During my nearly 15 years of yoga practice, I’ve had my share of aches and pains but for the most part, they lasted a day or two at most, and I was able to get back to practice.
However, a few years ago, I was sidelined with a shoulder injury from hell during teacher training.
The key cause of the the problem was my alignment. Simply put, my alignment sucked. Years of incorrect alignment (especially in twists) resulted in permanent injury to my shoulder that nags me to this day.
At the time, I had no idea that my alignment was off, much less that I was putting my body in danger. Part of the problem was the type of yoga I was practicing. Granted, the yoga itself and the teachers weren’t at fault, but I tended to gravitate towards styles that were challenging and fast-paced. (My philosophy could have been summed up as the faster and more challenging the poses, the better.)
I am a naturally flexible person with a high pain resistance. I thought I was excelling when actually the opposite was occurring.
Injuring my shoulder not only forced me to slow down, but it forced me to focus on my alignment. While I cannot say that my alignment is perfect or that I no longer struggle to find correct alignment in various poses, it has improved to the point where I am not injuring myself like I used to on a regular basis. (In addition to my shoulder issue, there were times when I threw my lower back out and repeatedly injured my hamstrings.)
Therefore, whatever style of yoga you practice, be it Ashtanga, Birkram, restorative, etc., here are the five commandments of proper yoga alignment.
1. Thou shalt honor thy body and acknowledge its strengths and limitations.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the moment. Even those of us who aren’t particularly competitive may feel like we have to assume the pose that the instructor is demonstrating or go as deep as the person next to us. However, we don’t and we shouldn’t if it isn’t right for our particular body.
For example, when my shoulder first began to hurt, it was a clear sign that I should have stopped extending my arm in revolved triangle pose. (Rather than twist from torso like I was supposed to, I was instead trying to twist by pulling on my arm which was only further aggravating my shoulder.) However, I didn’t want to stand out from the rest of my fellow practitioners, so I continued to do so to my detriment.
The truth is, no one is going to say anything or get upset with you if you modify. As an instructor, I encourage my students to modify whenever necessary and say this often. Even if your instructor doesn’t say this, accept that you have their permission.
2. Thou shalt honor thy instructor and listen to his or her advice.
Many of us don’t like being told what to do, especially the ultra-flexible.
For years, I ignored advice to keep my knees and elbows bend rather than hyper-extend. I wasn’t trying to be surly. Instead, I thought that it didn’t really apply to me because I could do various poses with straight legs and arms with minimal discomfort. Likewise, if they advised taking things down a notch, I generally did not. However, if your yoga instructor is advising you to do something, there is generally a reason.
Even if something doesn’t hurt at the time, that doesn’t mean it isn’t doing damage, especially if you are doing it repeatedly.
3. Thou shalt use props when necessary and see them as tools and not crutches.
So many of us, especially those from the Ashtanga/Vinaysa tradition, do not like props and will not use them unless we absolutely have to. (At least that is how I was.) However, props should not be seen as a bad thing to be avoided. As Iyenger-based instructors know, props can be incredibly useful for obtaining correct alignment. They can also make it easier to hold challenging poses for longer periods of time without injuring oneself.
If you’re unsure how to use them, ask your instructor. Generally speaking, those with Iyenger backgrounds tend to be the best when it comes for asking advice on props.
4. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s poses. (And neighbor also includes those on Instagram, Facebook and other social media sites.)
I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t awed by at least one pose.
When I first began practicing yoga, I would look at books and yoga magazines and try to get my body to assume various poses. More often than not, they were advanced, challenging poses that I was truly not ready to attempt. Even though I thought I was doing them correctly, I was not.
While there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to do certain poses, the truth is it’s far better for most of us to work towards them rather than throwing ourselves into them. If it’s your first time attempting a pose, I strongly suggest doing it with a certified instructor, even if you mainly practice alone.
Also, here’s a little secret about about many of the poses you see on social media sites and even in some yoga publications: often times, the model’s alignment is incorrect. This is especially true in back bends where I often see toes that are turned outward rather than inward. (Over time, constantly turning the toes outward can do a number on the low back.)
In conclusion, proper alignment can make all the difference in one’s yoga practice. Indeed, without it, it may even put an end to practice all together.
While I know first-hand how hard it can be to find time, it’s worth taking the time to do so, even if that means you can’t go to your deepest, most impressive version of a pose or if it means taking a few minutes out from a class and being a bit behind your fellow classmates.
Had I taken the time to do so, it is likely I would not have to deal with a chronic shoulder injury.
In any case, don’t wait until you are injured to focus on proper alignment. In fact, if you start at the very beginning of your yoga journey, you may be able to avoid an annoying, painful injury altogether.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Wikimedia Commons