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Free Resources – Defining & Teaching Alignment

Questions Answered Here

  • What is meant by the term “alignment?”
  • What is the goal of alignment?
  • How are alignment and prana said to relate?
  • No alignment teaching works for all students. Why?
  • According to Paul Grilley, what is the sign of a mature teacher?
  • Describe priorities in teaching alignment.
  • Describe what is meant by the phrase “teach people, not poses.”
  • What is the value in empowering students to learn alignment “from the inside” and how can this be accomplished?

Defining Alignment

  • Alignment refers to how the body is placed when practicing a pose.
  • It often refers to the outer body: bones, muscles, feet, arms, head, etc.
  • It may also refer to the inner body such as organs.
  • Typically, the goal of alignment is to move and explore in healthy, functional, safe ways, and to avoid injury.
  • Breath is an intimate aspect in placing the body.
  • With excellent alignment, the practitioner may feel prana flowing optimally.
Relation Between Inner & Outer Body

Instructions regarding alignment express relationships and set the shape of the pose, the vessel within which the alchemy of yogic action takes place… On a subtler level, alignment extends to the relation between inner and outer body—most specifically, how harmoniously the movement of the breath or prana as an expression of mind and intention complements the posture. If breath and body are in conflict, your practice is missing the kind of inner alignment that really counts, regardless of how your posture appears outwardly. – Doug Keller, Hatha Yoga in the Anusara Style Third Edition

Beauty = Anatomically Functional

If alignment is our focus, what we view as “beautiful” then becomes what is anatomically functional… When we see photographs of models hunching or knocking their knees, our first thought may not be admiration, but rather, That looks like it hurts! Our aspiration becomes not to look a certain way, but to be able to move our bones along their intended lines. – Amber Burke, Yoga International, The Pros and Cons of an Alignment-Focused Practice

Teaching Alignment

Principles, Not Rules

  • Alignment principles and pose cues help teachers to learn how to guide students toward their optimal experience. However, in order for anything to be systematized—such as pose cues— there is a simplification, thereby increasing generalizations and lessening a focus on individuality.
  • When principles are interpreted as “rules,” there is increased danger of ideas being utilized in times that are inappropriate to individuals.
  • Students will experience the same pose differently. An example of the most basic example of this is that when practicing the same pose, one student may feel no sensation at all, while another must manage extremely strong sensation. But the differences among students go beyond such obvious ones, based on variations in skeleton, health, lifestyle, mental/emotional patterns, and so much more.
  • Therefore, while poses have an intention, the way to help students experience the intention of a pose may mean less reliance on standardized cues, and more observation and empowerment of the student to individualize the practice appropriately. See more in sections below.

Teaching Priorities

Alignment cues based on how a student looks in a posture is aesthetic yoga; cues based on generating sensation are functional… Each posture [is] a tool to help us generate an appropriate stress: either tension or compression. As a teacher, ask yourself, “what type of stress do I want the student to experience, where and how much?” – Bernie Clark, Yoga Journal, 8 Keys to Take Your Yoga Teaching Beyond Standardized Alignment Cues

  • Remember and communicate that the purpose of practicing asana is not to “look good” in a pose, but to optimize health and well-being. Therefore, the priority is function over aesthetics.
  • Use these priorities when determining how to address a student’s alignment: 1. safety (and the elimination of pain), 2. breath, 3. spine.
  • To go deeper, see Alignment Cues: Introduction (and the additional topics within the Alignment Cues section)
All Bodies are Different

Perhaps the reason for not getting into a specific asana or experiencing physical unease in the process is because you’re trying to make your body move in a way it was not designed to simply because you saw some celebrity in a photo do that pose. – Jules Barber, yoginomics, Are You Functioning in Your Yoga Practice?

