Last weekend, I led an alignment workshop at Giving Tree Yoga in Smyrna, GA. Below are some of the questions participants had regarding optimal alignment in yoga postures (asana) and how to perform transitions between postures in a typical all-levels “flow” hatha yoga class. These tips do not necessarily apply to a yin or restorative class. 

First though, I find it helpful to keep the following general points in mind as you move through yoga asana. Note that this is a brief overview and not a comprehensive alignment guide. Also, there are many lineages of yoga, some of which have different guidelines for practice. Your teacher will instruct you based upon their particular lineage.

Essential Alignment Tips

  • Note the position of your spine. Take care of your spine in every posture. A spinal injury or repeated stress to the spine over time is much more concerning than injury or stress to a limb, for example.
    • Some general tips: Engage your core muscles to protect and stabilize your spine; inhale and lengthen the spine before exhaling to twist or forward fold; align the central axis of your body naturally (your diaphragms and bandhas, the energetic locks). 
  • Find *the* foundational yoga posture in Tadasana – Mountain Pose. In this active standing posture, all other asanas can be found.
  1. Begin by noticing your roots; weight is distributed evenly through feet. Lift toes, engage arches of the feet and draw up through the inner legs. Slowly lower toes down, retaining the muscular engagement.
  2. When viewed from the side: Stack ears over shoulders; shoulders stacked over hips, hips stacked over the center of the knee joint, knee stacked over the ankles. 
  3. Maintain the natural curve of the spine (don’t force an anterior or posterior pelvic tilt).
  4. Palms rotate forwards, thumbs out to the sides.
  5. Elongate the back of the neck, like you’re drawing the back of your skull up a wall behind you toward the ceiling.
  6. Lift the sternum.
  7. Gently draw shoulder blades together.
  8. Gently draw the navel in the direction of the spine.
  9. Relax the shoulders. Soften the jaw. Relax the muscles of the face. 
  10. Either close eyes or gaze ahead to the horizon.
  11. Breathe diaphragmatically (“belly breathing”) in and out through the nostrils.
  12. Notice where in your body you feel energetic movement.
  • Ensure that your arms are in alignment with your shoulders, not your chest. Avoid collapsing the chest. In general, we seek openness and space in our yoga asana. This can be especially tricky in revolved postures, such as Revolved Triangle!
  • Stacking joints provides greater stability and power. Avoid locking joints (this can cause damage over time; it also doesn’t work muscles to strengthen and engage if you ‘hang out’ in the joints).
  • Notice how you sit, walk, drive, and stand in your day-to-day activities. Repeated poor posture at your desk at work for hours each day, for example, will not be totally counteracted by attending a few hours of alignment-focused yoga asana practice per week.

Now for the Q&A!

