For many in the yoga world, alignment really means aesthetics.
In other words, whether or not your knee is over your ankle in Warrior 2, or your shin is parallel to the front of your mat in Pigeon, are your arms and legs are straight in Downward Facing Dog—all of these details are universally more about how a pose looks. This is because whether or not these would be useful beyond aesthetics depends on what the individual who is practicing needs more or less of.
For me, contorting my body to make shapes in ways that were preferred by schools of yoga or individual teachers wasn’t a useful practice for me long term, which is why I let go of an aesthetics-only approach to alignment.
That said, I didn’t throw the whole idea of alignment out the door. Instead of an end itself, I made it a means to an end.
I reframed my practice and teaching to embrace a variety of alignments needed for a variety of goals, in movement and in life.
In truth, alignment is just a point along a spectrum of possible positions.
And each position will have different value to a different person depending on their unique structure, their history of loading, their load sensitivity, and their interests. Does this mean that there are no universally applicable reasons to teach alignment? Not at all. It just means that there are no universally safe, correct, or useful alignments for every body.
Alignment can certainly matter in yoga.
For example, we pay attention to alignment in yoga poses because even just holding up our own body weight, our position will affect how our muscles are working, and how we challenge our joints.
Alignment definitely matters in strength-training.
In strength-training, arguably, alignment matters even more than it does in the yoga asana practice. This is because when we add in external load there’s more stress on the joints. To help distribute the stress optimally, our alignment can help us direct the bulk of the work to muscles that have better leverage to be able to manage the load. This is because certain muscles have better leverage to work harder at certain joint angles than others, depending on where they attach to our bones. And since our nervous system usually recruits the best muscles for the job, joint angles affect which muscles we recruit.
For example, notice the difference in the two relatively similar movements in the video below. The first is a hinge, where the glutes and hamstrings are prime muscles. In the squat variation, the quadriceps are prime. You can see this clearly because of the way I’m holding the broomstick in front of my body—each move makes a different angle of my torso relative to my hips, hips relative to knees, etc.
Joint angles matter, hence alignment matters!
However, alignment matters well beyond solely determining which muscles you are targeting for strength.
Alignment affects the following capacities, too:
- Proprioception – how your body senses your position (which guides your ability to perceive it and make specific movement choices.)
- Mobility – which tissues are targeted for stretch.
- Coordination – how you position your body in space determines how all your muscles work together in a pattern of support or movement. The specific coordination you practice most is the one your body will know best.
- Variability – by changing your alignment (especially away from your habit or default alignment) you can load your body in novel ways and feed it new load input. This new load input will potentially change how your body adapts (or changes) in response to those loads.
- Pain avoidance or relief – sometimes changing alignment can help to reduce any pain experiences you might be having in a particular posture or movement. Finding an alignment that doesn’t cause pain—or even better, one that helps you feel good in a particular position!—is an especially important reason alignment matters.
Alignment is one tool among many that we have to work with in our toolkit as teachers. It matters. But it’s important to realize and remember that there is no universally safe or correct alignment for everyone. And typically, when that is what is being communicated—that there is one right way to align—the goal is probably aesthetics in disguise. When this is the case, as students, we should ask ourselves if aesthetics is our top priority for our movement practice. If it’s not, then we should instead investigate the implications of different alignment choices when seeking to facilitate the actual goals that we (or our students) might have, whether they are about strength, mobility, skill-development, or pain relief. We can explore alignment beyond aesthetics, and in doing so, alignment might become a far more transformative and useful tool in our toolkit!