I work with a lot of rowers and in my time with them, I’m always thrilled when we do different yoga poses and they comment on how the pose would be helpful for rowing. Yoga has a wonderful way of being applicable to many different activities; rowing, running, cycling, functional movement we do all day, awareness around sitting at your desk, even driving your car. But when we refer to “alignment” in yoga, what does that really mean?
When we refer to “alignment,” we’re literally talking about “being in line.” But what “line” are we talking about? I’d suggest it’s the centerline of the body, or the spine, that’s most often the reference point when talking about alignment. Being in alignment in a yoga pose is having a sense of being centered around your spine and that holds true for when you’re on the floor or standing; twisting, balancing, wrapping or extending your limbs out to the sides.
The other interesting thing about the word “alignment” is that it can also be used to refer to one’s ability to be “in line” with an idea, values or a mission. When a team is in alignment, they’re referring to being in agreement about philosophy, training and conduct on and off the playing arena. When employees are in alignment with a company’s mission statement, it can refer to everyone working well as a team, cooperating and expressing clearly the vision and mission of the brand.
When we look at using good alignment in yoga poses or even in any other physical activity (or even when driving or sitting at our desks), why would we want to do this? What value is there? Here are some thoughts:
Efficiency: When your body is in alignment, from a biomechanical perspective, you don’t have to work as hard. Your joints are stacked for maximum power and your chest is open so you can easily breathe. Good alignment helps us work enough but not overwork.
Decreased risk of injury: Improper alignment can lead to injuries. In yoga, things like locking joints, bringing the shoulders below the elbows in the high-to-low-push-up transition and scrunching the shoulders to the ears in inversions are common mishaps. When we move in alignment, we build strength and nourish our joints and muscles without creating stress or tension.
Helps conserve energy: Being in alignment helps us conserve our energy because we’re not overworking to compensate for being out of line. Similar to the efficiency benefit, it helps us put our energy where it’s most needed on a physical level. This also applies to the other application of being “in alignment;” when we live our life in alignment with our own values and mission statement and resist being swayed by others, we have more energy for all that we do and also less drama in our lives.
Builds strength: Working the body with alignment helps us build strength. Our joints are stacked so our muscles and bones can work efficiently.
Relieves pain from unhealthy movement patterns: For many people that start practicing yoga and paying attention to alignment, they begin to undo years of holding their body in unhealthy ways. They remark how their neck pain starts to subside or their lower back pain decreases. For some, it’s a matter of identifying what they are doing that’s not working for them and it is only through being in alignment, that they can identify these patterns.
So how does one learn alignment? In a typical yoga class, most students learn by watching others, watching the teacher, figuring things out for themselves, or a combination of all three. If the studio where you practice offers workshops dedicated to alignment, that’s a great way to learn. Learning by watching others is always a bit tough because everyone’s body is different. Plus, who knows if that person knows what they’re doing?
Ultimately, being “in alignment” is both an internal and external expression of being in congruence with a set of principles. If we’re talking about the body, they’re principles about biomechanics. If we’re talking about it from a spiritual perspective, we’re talking about being in agreement with the values and ideas around how we wish to live our lives. Alignment is an expression of being at peace in both our body and mind.