  • Q: I would love your help with making sure I’m doing the basic poses and moves correctly. Specifically down dog and warrior 2, but also my foot placement in warrior 1 and warrior 3. 
    • A: Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana): 
      • Begin on hands and knees. 
      • Stack hips over knees, and hands under and slightly forward of shoulders. 
      • Tucking toes under, lift your hips on the exhale. 
      • Check that your index fingers are parallel to one another and fingers are spread wide, pressing down into the mat firmly. 
      • With knees bent and heels lifted to start, isometrically press your body back with your hands while countering that movement through pressing through the feet. 
      • Draw upwards through your sitting bones and gently bring your tailbone towards your pubic bone.
      • Ensure that you are pressing your body back diagonally through your hands, arms, and shoulders, not rounding the back or collapsing the shoulders. To achieve this, bending further into the knees is often necessary. 
      • Tuck your floating (lower) ribs in gently. 
      • On an exhale, press the tops of your thighs back as you lower your heels toward the mat, beginning to straighten (but not lock!) the knees. 
      • Spiral your heels gently away from the midline of your body if they are pivoted into your line of vision as you gaze back toward your navel.
      • On a final exhale, come back to hands and knees (Tabletop) or to Child’s Pose.
  • W1 foot placement (with R foot forward): 
    • With your right foot forward and toes perpendicular to the short front edge of your mat, turn your left foot in 45-60 degrees from the back edge of your mat. 
    • Ground through the entire back foot (heel is down to the mat).
    • Heel-to-heel alignment is an option, or you can step your back foot to the left a bit to create more space for your pelvis to align to the front.
    • On an exhale, square the front of your pelvis towards the front edge of your mat. Bringing the left hip point towards the front of the mat, press the head of the left femur back. 
    • Draw your tailbone toward the floor.
    • Lift through your sternum. Lift through the arms and fingers, relaxing the shoulders away from the ears.
    • Gaze out at the horizon.
    • Exhale to release out of the posture and step forward to the front of your mat, or back to Downward-Facing Dog.
  • W2 foot placement with R foot forward: 
    • Turn your right foot so that your toes are perpendicular to the short front edge of your mat. 
    • Your left foot should turn out to the long edge of your mat at approximately 90 degrees. Bring your right heel in line with the left heel. 
    • Exhaling, bend deeply into the right knee, ensuring that the knee is over, not past, the ankle.
    • Gaze down to ensure you can see your right big toe to the inside of your right leg; if it is not in view, you may be collapsing the right knee inward. 
    • Engage your thighs and rotate your left thigh gently outward. The middle of the left knee cap should be in line with the center of the left ankle.
    • With navel drawn towards the spine, lift both arms parallel to the ground, palms down. Relax the shoulders.
    • Bring the gaze over the middle finger of the right hand.
  • W3 foot placement with R foot on the ground, L leg lifted: 
    • From Mountain pose (Tadasana), inhale to lift the arms overhead, shoulders are relaxed away from the ears.
    • With the spine lengthening upward, exhale and engage the muscles of the R thigh, hinging forward at the hip creases. 
    • Lift the L leg. 
    • Engage the L toes such that they are pointed or flexed, but not floppy. 
    • If flexed, the toes turn downwards, perpendicular with the ground and reaching back through the lifted heel. If pointed, the toes are parallel to the ground.
    • The shoulder blades are drawing towards one another.
    • Gaze is directly down and back of the neck lengthens.
  • Q: Chair and Goddess – tailbone placement do I tuck it in or stick it out?
    • A: Maintain a natural curve to your spine and a neutral pelvis. Too much or too little curvature will interrupt the flow of energy along your spine. Too much tucking can stress the muscles around the lower spine. Note that our tissue surrounding our bones and muscles can give the illusion of more curve to the spine than there actually is.
      • To test: Take a dowel (or broom handle) and gently press the back of your head to the rod. Allow your tailbone to also press into the rod. Breathe! Relax. Find your alignment.
  • Q: Proper alignment of half moon – proper rotation, or off due to sickled foot (which provides balance)?
    • A: Let’s try this posture against the wall to start. Begin in Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle), R leg forward. Find your drishti (focused gaze) as you bend into the front (R) leg without locking the knee joint. Lift the back leg perpendicular to the ground, with L toes flexed toward the L knee and turned away from the wall behind you, parallel to the ground. Start by gazing toward the ground. Uplift the left arm perpendicular to your body (and the floor). Find balance here, with the right hand to a block or to the floor.
  • Q: How do I know if my hands are in the correct spot for a half-way lift (ardha uttanasana); I know my back is supposed to be straight?
    • A: Hands should be placed at the tops of the shins or bottoms of the thighs (just above the knees) if you feel it is difficult to attain a “flat” back for ardha uttanasana. You may also place your hands to blocks. Many people find this posture difficult due to tight hamstrings (in which case bend the knees more to start) or tight QLs (quadratus lumborum – work on lateral stretches to lengthen and release these muscles). Keep the back of the neck long and gaze down as if you are looking over a precipice. Bring the majority of your weight to the balls of your feet.
