When we refer to the word "alignment" in yoga, we are referencing and describing how ideally/typically the body should be arranged in yoga postures (asanas). Much of the focus in alignment is on creating straight lines, finding length, stacking bones, and achieving proper posture - however it can mean much more.
Alignment doesn't appear any one way on individual yogis. It is not about creating perfect angles or achieving desirable poses. Actually, it's all about helping each student become aware of their own bodies, then utilizing their physical abilities to properly approach the learning of a new posture in yoga. With the help of a qualified teacher and using knowledge of yoga, self-awareness, and the use of modifications and props (yoga straps, blocks, etc), alignment can be achieved no matter what level of flexibility or mobility, and no matter the individual’s shape or size.
The main goals of alignment are to maximize the benefits in each asana and reduce susceptibility to injuries, while teaching you to recognize your body and its own limitations, allowing for your practice to flourish in a safe and environment.
Alignment is not about perfection, it’s about what works for each individual and their unique bodies. Not every body will look the same in every pose meaning that alignment isn’t universal, but some of the core principles are.
Alignment cues are most often given for functional reasons and are concerned with the biomechanics of each muscle or joint and achieving optimal function. It relates to the structure of the body and how they move interconnectedly. In functional alignment, teachers take into consideration the shape of the bones and resulting muscle tension that may enable or disable students from performing certain movements. A yoga pose using this principle may not always look perfect but will feel structurally sound.
Example of a functional alignment cue:
"Keep a bend in the knees in Downward Dog to avoid putting pressure on the low
back and the back of the legs."
Alignment for aesthetics is not recommended by and large because of its disregard for safety and injury prevention. Aesthetic alignment often means that teachers encourage things like perfect right angles or stick-straight lines, but these are not absolutes when practicing yoga. Many yogis strive to achieve the “full expression” of a pose based on this type of alignment, but these shapes are not always healthy or accessible for every individual. Pushing our bodies beyond their limits to achieve these sometimes unrealistic shapes could lead to long-term issues.
Example of an aesthetic alignment cue:
"When in Warrior II, the front leg should be at a perfect 90-degree angle coming from the hip to the knee and down the front of the shin."
Many yoga practices and yoga instructors encompass both aspects of alignment in their teachings. It’s rarely one or the other. Every individual has a different body shape, a different anatomical makeup, and different physical capabilities that should all be considered in regular yoga practice. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to understand and become aware of your own body, what your restrictions are (eg. when/where you feel pain), and where you thrive.
You can learn more about alignment and about yourself in our
Online Yoga Progam, "The Art of Alignment & Awareness."
See more in our section, "Yoga Programs"
** This blog post is inspired by "The Yoga Alignment Guide" **(https://www.yogaalignmentguide.com)