Aesthetics of the Pose are Secondary

Modern yoga teacher training programs offer many standardized cues for each posture learned. Standards are nice—they make it much easier to learn how to guide students into the large number of poses taught in yoga classes, but unfortunately students are not standardized. There is no average student. The alignment cues absorbed by teacher trainees are approximations: at best they can serve as guidelines but they should never be used as dogmatic requirements. If the student’s intention in taking a yoga class is to regain or maintain optimal health, then postures should serve a functional role, making the aesthetics of the pose secondary, at best. – Bernie Clark, Yoga Journal, 8 Keys to Take Your Yoga Teaching Beyond Standardized Alignment Cues

Maturity Requires Outgrowing Generalizations

Rules of alignment became both rigid and pervasive with the rise of yoga teacher training programs… in the late 1980s and early 1990s… Any time an art is constrained to mass production, it will be simplified, codified and rigidified. This is true in yoga, in dance, in the martial arts and in religion. Simpler is easier to teach and absorb, but it also leads to inaccurate generalizations and intolerance of individuality… We cannot teach effectively without some generalizations, but we haven’t reached maturity until we have outgrown generalizations and can competently focus on the unique needs of every student in every pose. This is not an impossible dream—it just takes more time than a teacher training program can afford. The onus of continuing growth is on each and every yoga teacher. – Paul Grilley, Introduction to Your Body, Your Yoga © 2016

Safety, Breath & Spine

Try to find the language and voice that conveys the beauty of what [the student] is doing along with the support you are offering in suggesting… “Good, keep rooting down into feet, and see how it feels to bring your foot further forward…” Go first to those students you observe most at risk of strain or injury… Try to stay with the student long enough for that person to begin integrating the new positioning…  After giving your attention to primary alignment principles that are related to what is most at risk, begin to address the refinement of the asana, giving primary focus to the breath and spine. – Mark Stephens, Teaching Yoga © 2010 p 151

Teaching People vs Poses

  • There is no one way for individual students to practice and perfect a pose.
  • What is helpful for one person is not helpful to another, and in fact, can be counterproductive.
  • The way an individual can optimally approach asana varies according to her experience level, body and bone structure, stage in life, injuries and conditions, etc.
  • Therefore, no alignment cues apply to every person all the time.
Being Unique is What’s Normal

We teach because we want to share what we’ve learned—and gained—from the practice of yoga. But frequent corrections aren’t without risk. They can leave students with the impression that they need fixing, that there’s something wrong with their bodies or lacking in their abilities. The truth is, no two bodies are the same. To put it another way, no one’s downdog will look exactly like anyone else’s. “There is no single normal,” [Leslie] Kaminoff insists. “Being unique is what’s normal.” – Anna Dubrovsky, Yoga International, 3 Reasons to Curb Corrections in Yoga Class

Our Journey May Not Apply

As teachers, we need to be mindful that we are observing patterns in our students on multiple levels. In addition to seeing their bodies in motion, we have our own patterns to be aware of. How stuck are we on our way of seeing a particular posture? Can we acknowledge that our journey through a posture may not apply to a particular student? How much are we imposing our pattern on our students? Are we doing this consciously or unconsciously? Are we dogmatic about a particular approach? Have we applied generalizations about a posture to someone who is the exception? – David Keil, Functional Anatomy of Yoga © 2014 pgs 237-238

One Medicine

Alignment is important! Proper alignment reduces stress in the joints and protects them from dynamically moving into hypermobility, where injury may occur. Good alignment may build architectural stability, minimize muscular effort and allow a student to safely linger in a posture. It would be very nice if every posture had alignment cues that worked for every body, and if one medicine would cure every body of cancer. But the reality of human variation teaches us that life is not so idyllic. We are all different, and what works for one person is not guaranteed to work for another. – Bernie Clark, Your Body, Your Yoga © 2016 p 98

Use the Pose to Get into your Body

The genetic lottery of inheritance plays a far bigger role in determining alignment, flexibility, and our capacity for performing the most acrobatic or extreme yoga postures than most practitioners believe… Some rank beginners wander into a yoga class and pull off a deep backbend pose… on their first day–while some lifetime yogis simply cannot. When you realize everybody’s alignment is unique, your yoga practice shifts. You stop seeing the poses as idealized linear shapes that you try to achieve, but as tools for learning and moving towards a deeper level of self-understanding and acceptance. Rather than making corrections, you start making more energetic connections.  You no longer use your body to get into a pose, but instead use the pose to get into your body. In every yogi, in every asana, bone eventually comes into contact with bone, and no yoga teacher in the world… will get you any deeper. At that point, whether or not you’ve achieved an asana worthy of the cover of next month’s issue of the Yoga Journal is determined almost entirely by the shape of your bones, your genetics. – Johnny Kest, Lifetime Fitness, The 5 Myths of Alignment in Yoga

Re-imagining Alignment

The Claim: Yoga Poses Don’t Have Alignment. Come again? This contradicts most of what most yoga teachers are taught in training—to look at the alignment of asanas intrinsically, breaking down each posture and then asking students (as a class) to build the pose from the foundation up. In other words, Warrior I has this alignment, Warrior II has that alignment, and so on and so forth through the entire syllabus of yoga poses. Kaminoff is attempting to change the conversation, though, by asking us to reimagine alignment as entirely based on the individual performing the pose. That is, “never say never” when teaching asana. – Meagan McCrary, Yoga Journal, Leslie Kaminoff: Asanas Don’t Have Alignment

No Right and No Wrong, Either?

