Why Alignment Matters

Warrior II in a Chair
Warrior II in a Chair. © Barry Stone

"Listen to your body" is something you hear over and over again in yoga classes. For many students, it's a tough directive to follow, especially when the same yoga teachers that are telling you to listen to your body are also coaching you into uncomfortable positions and encouraging you to stay there longer than you'd like. So which is it? Are you supposed to do it your way or their way?

What Is Alignment?

Alignment is the word we use in yoga when we talk about the ideal way that a pose should be done.

Before you freak out about the words "ideal" and "should," know that a good yoga teacher recognizes that there are a lot of variations in human bodies and consider alignment to be a process more than an end result. To further complicate the matter, each style of yoga has its own thoughts on optimal alignment, its own techniques, and, sometimes (in Anusara, for example), its own descriptive language. At the beginning, take a "when in Rome" approach to these stylistic differences. Eventually, you will find the style and alignment philosophy that best suit you. It's worth noting that most, if not all, of our ideas about alignment, come out of the nineteenth-century influence of the physical culture movement on contemporary yoga's development, not from any ancient universal source material.

The Alignment Paradox

On the one hand, we know that no two bodies are alike and how a pose feels is more important than how it looks.

We have been told not to compare ourselves to others or strive for a perfect pose. On the other hand, ideal alignment is always demonstrated, illustrated, aspired to, and corrected for. How can we reconcile these two opposing directives? Should alignment go out the window in the name of acceptance?

How you do a pose does matter. Alignment is not just about making the pose look pretty. In most cases, the correct alignment offers the safest way to do the posture. Often this involves stacking the bones for optimal stability and to minimize wear and tear on the joints. You may be able to muscle yourself into a facsimile of a complex pose (or even a simple one), but without the proper alignment, you are at greater risk of an injury. Part of acceptance is the willingness to take help when you need it. In modern yoga, this means using props liberally, as pioneered by Iyengar. With props, you can assume more postures in a way that supports safe alignment.

Resolving the alignment paradox requires a truce between your intellect and your emotions. Intellectually, you see the teacher do a pose, you see yourself do it, you try to model yourself on the teacher. Emotionally, you're ok with wherever you are in relation to the teacher. You cultivate the awareness to feel the pose in your body, to feel when you could use some help, and to allow yourself to accept that help.