When I learned modern postural yoga, having good alignment was the gold standard. I learned the exact positioning of the shoulder blade in plank and downward dog. When I started training in the gym and began lifting weights I heard a lot less about alignment and a lot more about preparation, control, strength and adaptation. Of course there were still positional debates i.e. should the knees go over the toes in a squat, or is it bad to arch the spine in a benchpress? I’m sure some things will be debated until the end of time.

My first gym experience was an Ido Portal workshop seven years ago (the following video was filmed during that workshop). We were encouraged to practice “improper alignment” deliberately, in an attempt to prepare our joints and limbs for the inevitable. This was revolutionary, it was the first time someone had taught me about the power of progressions, not demonizing movement (well, maybe a little demonizing “perfect” alignment) and preparation. Light bulbs were going off all over the place.

This is not an article about how you shouldn’t teach “proper” alignment. It’s a continuation of my thoughts as a teacher and a list of resources that will hopefully inspire us to think deeply about our work, practice and training.

These days in my practice I think a lot about creating an environment where individualized alignment is the norm. If I’m working with a private client I might give suggestions on how they could find their own “best alignment” or the position that feels most organized for them. In a group class I encourage folks to make adjustments until they are in a position that feels good to them. I also take moments in sessions to deliberately let go of everything we think we know about alignment to move and load the body in novel ways to explore and prepare the body for a variety of positions.

In my interview with Bernie Clark he talked about teaching from a place of sensation as opposed to alignment, this caught my interest. He went on to talk about how it doesn’t matter how someone looks in a pose, what matters is how they feel and that people need to fly their own planes.

In my interview with Donna Farhi she stated that as teachers we cannot believe that we know exactly how our students are feeling. She said that it’s a massive hallucination of a teacher’s ego if they believe they know what another person should or shouldn’t do, how far they should go and how long they should stay. This was a stand-out moment for me.

My colleague Laurel Beversdorf shared a post last week that said “Good” alignment tells you more about your aesthetic preferences than it does about the felt experience of the person “well aligned”. I interpret this as a call-to-action for challenging our own bias around what we believe looks “good” in a pose.

In my recent interview with Jules Mitchell we talked about the SI joints and how in yoga training there is so much about alignment to keep these joints “safe”. She started by stating that alignment isn’t that important and highlighted the idea that it’s more important for  teachers to understand the essence of the pose and why they are practicing or teaching it. We agreed that the problem with specific alignment ideas is they can easily be considered the right or correct way to move or do a pose, and as we know there is not one right way to do a pose. Additionally when we believe there is a right way to do a pose, we practice it that way, and if it leads to discomfort down the road this can be very confusing. She also made a point of saying that there is nothing wrong with practicing specific alignment cues, it’s only a problem if/when people start to experience discomfort.

When we make changes to our alignment we might experience relief, which is great, but its not necessarily because the new position is better or more “functional”. Sometimes simply doing something differently can make it feel better.

Last weekend I attended lectures with Neil Pearson, a leading pain specialized physiotherapist, researcher and yoga therapist. In his lecture he continued to remind us that pain (when it persists) is a moving target, it only tells us that there is a problem, and doesn’t tell us where the problem is or how bad it is. Time and time again he stated that pain and tissue damage are not well correlated. He also taught that catastrophizing a position or an experience of pain can make the experience worse. I believe that the research on pain really challenges our ideas about what injuries are and what safety is.

What is a safe position in the first place? Is it a specific alignment, or a position that we have been well prepared for? This is the moment when we start to feel like we don’t know anything anymore. In these moments I have to take stock of what I do know.

I know how to progressively load movements to make them accessible and manageable so that people can participate in ways that lead to adaptation, strength/mobility gains and hopefully increased confidence and more comfortable daily movement.

I know how to present movement in ways that can lead to stress reduction, which can also help people feel better in practice and daily life. I know that helping people feel in control of their movements and choices can help them feel more empowered, and when people have CAN-DO experiences this also leads to more strength, confidence and resilience.

Let’s look at a practical example. When I teach a squat I encourage participants to place their feet in the position that feels good to them, I remind them that they can try one position or alignment and then try another if needed (if I demonstrate I also practice in different positions because some people will copy me). I might add something like “notice where you feel you have the most power in your squat” if the point is to find power. If the point is to relax I might say “put your body in a position that helps you relax.”

As the class facilitator I definitely have ideas about the structure of the class, progressions, where things are going and what poses we are doing, but within this structure I don’t actually know what exact position or alignment is best for everyone. If I can encourage folks to make individualized alignment choices I feel like I’m doing my job.

In some cases a person might need some outside feedback, maybe they can’t tell how they are moving or where they are in space. I believe this is also when I can help with individualized alignment.

For me letting go of alignment cues has been challenging and it has brought to light my personal biases about movement. Some cues roll out of me on auto pilot like “make sure your knee is tracking directly out over your third toe” or “place your knee directly over your heel.” I want to make clear that these are neither the right or wrong things to say, every situation is different.  I have to ask myself, are these the best things I could say, are they totally true, and do they give power back to the people in my classes.

Here are a couple of ideas to reflect on…

  1. Is this cue overtly or covertly saying there is a right or wrong way to move?
  2. Does this cue encourage self inquiry and personal expression?
  3. Is this cue understandable by everyone in my class (especially if they don’t know anatomy)?
  4. As a teacher am I allowed to change my mind as I learn more about the body?