Yoga training can help you feel and perform better but there are a few yoga alignment rules you should always follow for a safe and effective practice. Wrong alignment can hurt you while correct alignment brings the best results.
What is alignment?
In yoga, alignment means the correct arrangement of your body parts in a pose or during a transition. Having the right alignment means you’re getting the most out of the pose, whether it’s mobility, strength or flexibility training. It also means minimizing your risk of injury.
You may be performing a difficult pose and look great doing it but if you don’t have the correct alignment, it may cause a repetitive strain injury over time. Or it may cause annoying troubles like knee or shoulder pain.
Having good alignment is also key to progress because some poses seem too difficult but when you align your body parts well, it unlocks new possibilities! If you just second-guess how you should be doing a pose, you may not reap that many benefits from your yoga practice.
Correct yoga alignment may mean that your body parts are literally in one line, it may also mean they are at a certain angle to each other, or it can be about your posture. It sounds difficult but worry not, our simple alignment rules will sort you out!
7 yoga alignment rules you should know by heart
These alignment rules apply in every yoga practice. Follow them and you’ll feel the difference!
1. Joints stacked and in line
In general, your joints should be stacked above each other or in one line. For example knee above ankle in lunges or warrior poses, shoulders above elbows and wrists in plank or tabletop, hands above shoulders when you have raised arms.
It’s not only important that your joints are aligned vertically but also that you don’t let your knees fall in or out – legs should always be parallel. That’s crucial in poses such as the downward dog or chair pose.
In sideways poses, the same applies and also your body should be on the same plane – so shoulders, arms, hips, knees and ankles in one line. Make sure nothing is sticking out or flailing.
2. Neutral spine
In poses where you do not bend your spine, aim for a neutral spine alignment. It means somewhere between sticking your butt out and tucking your tailbone under. This is important not just in standing poses but also in various lunges where we tend to curve our lower backs too much and it often causes unnecessary back pain.
One way to make sure you have a neutral spine alignment is to engage your core – you should be doing that anyway, so it’s a win-win!
3. Straight back and neck in forward folds
Our tendency to hunch is super strong and we usually round our backs whenever we bend forward. We also do it because it makes us seemingly reach further but it can cancel the pose’s benefits because it pulls on different muscles..
As a general rule, whenever bending forward, bend from your hips and keep your back straight as much as you can. Think ribs-to-thighs rather than head-to-knees. Your neck should be just an elongation of the spine, so don’t throw your head forward or back.
4. Heel above toes
Whenever you’re on your toes, such as in plank or high lunge, make sure your heels are above your toes. If you push your foot backwards so your heel is behind your toes, it changes weight distribution in your body. If your heel is too far back, you’re taking the weight off your front foot or hands and the pose becomes unbalanced.
5. Hands and feet spread wide
Having a good foundation is key to balance and even weight distribution. When you stand, always spread your toes wide and distribute your weight into the whole foot. You’d be surprised how many people tend to stand on the inner or outer edges of their feet!
And the same applies to putting weight on your hands – always spread your fingers wide and aim middle fingers forward. Even better, press down into the bases of fingers to take some pressure off the wrists. This will give you more stability but also better arm alignment – all the way up to your shoulder!
6. Shoulders down
When we lift our arms, our shoulders tend to ride up to the ears. That puts a big strain on your trapezius and neck muscles and stresses your body out. So whenever you put your arms up, think “shoulders down”.
This may take some time as many people do it automatically. To improve your overall posture, when you’ve relaxed your shoulders, you can add another alignment cue: “shoulder blades together and down”. If you do that, you’ll have happy shoulders!
7. Microbend in the knee
If you keep a tiny bend in your knee, you avoid locking the joint and it gives you more mobility and stability at the same time. It also prevents hyperextension of the knee – the extreme angle that puts pressure on the front of the knee and can make it achy.
Microbending the knees can be a good tool in taming the ego as well because it prevents you from going to the extreme position straight away. That, in turn, gives you time for right alignment.
When you’re not sure what your alignment is like, and there’s no mirror you could use, try filming yourself. That gives you immediate feedback on your performance!
Yoga alignment tweaks that help when you struggle
There are a few yoga alignment tricks that help if you find a certain pose difficult. When you have trouble balancing in poses where one foot is forward and the other one back (e.g. lunge), move your feet at least hip-width apart or more. You’re not on a tightrope and having a wider base can stabilize you.
If you struggle with flexibility, for example in forward-folding poses, move your feet wider apart and bend your knees. That will give your back more room and you can still keep the right alignment. As you progress, you’ll be able to straighten your legs and move them closer.
Lastly, don’t shy away from props – a strap or blocks can enable you to achieve many poses with the correct alignment. It’s better to use props than strain and hold your breath, trying to get into the pose at all costs. If you don’t have props, use a belt or scarf instead of a strap, and big books instead of blocks.
Build an alignment habit
Practice makes perfect – it’s not just an empty phrase! The more you practice, the more automatic your yoga alignment becomes.
Every time you practice, keep reminding yourself – joints stacked and aligned, back straight, shoulders down, heels above toes, steady foundation, microbend in the knees. It will help make your yoga training safe and effective but it can also help in your other training.
Maybe you tend to turn your knees inwards when lifting weights or your shoulders ride up when you run. By incorporating the yoga alignment rules into your practice, you become more aware of your alignment off the mat too. These few simple cues can help improve your posture and remedy achy backs and necks.
Each SkillYoga practice includes some of these hints, so pay attention and you’ll reap the benefits!