Recently, the yoga community at large has taken up a more critical look at what the concept of alignment actually means in the context of yoga asana. This is a great conversation to have. So many of us have been practicing and teaching for decades now and are confronted daily by the ways that popular rules of alignment contradict one another and are often causing more problems than they solve.
Many of the problems we see in joints, muscles, and ligaments derive from our own mistaken assuredness that we have the answers for how we (and our students) should move. Most of our instructions have been based on the musculoskeletal system. We have precise rules, many contradicting one another, and still we have a lot of injuries, and witness a lot of wear and tear on joints of the longest time practitioners. Perhaps we have accepted a false premise. Let’s look at the term and its connotations:
align |əˈlīn| verb1 [with object]
- place or arrange (things) in a straight line
- put (things) into correct or appropriate relative positions
- [no object] lie in a straight line, or in correct relative positions
alignment |əˈlīnmənt| noun1
- arrangement in a straight line, or in correct or appropriate relative position
- the act of aligning parts of a machine:oil changes, lube jobs, and wheel alignments.
Alignment as We Know It Doesn’t Work
How we think about things matters. The term alignment itself conjures up straight lines, correct angles, mechanical movement, and positional concerns. Both align and alignment clearly connote these qualities. Even if you know better, you will be affected by your ingrained understanding of the words. The idea of “straight lines”, “align [with object]”, and even “appropriate relative position”, miss the mark for considering what is healthy human support for movement.
Alignment, as we have been using the term so far, connotes a mechanistic approach to movement. Perhaps, we have mistakenly taken alignment in yoga to mean, we must dissect, separate, and arrange our bodies into appropriate positions, part to part, something like stacking blocks. Take the popular instruction to, “Stack your bones”, in tadasana. We have perceived our joints, for example, to be something like mechanical parts that receive forces of movement, and then, from their own discreet place on the body, transfer the movement through the bone and along to the next joint. I think this is basically an erroneous way to look at the movement of force – weight and prana flow – in the body.
Of course, areas of the body that are so susceptible to compression and injury should not be taking the primary burden of movement force. Our joints actually need a much bigger and more inclusive paradigm of support than simply the muscles and bones. We need a support system that takes the forces out of them—rather than asking them to do the job themselves. The forces need to flow more wholistically, around and through the joints, rather than asking them to absorb the forces themselves and transmit them along, through the next bone, and to the next joint, etc.
What do we mean by “alignment” and how does it apply to yoga? We are clearly still at the very beginnings of understanding what “alignment” means in the full yogic perspective. It is time to question the model of our thinking. Can we even come into alignment in a yoga posture through a set of musculoskeletal actions? Is alignment a set place into which we arrive? Is alignment in vinyasa a series of places through which we move? Maybe we even need a new word. Maybe the word is something more like “Integration”.
Thinking about the alignment of bones and joints is not in itself necessarily a problem. And there is still a lot to learn from new research into movement dynamics. But when we believe something about alignment—think that we know it—we are in danger of overriding our most powerful supports, supports that come from the underlying healthy movement of life force. In thinking we know better in some way, we often will apply a certain “alignment principle” that actually impedes the natural flow of underlying integration and stability. It is all too common to obstruct prana flow—or the flow of force, both subtle and obvious— when we try to manipulate the movement of our limbs from the musculoskeletal perspective.
We Need to Go Deeper
As we look into our assumptions about alignment, we may begin to notice the highly mechanistic view that our current ideas have arisen from—like Newtonian physics. Newton’s insights have been, and continue to be, so critical to our growth and evolution. The larger, more superficial structure and behavior of things, that Newton described is still true. Now, thanks to the platform and the work of those who have come before, our understanding is increasing all the time. We are learning more and more about the subtle and microscopic layers of life that are full of potential and possibilities. We now know that at its source everything is energy and we, like everything else in the universe, are energetic beings.
For some of us, going deeper, and looking for a kind of support that is not as solid and dense as what we have been taught to rely on, does require an adjustment in thinking. But there are body tissues that can be explored and embodied in our yoga practice that are softer and more resilient than bones and joints, and actually may be better at handling the flows of force that are created by our movements. For a primary example, look into how the biotensegritous nature of fascia supports movement in our bodies. Embodied-Bio-Tensegrity, Fascia and Yoga
Another thing we can do is begin to explore how our bodies (and our movements) do not function as a series of discreet parts. Our body functions and supports itself as a well-organized whole. It can be useful to release some of our conscious and unconscious desire to control our body’s movement as if it’s movement was based on mechanistic concepts, with individual parts functioning independently. More wholistic thinking and feeling can be very helpful.
Prana and Integrated Movement
Prana animates your very being. Prana directs all of the inner functioning of body and mind. It moves within you and it also moves you through space. Learning to feel the natural flow of prana in one’s body is actually available to everyone. It is a very clear and precise study that we can all do. You may say, “Well, prana is subtle and I don’t know if I can feel prana”. But you can feel prana. In fact, you are feeling it all the time, you just may not have paid enough attention to it yet. All you need to do is learn how, just like you learn everything else that you do in yoga, with persistence, patience, and love of the process.
We can move without stressing and straining our joints. The new paradigm of alignment needs to be looking at integrated movement in the body. Movement that is fully relational within, and also in relationship to the environment. No line of force should ever shear across a joint in yoga asana. Forces need to be distributed through all of the body tissues, not just bones and muscles. We need to begin to look much more carefully at the depth of the fascial weave that we are, and understand how to allow the fascial matrix to transfer forces multi-directionally, and with resilience, at all times.
We need to yield into the earth and push away. We need to learn to reach and pull. These simple human developmental movements create the conditions for life force to flow—without interruption or blockage in the joints or anywhere else. These simple actions will appropriately keep us from exceeding our range of motion and stressing joints because it is the “mind of the posture” that shapes the pose, not an idea of shape that is at worst harmful, and at best minimally helpful.
Obviously, one needs to let go of the concerns about obtaining a “perfect” posture, or even the “shape” of a modified posture. Not all problems in any posture can be solved positionally. You can’t ultimately solve problems of energy flow by lessening or altering the angles in the joints. No positional action will inherently bring in the healthy flow of prana that is necessary to experience integration in body and mind. Ultimately, yoga asana is not a positional study. Going too far into the search for the right position of the body in asana is a case of barking up the wrong tree. We need to moving much more from the inside out without chasing an idea of outer form.