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Principles of alignment


07 may 2014 by Esther Ekhart

Esther talks about the principles of alignment we can apply in all poses. Using these dual actions can give us a safer, stronger and deeper yoga practice...

I wanted to write this article to bring together some of the key alignment principles I've learnt over the years having been taught by different teachers with different methods. 

I've experienced how important it is to apply principles of alignment to open my body in a safe way. Hopefully it can help you all understand what muscles to use and how to apply core strength to be able to go deeper in a pose in a safe way.

There are some alignment principles that apply to all poses, and that’s what I want to discuss in this article.

Dual actions and finding our center

We apply principles to achieve balance between the front and the back of the body, the inner and outer body, right and left side, contraction and expansion, mind and heart.

The principles are also described as dual actions, meaning that every single action must be balanced by an opposing, counter or “dual” action. If one action or instruction overpowers another, we create an imbalance and put the the weaker part at risk. When we give an instruction that works in only one direction, the body will get knocked off center.

Yoga is about finding our center: When you find the center in your body, your mind will follow along.

Yoga is about finding our center: When you find the center in your body, your mind will follow along. So we have to observe that the results of our actions are balancing.

The result should always be that we create length and space in the body, but to achieve that in a safe and supported way, we have to use muscle energy and core stability to protect the joints.

Okay, so how can we do this? What are the principles we can apply in every pose to make sure we’re balanced and supported enough to enjoy moving in a pose to the deepest level available to us?

Universal Principles of Alignment from Anusara yoga 

These are just from one system of yoga but for me they make sense. Applying these principles involves performing a series of complementary actions. These are called inner and outer spirals, muscular and organic energy and intersecting energy loops that run from the front to the back of the body.

The goal is to find the middle between extremes, once we do that we can perform the postures with ease and joy.

These principles are explained by John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga system, as the following:

Principles of Alignment

open to graceOpen to grace

The first principle of Anusara Yoga. How I understand it, this stems from the belief that we are more than just our physical body and mind. That everything is made out of the same energy, the whole of existence: you, me, nature and the streets. That everything is one thing. Opening to grace doing yoga is connecting and aligning ourself to this energy, that is bigger than us. That energy that intrinsically is us, the space in which everything appears and that what appears in it. All one thing.

muscular energy

Muscular energy

A drawing of energy from the periphery of the body into the focal point, increasing stability, strength, and physical integration in the pose.

Inner spiralInner spirals

An energy spiral running from the feet up through the pelvis into the waistline area. The Inner Spiral rotates the legs inward, moves the thighs backward, and widens the backs of the thighs and pelvis.

outer spiralOuter spirals

Another opposing, or counter, energy spiral runs from the waistline area down through the tailbone and out through the legs and feet. The Outer Spiral rotates the legs outward, moves the tailbone and thighs forward, and draws the pelvis and backs of thighs closer together.

Organic energy

An outward extension of energy from the focal point through the core lines of the body to the body’s periphery, increasing expansion, flexibility, and freedom in the pose.

focal points

Focal point

A localized power spot within the body. Muscular Energy draws into it, and Organic Energy extends out from it. There are three possible locations for the Focal Point: the core of the pelvis, the bottom of the heart, and the upper palate. In any given pose, only one Focal Point is active. The active Focal Point is the one nearest the most weight-bearing part of the pose. When the three possible Focal Points are equally weight-bearing, the pelvic Focal Point becomes the active one.

Putting this into practice

To help you learn how to balance these actions I recommend you read the following first, then do it and experience the principles in your own body.

  1. Stand in Tadasana/Mountain Pose, with your feet hip-width apart and parallel to each other.
  2. Take a moment to soften, to open your heart and to connect with what is.
  3. Now find the four corners of your feet, the ball of the big toe, the ball of the little toe, and the inner and outer heel, to ground yourself. Next, lift your toes to engage “muscular energy” (a contracting energy) and draw it in toward the bones and bring it up along the legs into the pelvis. Most teachers would say draw your kneecaps and thighs up, and bring the tops of the thighs back.
  4. Place a block, or a relatively thick book, between your inner thighs, and rotate the thighs back, so the block moves into the space behind you. This is how you produce an inner spiral through the legs. This movement also relieves tension in the psoas muscle and the creases of the hips.
  5. Next, bring the tailbone down and inward (outer spiral), creating a ”neutral pelvis,” which means the pelvis is level and even on all sides.
  6. Next, consciously press organic energy (an expanding energy) down through your feet into the floor, to balance the muscle energy (an contracting energy) that you’ve used for the inward spiral.

Anusara Yoga also talks about energetic loops in the body. These are initiated by muscular and organic energy

  • Shoulder Loop
    To align through the torso, lengthen through the side waist and pull the upper arm bones up and back. To balance this action draw the shoulder blades down along the spine.
  • Kidney Loop
    You can feel that there is a strong back arch now, so to balance that you want to breathe into the back ribs, pull the navel in and up, and fill out the lower back that way.
  • Skull Loop
    To align the neck, bring the hyoid bone (the floating bone in front of the throat) up and back. 

There are two more energy loops in the legs: the calf loop and ankle loop, which you can activate by pulling up along the calves and simultaneously pushing back through the heels.

The art is to bring these principles into practice in each and every pose.
I personally haven’t come across a better, clearer way of understanding and applying principles of alignment in order to have a safe and enjoyable yoga practice.

Good luck,
Esther Ekhart

For a deeper exploration of these principles in action try our program: Anusara Yoga for beginners or some of Sandra Carson's other Anusara classes

Choose from over 1000 yoga and meditation classes

first month 1 limited offer

This article has been updated and was originally posted on 2nd Feb 2012 

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