  • When the perspective that there is no one right way to do an asana is being expressed, a typical related point is that alignment approaches that may be considered “right” by some would not be at all right for others with particular body types or conditions, for instance.
  • Considering this topic from a different angle, Jenni Rawlings suggests that there are also no “wrong” ways to practice.
  • Rawlings expresses that this is a more empowering approach. Of course, there are ways of teachings poses that carry a lesser likelihood of risk than others. And as in the quote below, Rawlings point is more likely about the words we use to evaluate whether a movement is best for this student at this time, and how we express desired action rather than any advocacy to not teach safely.
Is Your Body Adapted for this Movement?

We are often taught that there are ways the body can move that are inherently bad for us. We’re told that these movements will cause damage, “wear and tear,” or imbalance in the body, which will inevitably lead to pain and discomfort… While this perspective is certainly well-meaning, it is missing some key insights about the body that recent science has revealed to us. Instead of asking whether a movement is good or bad, a more nuanced and helpful question is: Are one’s tissues adapted to withstand the load of a particular movement? When we approach movement from this perspective, it becomes clear that there are no inherently bad movements—there are simply movements whose loads our bodies are not currently adapted to handle.  – Jenni Rawlings, Yoga International, Are Some Movements Inherently Bad?

Empowering Students

  • Some asana instructions work for some students but not for others. Therefore, to effectively support students, teachers must have an understanding of different body types.
  • In addition, teachers best support their students by giving them space and support in developing their awareness and skill at aligning from the inside.
  • Questions vs. directives help students to develop this skill.
  • See Alignment Cues: Introduction for more on guiding students to feeling the pose from the inside.
No One-Size-Fits-All Instructions

Of course there are no “one size fits all” asana instructions. What makes perfect sense to one yogi may not resonate with another. Plus, each of our bodies is unique, and alignment cues are rarely, if ever, universally applicable. Finding your personal relationship to alignment can enhance your practice overall, and connect you to your body on a deeper level. – Yoga International newsletter

Studying to Understand Different Body Types

The range of human variations, when we look at all the factors that contribute to tension, is enormous. It is pointless to say what an average is, to define what normal is… when there are so many ways that we are unique*… There is a myth in the yoga community that everybody can do every posture, if they just work hard enough, long enough, with the right teachers and supplements, and matching yoga outfit and mat. This is a dangerous myth. We have seen that the science of human variation and the reality of ultimately reaching compression mean that you cannot do every posture, and trying to go past where your body can take you will lead to injury, not progress. – Your Body, Your Yoga* © 2016 p 63

*In this book, Bernie Clark painstakingly shows the vast variety of ways that bodies are unique and the specific consequences of these various scenarios when a student is practicing yoga asana.
Create Space for Students to Find Their Way

With so much room for interpretation-—and no single cue that will definitively work for everyone, every time—yoga students need their teachers to create the space that allows them 
to find their way into their own experience of asana. The challenge for students is to notice the subtle shifts in breath and alignment that can, over time, expand their practice. – Amy Matthews & Leslie Kaminoff, Yoga Journal, Yoga Anatomy 101: Understanding Your Tailbone

Using Questions Rather than Directives

Take for example the transition from warrior I to warrior II. “A very common thing that will happen is the front knee will dive inward. I can say, ‘Make sure you bring your front knee over your front ankle, and keep that shin perpendicular to the floor.’ That’s administering a correction, and the assumption is that right over the ankle is the only safe place for that knee to be, which I don’t necessarily agree with,” Kaminoff explains. “Or I could say: ‘Closing your eyes for a moment, can you sense where your knee is in relation to your ankle? Did it change just now, when you made that move, and were you aware it changed? Is there a place you can choose to put it that feels better for your knee?’ These are questions rather than directives, and they make the student less dependent on an external frame of reference.” – Anna Dubrovsky, Yoga International, 3 Reasons to Curb Corrections in Yoga Class

