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5 Yoga Alignment Myths to Let Go of

Yoga is all about letting go of judgment and competition and the never-ending quest for perfection, right? Yet every time I walk in to teach a class (or, let’s be real, attend one), those ideas come up. I see people push themselves into versions of poses that they think are right without paying attention to whether or not it’s good for their bodies, and I do it sometimes too, because we want to be “good at yoga” or do a pose “right.”

These are a few of the “myths” about yoga that I see push people into risky or even just not-so-beneficial versions of poses, so let’s unlearn them!

Your heels should touch the ground in down dog

Some of us *ahem me* have tight calves. And I’m into it because my legs are really strong, and after years of practicing yoga regularly (and foam rolling just about every day), I do have a little more flexibility in my legs than I used to. But my heels still don’t touch the ground in downward-facing dog, and they probably never will. If I try to push for this, I end up messing up the alignment of the pose in my hips and spine or over-shortening my stance. No good, right? It’s way better to let your heels hover and focus on that back-of-the-leg stretch that comes from getting your hips in the right spot.

Your hips should always be square in Warrior 1

In my yoga teacher training, our anatomy teacher showed us a bunch of images of different people’s femurs and pelvises (the bones that make up the hip joint). They were all like, wildly different from each other. It makes sense that our hips don’t do the same thing as someone else’s in the same pose. Some of us will never hold a decent Warrior 1 with perfectly squared hips (unless, like with down dog, we majorly sacrifice another important part of the pose).

That’s not to say that we should get lazy about our warriors. There might be room to adjust your back foot and leg a bit to get your hips closer to square, and that can be beneficial. Just don’t twist your body all around at the expense of your back knee!

You shouldn’t “swan dive” into your standing forward fold

I got curious about this one after going to class with teachers who said to always do it and going to class with teachers who said to never do it. Turns out, it’s one of those things that’s more of an it depends. The cue some teachers give to “swan dive” into your forward fold opens up your heart and creates a bit of a backbend. If you tend to overarch in your lumbar spine, this can be risky. The cue to “swan dive” though, does encourage students to bend from the hips instead of the waist.

So, maybe you don’t need to take a GIANT backbend when you dive down into forward fold, but the swan dive cue is a helpful reminder to lead with your heart and bend from your hips, and that’s a good thing! Remember to engage your core to protect your low back too!

Every asymmetrical pose should look the same on both sides

Our bodies aren’t symmetrical! And not just because of the way we use and overuse them, but probably just because of the way we were born. Think about what we know about our brains, lungs, internal organs — none of it is symmetrical. Because yoga gets into lots of details and nuances of how the body works, asymmetry will come up all the time. We’re just not meant to be perfectly symmetrical!

So, your twists might not match from one side to the other. You might grab a block for one lunge and not for the next. Your balance is probably way better on one foot than the other (and it might depend on the day too). It’s all good!

There’s a perfect or best version of every pose that you’re striving for

The fun thing about yoga is that there’s always a next step. We never really “arrive” at the end of a pose, because there’s always more room to challenge ourselves when we’re ready. You can stand on your hands? Cool, now do it and wrap your legs into an eagle pose. Bound side angle is a breeze? You can work on Bird of Paradise.

And on top of that, your “ideal” version of a pose will look different from someone else’s because all of our bodies are different. Down to the structure of our bones and the shapes of our muscles, there are things about our bodies that are entirely unique, and that’s great! Yoga is such an edifying way to exercise because there are infinite paths it can take and because it encourages self-awareness and reflection that lets you decide how each pose looks for you.

OK, alignment mythbusters, what myths have you let go of? What are you still confused or curious about?

Feature Image via Bad Yogi community member Stephanie Scott

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5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Dwayne

    November 29, 2017 at 8:54 pm

    Lots…for instance, hips square in revolved side angle pose, splits and “bowing to the big toe” (Ashtanga standing posture)…Richard Freeman (who I kind of trust) advised “hips *squaring* rather than square” in these. To be fair, much of the traditional alignment lore is currently being reevaluated. I’ve found Bernie Clark’s book “Your Body, Your Yoga” very informative in that respect.

    1. Avatar

      Alex Edwards

      December 2, 2017 at 2:25 pm

      I’ll have to check out that book! IMO a lot of that traditional alignment lore is way overdue for re-evaluation. The yoga poses that most of us do in 21st century yoga classes weren’t designed for/tested out on a whole diversity of body types, so our understanding of them will always be changing. It’s exciting!

  2. Chuck Vadun

    Chuck Vadun

    December 1, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    This is great, Alex! When I first got my heels down in Down Dog, I thought I was pretty cool 🙂 until my teacher told me that by doing so, I was kinda foregoing all the actual _benefits_ of the pose. Also, bending from hips rather than waist is one I have to be extra-mindful to do.

    1. Avatar

      Alex Edwards

      December 2, 2017 at 2:23 pm

      Haha, exactly! I’ve found lately that I’m SO trained to bend at my hips that it’s hard to remember to bend at my waist when I actually want to do it (like for core work)!

  3. Amanda Sides

    Amanda Sides

    December 7, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks for writing this! I always tell students that the way we’re put together impacts the way our poses look — bone size and shape make a big difference! Another important note on the downward dog is that calves can grow more flexible over time, but our achilles tendon really shouldn’t, and that tendon will also impact how close our heels get to the ground.

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