You take your car in to have its chassis aligned because if the alignment is askew the tires wear poorly and unevenly, your mileage will be compromised and the car will be difficult to steer. Not only does yoga class have a beneficial effect on your physical functioning, but if you know some simple principles of alignment of the body you’ll be able to avoid common strains and injuries, protecting your ligaments and joints and finding your yoga poses from the inside out with more ease and grace.
Underlying all of the other physical principles of alignment of the body is the alignment with your intent, or purpose, with your focus and your breath. Take a moment after rolling out your mat to discern and bring to the fore your purpose or intent for practice tonight: anything from more flexible hamstrings to more ease in your heart. Your clearly delineating, articulating and acknowledging your intent for practice is the beginning of a vibrant, aware and well aligned practice.
Physical alignment of the body refers to the bones stacking naturally and effortlessly atop one another. Because our everyday patterns often compromise this natural arrangement due to overuse in one direction or another, we can’t simply rely on our habits to provide optimal alignment of the body.
Alignment of the body in seated poses begins with the sitting bones, or ishcial tuberosities, the feet of the pelvis. Sitting with the pelvis in a neutral position will allow you these “pelvic feet” to point directly to the floor and allow your entire spine to balance on their stable base. This allows your rib cage to float above your pelvis, your back and core muscles to rest, not opposing postural forces and your breath to flow easily with your head balanced. For most people this neutral alignment of the body will require sitting on a support such as blankets or a block. Knees should always be supported on blocks if not resting on the ground, and knees should always be below your pelvis. Dandansana, or Staff Pose, is the template for seated poses.
Mountain Pose, or Tadasana, is the template for all standing poses. When it comes to the alignment of the body, always begin building poses from the bottom up, so start with your feet. In Mountain, your feet should be parallel, and parallel is tricky because feet aren’t really square. The lines you’re looking to align are the lines you can draw from between your second and third toes on each foot up through the knee and hip of the same leg. Knees should be over shins, hips over knees, muscles of the legs engaged 360 degrees around the leg, hugging the bones at the center. You can lift your own arches by isometrically drawing your little toe back; notice how this engages muscles around the lower leg and ankle.
Next, internally rotate the thighs and press the thighs apart; drop your tailbone into the space you’ve created at the back of your hips. Draw your pelvic floor up. To do this you can either draw the front of your pelvis back toward your sacrum (no, it won’t move, but you’ll activate the relevant pelvic floor muscles by trying to do so), or by trying to draw your sitting bones together (same principle). Draw your belly button back toward your spine and up under your diaphragm. Center the ribcage over your pelvis and allow your shoulders and arms to hang, relaxed at your sides. Ears over shoulders, and backs of ears lifting up.
In any pose, when your knee is bent in a weight bearing leg, such as Warrior I or II, the knee of the bent leg must be over the ankle and toward the little toe side of the foot. In order to assure the safety of your joints and maximal strength you should assure your knee is never forward of your ankle or knocking inward.
Foward facing poses, such as Warrior I and III have all the same actions. For sideways facing poses, such as Warrior II, the action of the legs is quite different. The front, bent leg has a tendency to fall inward that you neutralize by pressing your inner thigh out, and drawing your outer thigh back toward your buttock. The back, straight leg has a tendency to relax and fall downward which you neutralize by lifting your inner thigh up toward the sky, lifting your kneecap and pressing equally on all four corners of your back foot.
By aligning your poses from the inside out, and from the bottom up you will create strong foundations and your best expression of any given pose for the time in which you are in it.