What is Alignment in Yoga, Anyway?Feb 01, 2023
Alignment is a word we hear often in the yoga world. It’s a juicy topic. But it is also a topic that can easily be confusing and misunderstood. This is because alignment in yoga can refer to many related, yet different concepts. So, it has become one of these big, vague terms when it comes to how we instruct and practice asana.
Many of the discussions about alignment in yoga I’ve heard seem to focus only on alignment as it relates to functional movement and biomechanics. Don’t get me wrong, those are essential aspects of alignment. Yet, what’s missing for me in these conversations is any mention of what is beyond our physicality, as if yoga was only a movement modality that addresses our bones, muscles, anatomy, and physiology.
Yoga, in its truest sense, has always been about more than the physical body. It’s a system that sees the human being as an integrated whole of body, breath, mind, and spirit. Therefore, any discussion about alignment that doesn’t address these other parts of who we are feels incomplete to me.
In the teaching methodology that I’ve developed over the past 20+ years, I consider four levels of alignment that are interrelated and layered. I envision these four levels of alignment as progressively subtler and deeper. They reflect the basic principle of moving from outside in, from gross to subtle, that we find throughout the yoga tradition and that's a hallmark of alignment-oriented postural practice:
Physical alignment is the most basic level, where alignment in asana refers to the form the body takes and where the different parts of the body are positioned to make the shape of a posture. For example, in Warrior 1, your arms are aligned overhead, your legs are wide apart along the sagittal plane (front to back), your back leg and foot are angled out, and your front knee is bent toward a 90-degree angle and positioned over your ankle.
Biomechanical alignment refers to the mechanics of muscular activity in asana. It’s how we use muscles to move bones, stabilize joints, and create greater freedom and opening. It reflects an anatomical understanding of how the body works and an awareness of the myofascial planes that run throughout the body. Applying this knowledge to optimize performance of asana reflects a functional approach to movement. It’s how teachers develop cues that are considered safer and less risky, and hopefully make us less prone to injury in our practice.
In Warrior 1, for example, firming your back thigh and hugging your hips toward the midline of your body can help to stabilize your pelvis and keep your lower back safe as you move deeper into the pose. Rolling your triceps toward your cheeks when your arms are overhead can create more freedom in your neck, shoulders, and torso.
“Good” or “healthy” alignment from this perspective is based on the idea that there is an optimal relationship between bones, bones and muscles, muscles and fascia, and between our body’s structure (bones, muscles, and connective tissue) and our body’s systems (nervous, circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, endocrine, etc.) The idea is that when we are in ideal alignment on this level, the flow of all bodily energies - structural, physiological, and pranic - are enhanced and optimized.
Energetic alignment addresses how we organize the physical body in such a way that prana, the vital force, can flow more fully and freely. It includes not only the alignment of the subtle body but also the recognition that all the elements of nature have a resonance in the body-mind that we can harness in asana practice. In Warrior 1, for example, we can emphasize the strength and grounding of the legs, to experience more of the grounding quality of the earth element and the root chakra.
Attitudinal alignment is about how we integrate the mind and heart, our intentions into the practice. And it addresses how the physical practice can be a means to foster a desired state of being—an attitudinal, mental, emotional, or spiritual intention—to help us to become more of who and how we want to be in the world. On this level, we can think of Warrior 1 pose as an opportunity to cultivate more courage and fearlessness, or to embody the spirit of the Warrior archetype in whatever way we relate to that.
This is where our understanding of yoga philosophy, principles, and virtues come in. It means applying the philosophical context to guide and inform the physical practice.
The next time you read about alignment in yoga or grapple with an instruction you’ve heard, I hope this framework helps to clarify what’s being talked about and offers some insight to enrich your practice and teaching.