Have you ever been struggling in a yoga pose, then the teacher gave you a slight adjustment, and it suddenly felt so much better? After reading this article where I explain the most essential yoga alignment principles without any complex anatomy language, you’ll understand why that adjustment helped so much!
This is not because your yoga teacher was a magician, but rather because your body was misaligned! The good news is that you can learn the basics of yoga alignment by tuning in to what your teacher says and making micro adjustments to your poses.
In yoga, a slight shift of a body part can make a massive difference. The correct alignment helps you experience the perfect balance of effort and ease in a posture. This boosts all those wonderful benefits that keep us returning to our mats.
If you want to further enhance your practice without doing hours and hours of study, this article is for you.
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What is yoga alignment? The basics
Following proper asana alignment principles helps you find a strong foundation in each asana. Proper alignment keeps you safe on the mat by protecting your joints and tissues and preventing injury and muscle fatigue.
Following correct functional alignment also promotes a more efficient and effective yoga practice, making your time on the may more enjoyable than exhausting!
Let's explore how practicing proper physical alignment when practicing different styles of yoga enhances your practice and the most common principles to know.
The benefits of having proper asana alignment
There are many benefits to proper alignment in yoga practice, including injury prevention, improved posture, and better balance.
- Increased body awareness – When we focus on healthy alignment, we pay more attention to the sensations in our physical bodies. This enhances proprioception and mind-body connection.
- Improved posture – By properly aligning the spine in yoga postures, we train our own body to maintain this posture in our everyday activities.
- Better balance – Proper alignment means moving from your center of gravity. This stability not only helps you hold poses for longer but helps you transition between them more smoothly.
- Injury prevention – Proper alignment keeps your body in a safe and stable position. There is less strain on ligaments, tendons, and muscles, minimizing the chances of overstretching in poses where you may be trying to improve your flexibility.
- Increased strength – Correct physical alignment allows you to engage the relevant muscles effectively in any particular pose. This helps you build more muscle strength and improve endurance without lifting weights!
3 yoga pose alignment cues every yogi should listen for
Here are three common verbal cues you'll hear often from yoga teachers.
1. Stacking the joints
Stacking the joints refers to aligning your body parts in a way that reduces strain and increases stability during yoga poses.
Stacking the joints is vital for protecting joint health and preventing injury. When your joints are stacked, the weight and pressure are distributed evenly. This minimizes the chance of overextension or straining.
This alignment cue also helps you find more stability. This is because when your joints are aligned, you can engage your muscles more effectively. Plus, energetically, it improves energy flow (prana) throughout the body.
The cat/cow is one common yoga pose where you'll encounter this alignment principle. Here, the knees are hip distance apart, with the hips directly above the knees. Similarly, the hands are shoulder-width apart, directly under the shoulder blades.
2. Engaging the core
Engaging the core is a common cue and is particularly crucial in backbends and inversions. When you tighten your abdominal muscles, you protect your lower back and neck from straining as you lean back.
Moreover, in inversions, core engagement helps you lift your chest and legs off the ground and builds core strength.
In standing and seated poses, engaging the core helps you find a neutral spine, preventing slouching or overarching.
I cue my students to tuck their tailbone and draw their belly button toward their spine.
3. Weight distribution
In all standing poses, weight distribution is vital. Distributing your body weight helps reduce muscle fatigue and improves balance and stability.
The foundational standing pose, Tadasana (mountain pose), is a great asana to learn weight distribution.
First, stack the joints, bringing the shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles in one line as you stand tall with a straight spine.
Next, focus on your feet. Press into all four corners of both feet to build a solid base. By spreading the weight evenly across both feet, you'll find your center of gravity, which prevents you from leaning to one side.
To teach this principle, I like to have my students play around with rocking back and forth or side to side in Tadasana. This allows them to find a stable foundation and feel how that sweet spot stabilizes them.
7 principles of alignment in yoga to be mindful of
Now, let's explore some other key alignment cues you will hear when practicing the foundational asanas in yoga practice.
1. Hand positioning in downward dog
The correct hand positioning in the downward dog pose prevents wrist strain and builds strength in the upper body.
Your hands should be shoulder-width apart, with the fingers spread and the index finger pointing to the top of your mat. Then press the knuckles down to distribute the weight more evenly; when you do this, there should be no gaps between the fingers and mat.
2. Knee alignment in chair pose
One of the most crucial alignment rules of chair pose is the knee position. As you bend your knees and sink your hips, ensure you can see your toes when you look down.
If your knees are coming past your toes, you are putting a risk of strain on your ankle and knee joints. To avoid this, press your hips back or come up slightly.
3. Keeping a straight spine in seated forward fold
One of the most common mistakes in a seated forward fold is rounding the back. While it allows you to bring the chest closer to the spine, it compromises your posture and puts pressure on the muscles of the lumbar spine.
Therefore, the safe alignment is to keep the spine straight as you fold forward. To ensure this, extend your arms up to the ceiling, bringing the upper arms aligned with the ears. Then, as you hinge forward from the hips, keep the arms aligned with the ears.
I also recommend slightly bending the knees if you have tight hamstrings that make it challenging to hinge from the hips.
4. Feet positioning in warrior 1
In Warrior 1, the hips face forward with the front toes pointing forward and the back toes out to 45 degrees. The front knee is bent, and the back leg is straight.
Traditionally, the front heel should align with the back heel. However, many beginner yoga students need an individualized approach as it can be hard to keep the hips forward in this position. So, if this is the anatomical reality for you, move your feet wider apart.
5. Feet positioning in warrior 2
In Warrior 2, the hips are open to the side, with the front toes facing forward and the back toes turning out to 90 degrees.
The front knee stacks over the ankle while the back leg remains straight, pressing the outer arch of the foot into the mat. For optimal alignment, the front heel should align with the middle of the arch of the back foot.
6. Spinal alignment in plank pose
In plank pose, it's vital to engage your core to keep the hips aligned with the body, preventing the spine from arching. Meanwhile, the neck should be in line with the spine.
I also cue my students to press their heels away from them and imagine the crown of their head extending forward, stretching the entire body.
7. Knee position in tree pose
Along with even weight distribution of the standing foot, be cautious of the hip and knee positioning in the tree pose. Good alignment of this balancing asana is to point the knee of the lifted leg out to the side while the hips and chest remain facing forward.
In addition, you should place the sole of your foot on the side of the shin or thigh, above or below the knee but not on the knee joint.
Should you get a special yoga mat?
One of the best ways to learn and remember these alignment rules is to use an alignment mat, such as Alo's Chakra Warrior Mat.
This mat features markings and lines that help you properly align your hands and feet. The markings provide a reference point, allowing you to quickly check and adjust your form when practicing at home or following online classes.
However, a mat like this is no substitute for proper instruction from a qualified yoga teacher. So, attend regular classes with a knowledgeable instructor alongside your home practice.
Takeaway on yoga alignment
While body alignment in yoga is a complex topic, you don't need to complete a 200-hour teaching training to understand the basics. Whenever you come to your mat, remember the three most important principles – stack the joints, spread your body weight evenly, and engage your core!
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