If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you’ve heard your teacher give cues for proper alignment. But how do you know if you’re executing them properly? Sometimes you might think you’re in alignment, but your body is in a slightly different shape—affecting both your physical safety (you’re more likely to be injured) and the energetic effectiveness of the posture itself (that is, your body isn’t lined up for the life-force energy to flow through you).
Here are five common alignment mistakes that, if corrected, can transform your practice.
1) Sukhasana (Easy Pose)
Common Alignment Mistake: Hunched or rounded back.
Remedy: Sit up on something to level your pelvis.
No amount of trying to “sit up straight” can fix this mistake if your pelvis isn’t neutral. People who are tight in their hips and low back will have a difficult time rocking forward on the pelvic bowl, which is vital to being able to line up your spine in its natural curvature. Therefore, sitting on a folded blanket, bolster, or block will help lift your hips enough to counter any tightness. The higher you prop yourself, the easier it will be to sit up well. When you’re sitting correctly in Easy Pose, your shoulders should be stacked over your hips with your lumbar curve intact.
Why is this important? As one of the most standard meditation postures, it’s important to line up the energetic channels within the body so you can be alert yet relaxed, while you connect to your breath and quiet your mind.
2) Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
Common Alignment Mistake: Rounded shoulders in favor of straight legs.
Remedy: Bend your knees to lengthen the spine.
For this pose, it is more important for your spine to be long and straight (read: neutral curvature) than for your legs to be straight. Oftentimes I’ll see students so focused on trying to straighten their legs that their upper body (mainly the shoulders) is rounded to compensate for tight hamstrings. Until the backline of the body is strong and open enough to create a solid inverted “V” shape, bending the knees to tip the sitting bones to the sky is an excellent choice. Widening the hand placement can also create more space in the shoulders and chest to pull the belly back toward the thighs.
3) Phalakasana (Plank Pose)
Common Alignment Mistake: Hips too low or too high with weight back in the heels.
Remedy: Shift forward on your toes, draw hip points toward your ribs, and melt your heart.
Plank is a challenging pose. It’s even more challenging to do it correctly. When we send the weight back into the heels, we default to the glutes and legs. When we shift forward onto the toes, we are able to utilize this pose for its core-strengthening purposes, which is far more effective. Furthermore, when the hips dip down too low, it creates a strain in the low back. When the hips are too high, not much of anything is happening; it’s sort of a yoga-cheat.
The good news is, when you do it correctly, it’s unnecessary to hold it for very long—if not impossible; just a few breaths of a well-executed Plank has tremendous benefits. The key is to try to get the hips level with the shoulders, shift forward on the toes, and draw your hip points toward your ribs. This engages your abdominal muscles. Finally, melt you heart slightly between your shoulder blades, but be careful not to let your scapulae “wing” off your back. You should feel strong in this pose, even though it’s challenging.
4) Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
Common Alignment Mistake: Shoulders dip too low, while the hips pop up.
Remedy: Keep drawing shoulders back as you lower, and keep them in line with your elbows.
The most common modification for Chaturanga is to lower the knees as you lower the chest halfway toward the earth. But if you’re working on your full Chaturanga with knees lifted, you need to be sure you don’t dip your shoulders lower than your elbows. Over time, this mistake puts excessive strain on the shoulders and wrists, not to mention deprives you of the benefits of doing this pose with proper form.
A good way to ensure that your shoulders don’t go too low is to have someone reflect back to you how you’re doing with it. Have a friend tell you to “stop” when your shoulders are on the same plane as your elbows, and try to take a few breaths there. This way, the alignment will build into your muscle memory. You can also use blocks as a tool if you’re by yourself. Most blocks are about the same height as your forearm, so by placing a block under your shoulders, you can get a sense of where you should stop lowering down. Of course, this remedy doesn’t account for anatomical differences, but it’s a great point of reference for most bodies.
5) Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
Common Alignment Mistake: Shoulders move beyond the wrists and shoulders round forward.
Remedy: Transfer to the top of each foot one at a time from Chaturanga, as opposed to rolling through. Then actively draw shoulders back as you claw the earth.
Upward-Facing Dog is most often approached from Chaturanga during a Vinyasa portion of a Sun Salutation—the Plank-Chaturanga-Updog-Downdog sequence. When moving through a Vinyasa with speed over accuracy, many people put their wrists in danger by allowing the shoulders to move beyond the base of the wrists. Upward-Facing Dog is not a planche pose; that is, the shoulders are meant to be vertical of the wrists, not ahead of them.
One way to achieve this is to try placing the top of each foot on the mat one at a time from Chaturanga, rather than pushing forward with the feet and rolling over the toes. Then, power down through the tops of the feet to engage the legs and lift the kneecaps off the ground. To modify, keep the knees down and soften the elbows, but always keep the shoulders stacked and drawing back to safely and effectively work the spine and the arms.
Editor’s Note: Photos in this article were taken by Tierney St. John