Teaching Considerations

  • Resist automatically offering a “correction” that you’ve always “known” to be key to a pose. (You may still offer the same suggestion, but begin to resist any habitual approaches based on a singular right and wrong way to practice so as to open space for exploration of the uniqueness of each student.)
  • Continually be elevating your awareness of the student as an individual. Study various body types to have a more accurate sense of the student’s experience. Increasingly ask questions to assist the student in finding her personal relationship to her body, alignment, the pose, and her practice.
  • Use the “heart” or “intention” of the pose together with the alignment principles of the classic asana to then adapt the pose in a way that is appropriate for the individual.
  • Choose an alternative that will meet the intention in a safer way.
Bernie Clark

Do not offer a correction without knowing the cause!* If you do not know what is causing the alignment the student is presenting, “fixing” or correcting the alignment may put the student at risk… Don’t guess or assume—check it out. Ask the student what she is feeling. Notice her unique anatomy. If in doubt, leave it out. Don’t adjust her, but do ask her to notice what sensations are arising. – Bernie Clark, Your Body, Your Yoga © 2016 p 189

See page 190 of Clark’s book for a powerful example (including images) of the effects of aligning the knee over the ankle in a bent leg standing pose for different body types. This practically universal directive of proper alignment is indeed proper for some students, but not for all. Clark shows the case of a “a varum knee with a neutral foot… We see that aligning this knee creates pronation of the foot. Pronating the foot to align the knee may create more problems than it cures. It would be better for this student to allow the knee to be slightly outside the foot in this pose.”

Sources & Resources

Sources

  • Barber, Jules, yoginomics, Are You Functioning in Your Yoga Practice?  link
  • Burke, Amber, Yoga International, The Pros and Cons of an Alignment-Focused Practice  link
  • Clark, Bernie, Yoga Journal, 8 Keys to Take Your Yoga Teaching Beyond Standardized Alignment Cues  link
  • Clark, Bernie, Your Body, Your Yoga © 2016  link
  • Dubrovsky, Anna, Yoga International, 3 Reasons to Curb Corrections in Yoga Class  link
  • Grilley, Paul, Introduction to Your Body, Your Yoga © 2016  link
  • Keil, David, Functional Anatomy of Yoga © 2014 pgs  link
  • Keller, Doug, Hatha Yoga in the Anusara Style Third Edition  link
  • Kest, Jonny, Lifetime Fitness, The 5 Myths of Alignment in Yoga  link
  • McCrary, Meagan, Yoga Journal, Leslie Kaminoff: Asanas Don’t Have Alignment  link
  • Rawlings, Jenni, Yoga International, Are Some Movements Inherently Bad?  link
  • Stephens, Mark, Teaching Yoga © 2010  link

See Also

  • Anatomy & Physiology: The Spine
  • Anatomy & Physiology: Anatomy of Movement
  • Anatomy & Physiology: Flexibility & Stretching
  • Asana Index:  The Variations & Alternatives pages of the Asana Digests were developed just for the purpose of adapting to individual needs. You can visually see a number of ways to adapt a pose for different situations, plus see options for verbal cues.
  • Injuries & Conditions:  Teachers are advised to become familiar with common injuries and conditions found in drop-in classes and safe ways to address them.
  • When to Refer Out: Be aware of when it is advisable to refer students to a class for such conditions, to a yoga therapist, or to a healthcare provider.

Much More!

We hope you found this excerpt from our Member site useful and inspiring. The Asana section on the Member site is extensive and includes such tools and resources as:

  • Defining & Teaching Alignment
  • General Alignment Principles
  • Alignment Cueing
  • Asana Digests – super deep and organized teaching support on hundreds of poses
  • Asana Categories
  • Bandhas
  • Mudras
  • Drishti
  • Vata-Balancing Asana
  • Pitta-Balancing Asana
  • Kapha-Balancing Asana
  • The Purpose of Asana
  • Asana as One of the Eight Limbs
  • Maintaining Inner Awareness (and many other topics of wise practice)
  • Mindful Asana Transitions
  • Adjustment Guidelines
  • Sequence Finder
  • Themed Classes
  • Planning Calendars
  • Studio & Class Logistics
  • Strategic Planning
  • Vision & Goal Setting
  • Series and Workshop Planning

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