aka ischial tuberosities) move while the hand, thigh, or in some cases, foot (heel/sole) act as the anchor
- Focus on twisting from above the navel i.e. your thoracic spine which is meant to twist while letting the lumbar spine do what it does best (i.e. flexion, extension, and lateral flexion… NOT twisting)
Seeing the most advanced variation as the end goal
Since when is yoga a gymnastics competition? I totally understand the need to progress. I also believe that having curiosity for advanced variations can be fun! But seeing poses as a “goal” is a detriment to the practice of yoga itself. This is not to discourage you from playing with arm balances, inversions, or other advanced postures but rather to lead you in a direction of inquiry. How can you be bold without being forceful? How can you be honest or more kind with yourself? How can you lead with authenticity?
There are plenty of days that I take the less advanced variation, but does that make me any less of a yogi? Hell no! In fact, having that honesty and bravery to know when to give myself permission is part of an evolving practice.
Yoga alignment is a skill that every yogi should learn. The big lesson is how to approach it with less rigidity. Every person is unique in how they will approach their practice. Becoming open to new possibilities will help you embody your unique expression of yoga.