  • Q: What is the proper way to jump back to plank?
    • A: I do not teach jump-backs to high plank. This is a frequent question among students looking to achieve a smooth “flowing” transition through a vinyasa. My rationale: Imagine two crash test dummies. One is in a vehicle made to today’s safety standards, which has a front end designed to crumple upon impact. The other dummy is in a very old car which is not designed to crumple significantly upon impact. Which dummy would sustain more injuries in a head-on collision? The one in the older car that does not crumple would likely sustain more injuries. When you practice jump-backs or “float-backs” (which are preferable to jump-backs but require more technique), do so directly following your half-lift, on the exhale. Place your hands firmly on your mat, moving your body all the way through from ardha uttanasana (half-lift) to chaturanga dandasana, your low plank. Your arms are shock absorbers for the impact of your body arriving in a low plank (aka your chaturanga/four-limbed staff pose). If you were to jump directly back to high plank, the shock would be absorbed primarily by your elbows and low back, setting you up for the potential for real injury, especially over repeated incorrect practice.
  • Q: How do I do chaturanga correctly?
    • A: If a student has been practicing chaturanga, I suggest that they take a video of themselves and we can discuss improvements. If the student is looking to attempt chaturanga for the first time, I encourage them to build strength through holding high plank first (try to build up to 1-minute holds!), then practicing lowering down all the way from high plank to belly with elbows hugging into the side body. Next, work toward hovering in your chaturanga. Then begin to link the elements together into your vinyasa sequence. Here are some key alignment tips: 
      • Warm-up moving through Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) and high plank. 
      • From high plank, in which shoulders are aligned over the wrists or wrists are slightly forward of the shoulders, press your body forward using your toes and begin to bend the elbows, hugging them into your sides, and lowering your entire body approximately parallel to the ground.
      • Form a 90-degree angle with your elbows in chaturanga; upper arms are parallel to the ground and forearms are perpendicular to the ground. I recommend that shoulders do not dip below the elbows.
      • Draw your shoulder blades together on your back against your ribs. Gently tuck your tailbone.
      • Keep pulling the tailbone toward the pubic bone to avoid sinking in the lower back. Pull the pubic bone toward the navel, feeling abdominal muscles tighten.
      • Lift through the top of your sternum and gaze forward.
      • Release to the floor or to Downward-Facing Dog with an exhalation.
      • As a note, the legs and belly never touch the ground. The only points of contact with the ground in a chaturanga are the hands and feet.
  • Q: What if I am not ready to do float-backs, jump-backs, or for that matter, chaturanga?
    • A: No worries! Let’s discuss other options. I myself only jump/float back to chaturanga occasionally. My primary practice in a flow is simply to step back to high plank, then lower to chaturanga dandasana by bending my elbows. I need to feel very warmed-up in order to practice these other transitions, and even then, I would not necessarily do them for each and every vinyasa a teacher cued.
      • An alternative to chaturanga: Lower from high plank to your knees (modified plank), then with elbows hugging the sides, lift the hips and sweep your chin, then chest, then stomach to the ground, extending the back as you move through this transition. Lift the chest into Cobra (Bhujangasana) without moving the hands from your original plank placement (you can hover them but keep them from moving forward).
  • Q: What can I do to improve my headstands? 
    • A: General tips:
      • B.K.S. Iyengar’s teachings caution students not to attempt headstand until they can hold shoulderstand and plow pose for 8-10 minutes. Additionally, if there is pressure or discomfort in the head, neck, eyes, ears, etc., then come out of the posture and take a gentle forward bend. Speak with a teacher for advice (p. 98, Yoga the Iyengar Way).
      • To come into the posture: 
        • Use a folded blanket to cushion the head. Kneel before the blanket. 
        • Interlock fingers behind the head. Elbows are directly under the shoulders. The crown of the head should be directly on the blanket. Elbows are equally placed from the sides of the head. 
        • Lift through the upper arms and shoulders. The majority of your weight should be on the forearms, rather than the head and neck.
        • Straighten the legs, lift the hips, and walk your feet in toward your elbows as in Dolphin pose. Your torso should be nearly perpendicular to the floor. Allow your chest to open (no rounding the back here). 
        • With straight OR bent legs, exhale and use your core to lift your body to vertical. Avoid jumping or kicking up.
        • Continue to lift through your shoulders, lengthen the neck, and extend through the heels toward the sky. 
        • Come out of the pose as you went into it, by tucking knees in and lowering down or coming down slowly with straight legs.

Please comment below with your alignment questions! I am planning to hold additional alignment workshops with Giving Tree Yoga in the future, with limited class sizes. My next workshop, the Intentionality Workshop, will be held on January 4th, 2019, from 2-5 p.m.


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