Alignment is Everything

Aligned Warrior I

strength in the engagement of the legs translates into core strength

Alignment sounds so very boring and technical, and yoga is almost always an expression of joy, a time to relax and let go into the present, and to be, sink into our bodies and discover our present moments.

So why bother talking very much about alignment, except in teacher training? I mean, obviously teachers should know something about alignment, but do we really need or want to interrupt the flow of class with it?

Yes! As a teacher, I attach great importance to speaking poetically about alignment and bringing out the metaphor of aligning with our inner truths, even exploring the duality that the concept implies. Alignment is absolutely the core teaching of, in and about yoga pose, because without attention to alignment of joints, planes and limbs, the poses only reinforce the very habits – samskara – we are in yoga class to unravel, unknot and unlive. In the absence of attention to alignment, we are not only unsafe mechanically, but we are grinding the grooves of our habitual responses ever deeper.

Let’s look at a simple pose, like Virabhadrasana, Warrior I. One foot forward, one back, hips square to small edge of mat, arms up. Simple, right? Simple, but not easy.

Misaligned Warrior I

back leg is falling asleep and the hips have no energy!

The back leg reaching back has a tendency to fall, bend at the knee and generally “hang out”. When we energize and straighten it by engaging the muscles 360 degrees to center, what happens in the pelvis? The hamstrings and the hip flexors – iliopsoas – are opposing one another. By engaging that back leg, we tug the hip flexors, which sounds great, right – stretch is good. But what are we likely stretching?

More likely, we’re stretching the abs, not keeping the core engaged, compressing the low back and simply tugging the front of the pelvis down a bit. Why, How? The back femer, reaching back, brings with it the attachment of the hip flexor, which stretches as much as it can. Cool. But it’s a deep and not easily sensed muscle. What happens when it gets to it’s maximum? it tugs on the interior of the pelvis, the next place where muscle meets bone. Hmmm. There’s another section that crosses to the spine, and this is in turn stretched by the pelvis careening forward, but only to its limit. Beyond that, the belly pooches and the tailbone comes up. The low back in between gets crunched like a sandwich in a brown bag at the bottom of your backpack. Ouch.

And this is probably a familiar progression if you do any office work or driving at all, because the hip flexor is in it’s relatively contracted position for long periods of time. This is familiar, this is habit. This is what we’re here to bring attention to. And alignment allows us to do so.

What if you felt the alignment of your ribcage and pelvis in Mountain – the pose that looks suspicously like just standing there only with great attention – with a neutral pelvis by placing your thumbs at the bottom of your ribcage and your fingertips on the top of your hip bones. Now, step back into Virabhadrasana I, back foot turned at about 45 degrees, keeping the same alignment between hips and ribcage. Quite a revelation, huh? Notice where you feel engagement to preserve your alignment. Notice where you are tempted to fly out of alignment for the “look” of the pose.

Alignment is everything because awareness is everything. Whether you understand it from technical anatomical terms or from putting your hands on your ribs and hips to feel when they move, the awareness is what yoga is all about. Without it, you’re a Rhinestone Warrior.

So the Psoas…

I write a lot about the psoas because it’s been such an important structure for me to pay attention to in my own practice. I’ve struggled with hip pain for more than 20 years and trace it back to structural abnormalities (I was born bow-legged and pigeon toed and had surgery, casts and braces to correct it 40 years ago) as well as poor training as a young runner and weight lifter (teen age girls probably shouldn’t put 400 pounds on barbells for a lift, nor is it wise to run middle distance and marathon in the off season, just in case  you wondered about such things 🙂

Yoga has revolutionized my embodiment in so many ways, and one is to allow me to study how I use my illiopsoas. The psoas gets stretched in any backward bending, some more than others, and it gets worked whenever we bring knees toward chest. Tightness or injury in this muscle can mimic lots of other injuries and even create bizarre symptoms. True injury is debilitating for a time… I’ve learned you even use this muscle to get out of bed!

One of the most subtle stretches for the psoas is Warrior I – Virabhadrasana I. From mountain, step one foot back 2 to 3 feet. Your hips remain forward, so it helps to inner spiral the femurs and push into the feet to bring the hip of the back leg forward, and the hip of the front leg back. The femur of the back leg is naturally drawing the pelvis under and forward; resist this by engaging the abdominals to move the rib cage back in space and over the pelvis. Tuck your tailbone. 

Breathing in, raise the arms overhead by the ears or in “I give up” if your shoulders are tight.

Breathing out, bend your forward knee. Check in with the hips: if you had headlights on the front of each pelvic crest, would they both be pointing forward? Press into the feet, engage the inner & outer hip muscles, engage mula bandha and your core to find alignment, then relax, smile and shine!

Because of the psoas’ pull on the pelvis and low back, this is an outstanding preventative and sometimes help for low back pain. Try a backbend (bow, bridge or cobra perhaps?) before and one after and see if you can tell the difference in your openness and ability to radiate.  And radiate love, truth and beauty!