Shifting your knee a little or extending your arm directly over your head might sound like tiny little details but they can make a world of difference to your practice. Here are the best ways to improve your alignment in Yoga.
Why is Yoga alignment important?
Alignment is the term used to describe the correct way to perform a Yoga pose so that you reap all its benefits and minimize the risk of injury. Sometimes, alignment means your body parts are literally aligned – e.g. your arm next to your ear, or your knee above the ankle – yet it can also mean the correct posture – e.g. your shoulders relaxed and back straight. Even if you cannot perform the particular pose in its full expression, correct alignment is key to help you progress.
Sure, being aligned makes you look good but its true importance lies way deeper. Correct alignment achieves that what’s supposed to be stretched stretches, what’s supposed to work works in the right way without overloading other muscles and ligaments, and that your bones are arranged in a way that doesn’t hurt your joints, tendons, ligaments or other connective tissue.
It is precisely for this purpose that we use props or modifications if we’re not ready to perform the full pose. Having the right alignment in each stage is crucial to make sure your muscles are strengthening, stretching and learning new movement patterns. When your body isn’t aligned, you’re not benefitting from your Yoga practice as much and can hurt yourself.
Performing a pose out of alignment won’t cause instant harm but may cause a repetitive strain injury over time. Many sports injuries are cumulative, which means they happen over long periods of time when a certain body part is used in a way that puts too much strain on it. That’s why it’s important to establish optimal alignment early in your Yoga practice.
Yoga alignment principles
Even though each pose is different, there are several alignment principles that almost always apply – bear them in mind as you go through your practice.
- Create a solid foundation – your hands or feet should be spread wide (fingers and toes wide apart), well-grounded with weight distributed evenly across them.
- Keep your shoulders down and neck long – our shoulders ride up way too often and it can hurt us big time overloading the trapezius muscles. Whenever you arrive at a pose, consciously lower your shoulders, and make sure your neck is long, in line with the spine.
- Stack and/or align your joints – in general, your joints should be stacked (shoulders above elbows and wrists in plank or tabletop, or knees above the ankle when your knee is bent), or aligned on the same plane (in side bends, hips, knees and ankles in general)
- Engage your core – throughout your Yoga practice, keep your core firm, so all your core muscles work together to provide stability and strength.
- Keep a microbend in your knees – we do this to protect the knee from hyperextension. Whether you’re standing or sitting with straight legs, keep the microbend in your knees.
There are many verbal cues in Yoga that are meant to guide you to the ideal alignment. Some of them may not make sense when you hear them for the first time but once you learn what they mean, they are priceless.
Many of them apply to so many poses that you can simply use them as a mental checklist when you practice Yoga. Of course, not all of them are relevant to all poses but your common sense will guide you.
Here are some of the most common Yoga alignment cues and their relevance:
- Square your hips (usually in forward facing poses, such as lunge, warrior I, tree) – your hips should be on the same level whether you’re looking from the front or the side. When facing the short edge of your mat, your hips should be aligned with it. We have a natural tendency to tilt the hips, especially when performing an asymmetrical pose, such as lunge, so that one hip ends up being forward of the other one, or we lift one higher up. Squaring your hips means levelling them and making them face forward.
- Knee over the ankle, and aligned with the toes (usually in lunges, and warrior poses) – this one is literal, your knee should be stacked directly over your ankle, not forward or behind. It’s important because when your knee is constantly forward of the ankle, the angle can contribute to knee pain. The ‘aligned with the toes’ part is about making sure your knee isn’t falling in or out – the best way to ensure that is to look down to see if it’s aligned with your toes.
- Rotate your arms inwards (usually in downward dog) – it means turning your upper arms inwards, so that your elbow creases face each other. This changes the position of your arm bone in the shoulder joint so you have a greater range of motion and can go deeper in the position.
- Rotate/spiral your inner thighs backwards (usually in standing poses, forward folds, downward dog) – this may sound confusing but it’s simple. We tend to turn our thighs slightly out without realising, so ‘turning them in’ realigns them, resulting in your thigh bones sitting nicely in your hip joints and you may feel a pleasant broadening sensation in your lower back.
- Bend from your hips (usually when folding forward) – we tend to bend from the waist but your spine doesn’t end there. To fully extend the spine in forward folds and protect it from getting hurt, it’s best to imagine you’re bending your body at hip level, even though you don’t literally do that.
- Fold forward with the back straight – folding and straight back? Sounds like an oxymoron, right? It means that you should have your back as straight as possible but at a certain point in your bending forward, it’ll curve a little. The main aim is to not round your upper back and not hide your head like a turtle – the spine should be long, extended and only slightly curved without any humps.
- Draw your shoulder blades down/together and down – this is used in almost any position and is very useful to remember. This cue helps to improve your posture, draw your shoulders down, and open your chest a little. When your shoulder blades are ‘flaring’ away from your back, it turns your shoulders inwards and your upper back is hunched – drawing your shoulder blades together and down remedies the issue and nicely aligns your back.
- Draw your lower ribs back (usually in positions when your arms are raised) – when we raise our arms, it tends to make our lower ribs flare out. That, in turn, makes your back arch more than necessary. By drawing your lower ribs slightly back, you automatically adjust your posture – it works a treat!
- Hug your elbows to your chest (usually in chaturanga and cobra) – by keeping your elbows close to your body, you have your wrists, elbows and shoulders aligned, you’re not straining your wrists, and you’re engaging your triceps symmetrically.
- Extend your arm over your head, in line with the ear (usually in side bends, triangle pose, twists with one arm raised) – whether you’re reaching towards the ceiling or towards the wall over your head, having your arm aligned with your ear means you’re keeping it in the central line, not leaning forward or back. This is a tricky one because we often think we’re doing it right until someone corrects us.
Yes, you’ve guessed it, the best tools to use for correct alignment are Yoga props! Can’t reach your toes with a straight back? Use blocks or a strap. Are you trying to achieve a tricky pose, gripping your foot with your fingers, and can’t quite get there with all your body parts aligned? Use a strap to give yourself more space. Bear in mind that props are meant to help you progress with the correct alignment but don’t rely on them too much. When you feel you’re ready to go deeper, go prop-free!
Another simple tool is foot placement. Usually, we tend to have our feet together, hip-width apart, or aligned, such as in warrior pose – front and back foot should be in one line. A simple, yet effective tool is to put your feet slightly further apart – perhaps a couple of inches wider. This can help you balance better and put the rest of your body in better alignment. It works in forward folds, downward dog, warrior poses, and more!
If you think you could use some help with foot placement and alignment, mat marks might be just the thing for you! You can get a Yoga mat designed to provide this guidance, or you can get creative and make marks on your current mat. A few marks along the midline (lengthways) and a couple along the top and bottom end of your mat (where you usually place your hands and feet for downward dog) will do the trick.
Practice makes perfect
Nobody has the perfect alignment from the get go. As you get used to the cues and what they mean, you’ll start adjusting your own body even if you don’t hear the instructions every time. If you’re not sure how you’re doing, you can record your own practice for instant feedback. Nevertheless, the best feedback is the one your own body gives you when you achieve the correct alignment – you’ll feel the pose working, and you’ll feel like you can move better or go deeper than before.
Practicing Yoga with the ideal alignment will also translate into your athletic training – it may improve your posture, the way you align your legs when lifting weights, or it may stop your shoulders riding too high automatically. Alignment may not sound like much but can be the key to your progress.