Head, shoulders, knees, and toes- alignment matters, doncha knows?



The incredible Ganga White



Oy.  Alignment.  Entire libraries could (and have) been written about proper yoga alignment.  There are books and courses and videos and workshops and more pictures of skeletons in muscle suits out there than you could ever imagine, and yet, people are hitting the mat and stacking their bones all willy-nilly without a second thought.  Those same people are getting hurt, getting arthritis, and getting fed up.


There are several reasons, really.  Many of us have been taught incorrectly.  For a long time the whole “heel to arch” deal has been the master alignment in warrior and many other standing poses, gazing at the sky has been the ultimate goal, and bending in half at all costs was encouraged.  Guess what?  I’m a yoga teacher and my hips and knees scream at me when I align my front heel with my back arch (and this is true for more folks than not, honestly,) while I can bend in half doesn’t mean I should do it (nor, you, either,) and, as the incomparable Tracey Rich says, “Why are you hurting your neck trying to look at the ceiling?  There are no prizes up there, people!”

While it’s so incredibly important to listen to your teacher, his or hers should be the 2nd voice you listen to.  The first voice you listen to is your body’s.  Let’s clear something up right now: if it hurts you, chances are you are doing it wrong.  Pain is information.  If the pain stops when you come out of the asana, it’s cool, you’ve done no damage yet, so change your asana.  If it still hurts after you’ve come out of the asana, you’ve already done some damage, get it looked at, and then change your asana!

So let’s review:

If your neck hurts, you’re doing it wrong.  Your neck is comprised of very important vertebrae called the cervical spine.  It is meant to arch and curve in slightly, but when it’s in proper alignment, it looks straight from the outside.  If you are leading with your chin, stop it.  If you are crunching your shoulders up to your neck, stop it.  There should be a very important right angle between your ears and your shoulders.  The crown of your head should always extend, the chin most often should be tucked or dropped slightly to expand the cervical vertebrae (don’t go dropping it to your chest, that’s bad, too.)  The neck should be lengthening, not shrinking and compressing.  And for heaven’s sake, if you’re craning your neck to look at the ceiling in Trikonasana or Ustrasana, STOP IT!  There are no prizes up there, unless the prize you’re looking for is a neck brace.  Have questions about this? Ask me in class.  I’m here to help you.

If your knees are talking to you, you’re doing it wrong.  Now, I’m not talking about when we do kneeling poses and the floor is hard (although, if your knees still hurt in those poses, double your mat, folks!)  If your knees are hurting you in any of the Warriors or other standing postures, chances are you’re not using them correctly.  In standing postures that have a bent knee, the knee should be directly over the 2nd toe.  99% of the time, the knee should NEVER go forward of the ankle (there are some lunges when you are fully supported by your other leg and hands in which this is okay, but they are rare and your teacher will point them out when it’s okay to bend beyond 90 degrees.)  If you are feeling a crunch in your front knee, check that it’s not overly bent, that it’s not falling inside the pose.  Also, check your leading foot! Is it pointing straight ahead?  It should be!  Check your torso – are your hips and heart in the same plane?  They should be!   Is it your back knee or hip that has a bone to pick with you?  Chances are you’re putting too much torque on those critical joints!  Consider stepping the back foot out several inches so that you can keep the heel in line with the hip!!  WHAT?  Yep, I know it’s revolutionary and strange and seems wrong, but call me crazy, I like things that work!  The integrity of the pose is not compromised one little bit if you step the back foot out several inches to keep the heel down in Vira 1.  OR, if you really wanna shake things up, try doing Vira 1 ON YOUR BACK TOES!  Just blew your mind, didn’t I?  If you come up on your back toes with toes pointing forward , you can square your hips to the front of your mat, sink your tailbone, open your sacrum, and stretch the hamstring and quads the way the pose is supposed to do.  If you are on your toes, however, be sure to extend the energy out of the back heel so that the knee is supported by a strong leg. Have questions about this? Ask me in class.  I’m here to help you.

So you want to do a backbend but your neck and low back have other ideas (like avoiding pain?)  Listen to your neck and back!  Please remember that backbends are, foremost, poses of extension and never compression!  It’s about getting the spine to expand and stretch LONG, not to crunch it and bend it in half so you can fit in a suitcase.  Backbends take time and patience.  Even simple backbends such as Bhujangasana are often done wrong resulting in pained necks and low backs.  Try extending further out through the crown of your head instead of just shoving yourself up there.  There are no medals or prizes for getting arms straight.  Be gentle with that low back, eh?  Same with Ustrasana.  It’s a quad stretch, not a neck and low back crunch.  Press forward through the thighs and LIFT THROUGH THE HEART!  It’s not about bending back, it’s about extending up so far that you have no where else to go but back.  Please – Yoga is not a bend-off.  Don’t compete.  The only winners are those folks who can still walk and stand.  I’m quite certain you’d rather be able to walk comfortably all your life than to force yourself into a full Urdhva Dhanurasana once.  Have questions about this? Ask me in class.  I’m here to help you.

Yes, I’m here to help you.  If I come by and touch you or help you make subtle (or not so subtle) adjustments, I’m not judging you.  I have done more than enough years of doing more than enough wrong things.  I’m here to help, to encourage, to reinforce what is right and to help what is incorrect.  You’re paying me, make the most of your money!  We’re in it together.  Learn from me!

Head upon neck.  Ears above shoulders.  Shoulders above hips and above wrists.   Hips above knees.  Knees above ankles and toes.  It all matters, dontcha know?

Om Shanti!


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