Proper Alignment in Yoga

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Generally speaking, when someone sets out to learn a new skill there is a natural human impulse to want to get it right. Being able to do a yoga pose in a certain way often becomes an extrapolated question of safety. Doing it right means safety. Doing it wrong means injury. Unfortunately, anyone who has engaged in a deep inquiry of yoga knows that looking for rights and wrongs to follow when it comes to practice is not only an unhelpful context, but is the primary obstacle to understanding the role of engaging poses as a means towards health and well-being.

Over the years, as my practice has evolved from more accomplishment-based to a contemplative context, my classes have become associated with a therapeutic orientation and safety. Taking emphasis off of giving the body ever-increasing challenge, in favor of setting boundaries to work within, has positioned me in a niche filled primarily by long-time practitioners who have become disenchanted and teachers who are hungry for new information. Sometimes, this means questioning long-held conventions and embracing different roles for practice, and teachers, to play

When we decide that practice is not about doing a pose right then that means it gets to be about something else.

One of the workshop titles I offer is: “Making Vinyasa Yoga Safe.” I started out as a power vinyasa guy and have developed ways of bringing alternate ideas into a vinyasa class context with the hope of encouraging purposes beyond fitness and a more personal inquiry.  I have found that by slowing things down and using simpler forms, it becomes easier to get clearer on what we are doing and why, and to do away with a lot of unintended consequences. However, I forever come up against the deeply ingrained notion that safety in yoga equals “right” or “proper” alignment. 

“I think I am in the wrong workshop”

“Why is that?”

“Because I believe in proper alignment.”

“OK, well, what do you mean by ‘proper alignment’?”

“You know….neutral pelvis…shoulders sliding down the back……”

“Yes, I am familiar with those cues. But this idea of alignment, where does it come from?”

“…..I think it’s scientific.”

“Respectfully, I question that. I think these are arbitrary ideas that are not based in science so much as the dictates of charismatic men.”

During the group discussion that preceded this exchange, I had used an example of whether or not having your knee right over your ankle in a lunge pose is inherently safer than having it bent past your knee. I asserted that one could be safe in either position and there was no way to know just from looking at it from the outside. A wonderful teacher, Amy Matthews, who is far more adept at the science behind the human body than myself, had disabused me of this myth and I always use it as an example to suggest that these alignment cues cannot be asserted as facts, only ideas.

“You are going to blow out your knee if you do your lunges like that.”

“Really? How do you know that? Can you really know what is happening in my body?”

Empowering people to discover for themselves where their practice is safe and serving them best is a way of teaching alignment.

The notion that there is one right answer when it comes to a yoga pose, or that there might be a set of stock cues that would equal an objective optimal alignment, true across the vast diversity of human bodies, is simply not a tenable position. Not only has a lot of the science behind such assertions been falling apart with new discoveries that reveal how little we actually know about the human body, but the direct experiences of thoughtful practitioners everywhere has proven otherwise. Giving anatomical directives that impose arbitrary ideas of what our bodies are supposed to do, or how our bodies are meant to be, has not led to the Promised Land.

The golden rules of asana alignment that yoga in the modern world has largely been based on have propagated a form of dominance over the way we view ourselves and others. The desire for objective metrics and levels of attainment, together with the ability of those dynamics to prey upon our insecurities and manipulate our behaviors for financial gain, has served as a convenient enabler in perpetuating a tragic lack of self-love and esteem. The last thing we need is more yoga teachers telling people the right or proper way to do yoga poses. Utilizing poses in ways that explore internal understandings of the vast possibility behind our existence in the world is where the real advances are being made.

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J. Brown

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer, and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, New York. A teacher for 15 years, he is known for his pragmatic approach to teaching personal, breath-centered therapeutic yoga that adapt to individual needs. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, Elephant Journal and Yogadork.