Alignment is the foundation to yoga asanas. This is much emphasized throughout the Yoga Teachers’ Training. The teachers will repeatedly remind us in a high-pitched voice “check your alignment!”.
Yes, we breathe in and breathe out focusing on alignment. Practising with proper alignment is to achieve safe, effective and beneficial postures that will not lead to injury. Even a simple standing posture needs proper alignment: hips should be stacked over the feet; thighs are engaged by actively lifting them away from the knees; tailbone is slightly tucked in; shoulders should be dropped down and away from the ears. A wrong alignment can lead to blockages of circulation and of course, chakras. Take Utthita Trikonasana as an example, circulation of the hips and the low back can be hindered. A person with hip condition may worsen the problem as this will create more bone spurs in the hip, or blocking the sacroiliac joint or diminishing the disc space. Yoga is about good alignment to enhance one’s health to increase flexibility, increase lubrication of joints, ligaments and tendons which in turn massages the body’s internal organs, detoxifies the body and tones the muscles. The list does not end here. In a nutshell, it’s about bringing your mind, body and soul into oneness.
To improve alignment, we have to understand the human anatomy about our muscles, bones and joints. When I first opened up the anatomy book, I’m intrigued by the complexity of the human body! They are great team players who co-ordinate and complement one another impeccably to help us function optimally so that we can fulfil all movements and actions.
Let’s touch on a little about joints. Freely moveable joints include hinge, ball and socket, gliding, ellipsoid, pivot and saddle. A ball and socket joint like our shoulders and hips are multiaxial joints because they can move bones along several axes and they also give the greatest range to the human body. A hinge joint like our knees and elbows are responsible for flexion and extension movement and they allow for motion in one plane. Any extreme exertion of these areas will cause tear or injury. Example, a knee joint can only flex and extend but not rotate because they are not ball and socket joint. So do not rotate your knee joints as they can lead to injury. Also, we should not stretch beyond the origin and insertion which would otherwise stretch the tendons and connective tissues and result in tear and damage. This explains why injury could happen sometimes when we try to stretch to the maximum limit which leads to micro tear to the ligaments.
Muscles are the next big player which help us immensely in our asanas. Muscles work with one another to contract and lengthen. There are 3 main muscle roles and they are responsible for actions like flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, inversion, eversion etc. The agonist muscles are the primary movers of the joints while the synergist muscles help them; the antagonist muscles monitor and help in making the movements smooth and with control. This helps to maintain and hold the joint surface in position. Alignment of the joint is dependent on these antagonistic muscles. If the movement is smooth and slow, the alignment of the joints can be maintained and the injuries are prevented.
When the muscles contract, all the muscle fibers will contract at the same time and this is known as concentric shortening of the muscle which is necessary to carry out any action. On the other hand, when the muscle relaxes, all the muscle fibers will not relax at the same time. Some muscle fibers will resist the process of relaxation. This is useful to prevent the fast relaxation of the muscle thus preventing the jerks during relaxation and preventing injury. This is called the eccentric lengthening of the muscle which is important during the release of any yogic asana.
In yoga, there are poses and counter poses that are designed to work together. We move our body one way and then in an opposing neutralizing posture to calm the body and the nervous system. For example, when we do a back bending posture, we will want to move into a forward bend to counterbalance the pose. This is because backbends can be stimulating to the body, squeezing the organs in the opposite direction than usual and the pose utilizes completely different muscle groups than our normal day-to-day activities require. This is why we often want to reverse the sensations created with a counter pose.
Also, weakness in any asana means a certain muscle is weak. Unable to do a forward bend in Uttanasana could be tightness in the hamstrings, spinal muscles or gluteals. Unable to do shoulderstand or headstand could be weak muscles of the shoulder, arm or abdominals. Identify the weaker muscles and strengthening them would be the solution to getting into the asanas.
So, do you think it is important to know what’s going on in your body?
“Know yourself, know your body, and you will win the battle of a thousand asanas”
A yoga teacher will need the basic understanding of the human anatomy to reinforce on alignment and provide safety information and cues to students in order to protect them from injury.
I will be waiting for my turn to shout “check your alignment!!”
by Penn Ho, 200hr Yoga TCC 07/weekend