Proper alignment in yoga happens when all components are working together in harmony.
What happens when the wheels of your car are out of alignment? The car doesn't drive straight which can cause you to run off the road. Apply this concept to your body during a yoga practice - if your feet are not aligned properly during an asana such as Triangle pose (Trikonasana) or Warrior II pose (Virabhadrasana II), you will not have proper alignment in that pose.
If a yoga practitioner is consistently out of alignment they can run themselves right off their yoga mat with a potential for injury.
With constant misalignment in a yoga practice, the body will not be working efficiently. It’s important that yogis who are new to the physical practice learn the basics of yoga slowly and deliberately in order to build skills on how to move and stack the bones properly.
I believe that the words yoga and alignment can be interchangeable in many circumstances. The word yoga translates to: the union of the body and the mind. The word alignment translates to: line up or to organize.
These definitions are similar to me and if I were to use these words as a verb: to yoga and to align, the intended outcome of these activities are similar.
When there is proper alignment in your yoga practice you will work more efficiently. Your body is similar to a machine. Unfortunately, it breaks down; one small piece might come out of proper alignment in yoga such as a sprain or a fracture in the foot, ankle, finger, wrist. Or you could fall sick, bringing your body out of alignment.
When these misalignments occur, the body will not work as efficiently as it did before, until it realigns itself.
In many circumstances, the body can be healed and realigned with the help of meditation, breathwork, asana, sleep, healthy food, and water. All of these aspects live under the umbrella of yoga and should be practiced consistently for optimum health, strength, flexibility, and proper alignment.
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Using yoga props such as blocks, straps, blankets, and chairs in unique and intelligent ways can help to create accessibility and proper alignment. Using a block on the floor in Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) is a supportive way to build the floor up for you to create space.
There is no need to force a deep Standing Forward Bend, jamming your hands to the floor when your hamstrings are screaming and your spine is completely rounding forward, this is not beneficial.
If you are tired and your muscles are tight, place blocks under your hands in Standing Forward Bend, Triangle pose (Trikonasana), or Side Angle pose (Parsvakonasana).
Confidently grab those blocks and utilize them in any way you can!
Using yoga props means that you understand your body and what you are capable of on that particular day. A good example of a place to use a block in a hatha yoga practice is in Revolved Half Moon (Parivritta Ardha Chandrasana).
I have short arms, therefore I slide a block under my hand in this twisting balancing pose. This allows me to stay horizontal from the crown of my head down to the heel of my foot, all while trying to create more space down the spine.
I’ve witnessed many practitioners trying to jam their hand down to the floor all while tilting their body downward in order to reach the ground. In the process they have as they rounded their spine, dumping weight into their standing leg, having their head hang heavy. Now the cervical spine is not in line with the rest of the spine, losing the benefits of the asana.
As a yoga teacher, I look at a classroom of students and I see misalignment due to not engaging proper muscles for the asana you are practicing at the moment. When the muscles are not engaged the practice becomes sloppy, heavy and non-beneficial. If you do not feel like engaging your muscles, there is a cozy spot for you in any yin yoga class.
Muscle engagement gives shape to all yoga asanas and keeps us strong and lifted in your practice. When lifting and engaging the agonist muscles, for example, when you are in Janu Sirsasana, the quadriceps are the agonist muscles, the muscles that should be engaged and lifted. Then the hamstrings also known as the antagonist muscles, the muscles that are related, but directly opposite the quads, can receive a deep long stretch. Therefore, proper muscle engagement is an important part of alignment in a strength based yoga class.
One benefit is to achieve the proper shape of the pose and another being the opportunity to explore the shape on a deeper level. With a consistent practice, you can build positive samskaras known as stored memories in your mind and in your body.
Everyone comes to their mat for different reasons, levels of endurance, strength, and flexibility. Therefore all alignment cues are merely suggestions for your body.
It’s your job as a yoga practitioner to know if a certain suggestion is beneficial for you or not. There are many variations of the same pose for different people.
A healthy yoga practice evolves and changes throughout your life. This beautiful lifestyle should keep you agile, adventurous, strong, and flexible in your body and mind for as long as you live!