What IS Alignment? What do we mean in referring to “GOOD ALIGNMENT?”
The word alignment is used in lots of different ways in modern postural yoga (much like the usages and meanings of yoga and dharma in a more historical sense of the yoga tradition). The usages of the word, and it’s meanings, vary greatly across a spectrum of practitioners and teachers of yoga. And the term alignment may be used differently by the same person to mean different things in different contexts. Because this term is so ubiquitous in yoga-land and it is used in so many different ways and is a topic of much spirited debate, I think it’s always useful to try to understand some of the ways the term is is used, what is meant, and the context of this perspective.
1) Alignment as a shared baseline of understanding:
The “alignment of the pose” can mean the shape of the pose we are seeking to create, whether it is in an overall sense, or more specific to that occurrence of the pose in a sequence (which I will consider more in another point). In this context, alignment essentially means something like an ‘architecture’ or ‘pattern’ and is used to clarify the goal from a shape perspective. This use seeks to identify/clarify the relationships of the parts of the body, the organization of joint positions, the spatial orientation and relationship to gravity that we are cultivating. This usage of the word alignment does not necessarily imply correct/better/safer than some other way of doing the pose, but seeks to establish a common baseline of understanding. In teaching group classes, it is often necessary to articulate this alignment information, as every pose has so many expressions, every participant has varied and different prior knowledge, and there is no consistency across yoga stylistic boundaries regarding names and shapes of poses. It is necessary to start somewhere, to give certain information to everyone and then build from there.
For example, “Trikonasana” may mean a distinctly different shape in (1) a hot yoga class influenced by Bikram Yoga where the front knee is flexed towards 90 degrees (2) and a yoga class influenced by a Krishnamacharya style of naming shapes where the front knee is extended towards 190 degrees. From a shape perspective, these look like different poses, but the same name may be used for both of them.
It follows that the phrase “mis-alignment” may mean anything that is different from the stated alignment/goal of the pose/shape, and may not mean unsafeor incorrect in any pejorative way.
2) Alignment as a prioritization of action or variation:
Following on the above point, the term “alignment” may be used in a more specific occurrence of a pose for specific reasons. As an example, while I generally organize the shape called “Plank Pose” as having neutral hip, neutral pelvis and neutral curves of the spine alignment, if I am using Plank to concentrically strengthen rectus abdominus (the superficial muscle of the abdomen) in a sequence preparing you for the flexed spine arm balance of Bakasana, I might teach Plank Pose with a posterior pelvic tilt and flexed lumbar spine alignment to serve this purpose. The usage of alignment in this context is again not saying that one way is better and one way is worse, but rather seeking to clarify which version of the pose we are practicing in that moment and for what reason(s).
3) Alignment as evidence based methodology:
Alignment can be used to explicitly or implicitly mean that there is a better way, or even a correct way, to do the pose/movement from a scientific or evidenced based methodology. Understandings of human anatomy/kinesiology/physiology/biomechanics, as well as evolutionary biology, neurobiology, psychology, sociology can inform what we might consider “alignment”.
I mean to take seriously the evidence and seek to understand various perspectives and think critically about them. It is also important to keep in mind that any theories or conclusions in scientific fields are debated and contested and the new theories emerge based on changing evidence.
It is from the studies of human anatomy and movement that we get information on what our bodies can do and how our bodies work. We get things like normal range of motion at joints and the functional range that people use in daily activity. Understanding of the origin and insertion of a muscle can give insight into how best to lengthen, or shorten, that structure and what poses or movements would be effective. This understanding will tell you that Supta Virasasana is mostly stretching the hip flexor rectus femoris (which is part of the quadricep group) and not psoas major, and if you wanted to stretch psoas major, a different pose/shape would be more efficacious.
5) Alignment as intrinsic wisdom:
Alignment as an intrinsic quality speaks to the innate intelligence and organization of of our bodies. Life is truly remarkable, and we can learn to get more in tune and receptive to our embodied intelligence. Our sensory experiences and embodied knowing is a potent and undeniably important part of ourselves. Yogic practice can give us further permission and tools to affirm and explore and trust our embodied wisdom.
While the information of our senses is a valid means of cognition, it is also limited. There are layers and layers of reality, and the further we go the more remote the information gets from our sensory experiential levels of understanding. Example, if I was in Nebraska, looking west towards Colorado, my senses would tell me that the world looks flat. To know more about the world, about culture, about ourselves, we will also need to go beyond our own experience, even while we affirm our own experience.
6) Alignment as homeostasis:
Alignment is the dynamic of homeostasis. Its not an achievement, it’s a dynamic process that never stops. It’s “Goldilocks principle”: Not to hot, not too cold. Not too high, not too low. Not to hard, not to soft. It’s just right; sattva-guna.
For humans, homeostasis is right about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and every cell and system of our bodies works constantly to stay as close to that temperature as possible. Drop much below that and you are in crisis. Rise much above that and you are in crisis.
While we have much in common (our DNA is mostly the same), and as adults we each have about 206 bones and 900 pairs of muscles, but we are also all different. Alignment is not a one-size-fits-all. We are not just the sum of the combinations of our genetic code, we are each our own person.
What each of us needs to be homeostatic, to be healthy, to be optimal, is going to be a bit different. What is optimal alignment in a pose or movement is going to be a bit different for each of us. The point is not conformity to an objective standard of “perfection”, but rather the complex notion that each of us has the capacity to be healthy. What does it mean to be healthy? What does it mean to be in alignment?
7) Alignment as magical thinking:
Lastly, alignment can be used in more of what I think of as religious thinking, or magical thinking, to advocate for a correct/superior way. The yoga tradition, as elsewhere, is rife with magical thinking and grandiose promises that when you achieve/experience/know the real pose, the true alignment, you will be cured of disease, you will experience bliss and so on… In my experience, this type of thinking in yoga is more prevalent in communities structured around a charismatic founder, often referred to as a guru, and to be a member of those communities may require agreement and conformity to the ideals espoused by the leader/founder, and critical thinking and questioning may be discouraged. The correct alignment is what the guru teaches, as the guru has attained the state of superior knowledge.
Having been a member of several of these types of yoga communities in my life, I am suspicious of them and seek to not propagate or amplify that type of thinking or participate in those group dynamics.
There’s a start — and to be continued, I imagine. Meanwhile, tell us what alignment means for you— as well as how you relate to the idea of “good alignment.”