Focussing on the alignment of the physical body in yoga postures (asanas) should never be done simply to create a picture perfect physical shape. Rather, alignment in asana has two main purposes: first, to ensure that the postures are done in a way which minimises the risk of injury, and, secondly, to ensure that they are done in a way which directs the flow of prana (life force, or energy) appropriately within the body. Different postures affect the flow of prana in different ways, each yoga practitioner has his or her own individual body, and each asana has its own detailed alignment principles, but awareness of the following ten points should inform the practice of all asanas and help avoid injury.
- Stability and lightness: all yoga postures should be practised in a way which seeks to balance stability or steadiness (sthira) with lightness or ease (sukha). Try to maintain a sense of both yielding to the floor and rebounding away from it. Think of generating all movement, however subtle, from the core of your body in your abdomen and try to maintain a gentle engagement of your lower abdominal muscles throughout your asana practice. Challenge yourself, but don’t create strain.
- Start with the foundation: whether that is your feet (in standing postures), your sitting bones (in seated postures), your hands (in hand balances), or whatever it may be, it is essential to pay attention to establishing a secure foundation from which your asana can grow. Then you can look to the detail of the particular asana.
- Balance your feet: in standing postures, check how your weight is distributed across your feet. Is it more on one foot than the other? More on the outer edges of the feet than the inner? Or more on the heels than on the balls of the feet? Our feet have three main weight bearing points: the ball of the big toe, the ball of the little toe and the heel. Try to distribute your weight evenly across all three points and (in most standing postures) evenly between both feet.
- Toes in or out? In general, when standing in a symmetrical posture, ensure that your feet (unless you are asked to bring them together or in a small number of postures where the toes are deliberately turned out) are parallel both to each other and to the edges of your mat. For many of us who habitually turn our toes out when standing, this in practice means focussing on turning the toes inwards very slightly. Similarly, when sitting with one or more legs extended, ensure that the toes of the extended leg foot point straight upwards, and that both sides of the leg are extending. Aligning the feet in this way both ensures that our knees are in the same alignment as our feet (and not twisting) and protects the lower back. The latter is particularly important when bending forwards or backwards.
- What about my knees? The knee joint has limited rotational movement, and, especially when standing or lunging, it is important that the knee points in the same direction as the foot of the same leg, and does not twist inwards or (though less likely) outwards. In postures such as uttanasana (standing forward bend) and adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog), this is generally achieved by keeping the feet about as wide apart as the hips. It is also important in asymmetrical standing postures (such as the warrior postures) to ensure that the knee does not move forward of the line of the heel (the exception to this is lunging with the back knee on the floor). Finally, the knee should not lock, or hyper-extend. Always maintain a “micro-bend” by only ever straightening the leg to about 90% of its capacity to straighten. This can be achieved by engaging and lifting the thigh muscles, rather than simply pulling the kneecap back, and will avoid straining the hamstrings.
- And thighs? In general, when bending forwards or backwards (whether standing, sitting, lying or inverted), engage your thigh muscles and maintain a slight, but noticeable, inward rotation of your thighs (not so much that it distorts your knee alignment by making you knock-kneed). This will allow the sacro-iliac joints in the lower back to open and avoid the compression in these joints which is the source of much lower back pain.
- Remember the ear repellent: in most asanas, your shoulders should move slightly back and your shoulderblades should move down and into your back. Try to resist the temptation either to roll your shoulders forward or to lift them towards your ears. Note that this is not the same as either simply dropping the shoulders or squeezing the shoulderblades together and creating a barrel chest.
- How do I twist? Because of the structure of the vertebrae, disks and joints of the spine, the higher up the spine you go, the more inherent rotational movement the spine has. For this reason, twisting postures should focus on rotation in the middle and upper back, not the lower (lumbar) spine. Initiate your twist from the core of the body in the abdominal area: think of turning the navel first, then the chest, then the shoulders, and finally the head and neck. Try not to lead with your head in an effort to appear deeper in the posture: rather, allow the twist to grow organically. Imagine each inhale lengthening your spine (both upwards and downwards) and creating more space between your vertebrae, and each exhale deepening the rotation.
- Is backbending natural? Yes, our spine is designed to bend both forwards and backwards safely. While the lumbar spine (lower back) has the least ability to rotate, it is often the easiest part of the spine to bend (especially for those of us with tight shoulders and upper backs, perhaps from desk work). This can lead to lower back discomfort, as we overuse the relative mobility of the lower back to create a seemingly deeper backbend, in the process creating friction or jamming between the lumbar vertebrae. In backbending postures, follow these three rules: (a) even though you are bending backwards, try to create space between the vertebrae by keeping a sense of the spine lengthening – that will allow the spine more room to bend without creating friction; (b) try to take the bend as evenly as possible through the whole spine – don’t over-emphasise the lumbar spine, and don’t forget that your neck is part of your spine: try not to drop your heavy head back onto the relatively small cervical vertebrae, but keep your neck lengthening as you stretch your head back; (c) try not to clench your buttocks: they should be lightly engaged, but not clenched, otherwise this too will inhibit the spine’s ability to move.
- A different perspective: in inverted postures such as shoulderstand, headstand and handstand, two of the most important parts of your body are your legs. Engaging your abdominal and leg muscles in order to keep a sense of upward movement of the legs is essential both for general stability in the posture and to avoid the weight of the legs sinking into the lower back. In inversions, try to reach for the ceiling with both the ball of your foot and your heel at the same time.
Author Biography Graham Burns
Graham spent 23 years working as a commercial lawyer in the City and even longer playing competitive sport. Graham teaches regular public classes in Notting Hill, Camden, Islington and Clapham. He also teaches yoga history, Sanskrit and meditation on the Yogacampus yoga teacher training programme, as well as acting as a student mentor on that programme, and a board member for the Yogacampus trainings in the north of England. Graham teaches occasional sessions on other teacher trainings, workshops around the UK, and yoga weekends and holidays in the UK and overseas.
In all his teaching, Graham emphasises that the physical benefits of asana are only a small part of the joy of yoga. Much more important is the combined use of body, breath and mind to help us find our true essence. His dynamic but relaxed asana style is rooted in his studies of the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition with Richard Freeman, but Graham’s classes are imaginatively sequenced with a particular focus on their more subtle energetic effects, and typically also include both pranayama (breath work) and meditation/visualisation. Graham initially trained in California in 2000, and continues to study with top US based teachers Rod Stryker and Richard Freeman. He is a member of the teaching faculty of the Yogacampus Yoga Teacher Training Diploma course, where, as well as teaching meditation and Sanskrit, he is able to indulge his passion for the study of yoga history and philosophy. Graham holds a Master’s degree in Indian religions from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where he specialised in exploring the historical roots of contemporary yoga. Above all, he is known for his humorous and light-hearted approach to teaching, while still preserving the best elements of the yoga tradition. More information can be found on Graham’s website www.samanayoga.com