I’ve always had a certain predilection for precise posture. Perhaps it’s genetic, or maybe it’s simply a desire to master the art of carrying objects on my head. Whatever the source, my fascination with anatomical structure has grown through my professional work as a physical therapist and yoga teacher.
Research shows that compromising the body’s postural integrity can harm joints and connective tissues, manifesting in pain, imbalance, and even immobility. We have countless daily opportunities to sit and move in ways that make us weaker and fundamentally damage our bodies.
For example, when you slump and slouch, this is what happens to your body:
- Your lower back gets loaded with compressed forces.
- Your upper back gets overstretched and weak.
- Your abdominals become inactive.
- Your neck protrudes to compensate for the shift in weight.
- Your front hip flexors shorten and tighten.
- Your organs get squished, compromising lung capacity and digestion.
Yikes! Poor alignment can have some seriously unhealthy consequences. Knowing this, it seems logical to pay attention to alignment when we practice asanas.
So, how can you ensure that you maintain the best alignment in your practice and in life without compromising the experience of "going with the flow?" Do a body scan as you practice, running through this essential Asana Alignment Checklist:
1. The pelvis. Keep it honest.
In physical therapy, we look at the pelvis to reveal weakness or imbalance elsewhere. In yoga, the alignment of the pelvis is crucial to the integrity of the spine and lower limbs. For example, in Warrior 3 variation or standing splits, the legs form a 90-degree angle with each other. If the pelvis dips down on one side, we overuse the outer hip of the standing leg or torque the sacroiliac joint. Use the deep core muscles to assist keeping the frontal hip points level. Be vigilant and honest! Letting this attention to detail slip to get that top leg higher will not serve you in the long run.
2. The shoulder girdle. Keep it stable.
In yoga, we're on our hands a lot, bearing weight through the bones of the shoulder girdle. Sliding the scapulae (shoulder blades) down toward the pelvis, spreading the clavicles (collarbones), and keeping the head of the humerus firmly rooted in the socket of the glenoid fossa (shallow socket) will form a sound structure. Using the muscles of the rotator cuff and the scapular stabilizers promotes shoulder health in postures like Chaturanga, Plank, or Side Plank. Stabilizing the shoulder girdle by accessing the correct muscles and paying attention to bone alignment ultimately helped me learn to handstand, my true love.
3. The wrists. Keep them even.
Wrists speak volumes about other anatomical parts. Yogis often have their wrists turned in slightly instead of in a straight horizontal line, usually as a result of tightness in the shoulders and/or the pectoral muscles. While bearing weight, the wrists should be under the heads of the humerus to form an even, horizontal line.
4. The neck. Keep it relaxed.
One of the most commonly misplaced cues in yoga is “Gaze up!” Images of arabesque-ing yogis craning their necks toward the sun come to mind. What this “gazing up” actually achieves is a shortening of and compression along the spine, primarily in the upper and lower back. Instead, relax the neck and head to extend and expand the spine in the ways asana is meant to facilitate keeping the entire back and body healthy and safe.
5. The bones. The muscles will follow.
Your bones form the scaffolding upon which the muscles attach. Aligning the bones correctly and recruiting muscles to energetically "hug" the bones will set the body up for success in the asanas. And yes, success can be exemplified in the advancement to more challenging poses, but more importantly, success is about tuning into your body, becoming more integrated, and practicing in a sustainable, intelligent manner. Follow these rules and always listen to your body. My mantra is, "Do what feels good. Don’t do what doesn't feel good."
As a student, take ownership of your body. Listen to the teacher guide you, and then decide for yourself if it makes sense.
As a teacher, enhance your knowledge of anatomy and alignment and don’t allow students to slide by with poor posture or bad form in your classes.
We grow stagnant when we're not refining our asana practice; attention to alignment helps us break through to new levels so we can be both playful and precise!
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