Author: Randeep Singh / go to all articles on Yoga Concepts
The universal yoga alignment principles
are a set of biomechanical principles,
that can be applied to all physical positions
in order to bring the body into alignment
with the optimal blueprint.
Yoga is not about fitness. Fitness is just one of the consequences of yoga.
The important thing is to get the right geometry of life,
because physical universe is all geometry. Hatha Yoga is more about manipulating the body in such a way that it get into a certain geometric perfection. That the geometry of the body is aligned with the larger geometry of the creation so that the body is always in sync with the creation, or the universe.
The way one does things, sees things, simply depends about how synched one is with the universe around; the space, trees, and all form of life around oneself. Adjusting the body form to sync with the universe around is known as alignment in yoga. In order to understand the principles of alignment in yoga one needs to understand the energy loops and spirals into which the muscular and organic energy, flow within the body. The concept of muscular and organic energy is central to aligning any posture the right way.
These refined energy flows act as fine tuning dials for the energetic and structural alignment of the body. Loops are closed circular paths of flow of the subtle energy in the body which run along the medial plane of the body and are connected to each other as gears.
These are located in the seven main parts of the body: the feet, lower legs, upper legs, pelvis, mid torso, upper torso (shoulders and neck), and the head. When viewed from the side of the body the two intersecting loops move in the opposite direction just like the two gears meshed into each other move.
The clockwise movement of one gear causes the other to move anti-clockwise. Only the thigh and pelvic loops intersect and move in the same direction as the only exception.
Though their functions are different, opposite to each other. In each of the seven sections, the loops flow in the left and right side of the body as pairs. Each of these pairs of loops move as bilateral wheels at different velocities.
All the loops begin on the medial core line of the body. They initially flow to the back of the body, then around to the front of the body, and finally back to the core. It is better to initiate the loop from the back of the body because that imparts softness, quietude, and expansion to the action. The action which results from initiating the loops from the front are aggressive, binding, and hardening.
let us know about all the seven loops in detail to understand their functioning better.
It starts at the end of the shin bone and moves, anti-clockwise, down back of the heel., forward along the bottom of the foot, then rise up through the center of the foot arch to the front of the base of the shin bone.
Shin Bone Loop
Starts at the base of the shin bone, back side, moves up from the back of the calve muscles to the top of the shin bone just below the knee, forward through the top of the shin, then down through the front of the shin, and back to the base of the shin bone.
Starts at the top of the thigh bone in the core of the pelvis (pelvic focal point). It moves down the back of the leg to the top of the calve muscle, forward over the top of the shin , and up from front of the thigh to through the lower abdomen, and back to the pelvis focal point.
Starts in the core of the abdomen in line with the middle of the lumbar and a place just below the navel. It moves down from the middle and behind the lumbar, through the middle of the buttocks till the sacrum, from their it moves forward through the pelvic focal point (floor of the pelvis) to the top of the pubic bone, then up the lower abdomen to just below the navel.
The pelvic loop and the thigh loop rotate in the same direction due to which the thigh loop moves the top of the thigh backwards, and the pelvic loop moves the top of the thigh forward during alignment of the body.
Starts in the core of the abdomen in line with the lumbar and a place just below the navel. From here it moves up the back just below the kidneys to the bottom of the shoulder blades, from here moves forward over the top of the diaphragm (heart focal point) to the base of the sternum, then down the front of the abdomen to jus below the navel.
Starts at the center of the upper palate (skull focal point), then it moves down the back of the neck and the upper back to the bottom of the shoulder blades, forward through the bottom of the heart and over the diaphragm to the base of the sternum, then up from the front of the chest and the neck to the upper palate.
Starts at the center of the upper palate (skull focal point), It moves up from the back of the skull, forward over the head, down from the front of the face to the upper palate.
One of the general universal principles of alignment in yoga is that while activating the loops begin at the foundation of the pose and move upward through the loops in sequence.
Five Steps – Principles of Alignment in Yoga
The universal principles of alignment can be grouped into five steps for any area of the body. These five principles alternate between energetic expansion and contraction, reflecting the grand universal pulsation of life. The five steps are as follows –
- Setting the foundation of the posture
- Muscular energy (contraction)
- Expanding spiral
- Contracting spiral
- Organic Energy (expansion)
At the very beginning one must set the foundation of the pose which means setting the contact of the physical body with the earth as well as setting the intention for the practice, so that the abhyasa can begin the right way.
Setting of the intention for the practice means aligning the heart and the mind with the Supreme. Generate the sense of surrender in the mind (brain is different) and soften the boundaries of the physical body to internally open up, this will expand the heart and the inner body softly. Doing this will temper down all the ensuing efforts and make them less hardening and contractive.
When the inner body happily expands, the foundation naturally grounds and the chest lifts and widens on its own. This helps melt the heart and naturally expand the kidney area setting up the basic alignment to begin with.
Setting up of the foundation helps initiate the kidney loop. If one begins to make the effort, for getting into the indented pose, without expanding the within the energy flow during the effort will get inhibited.
The expansion created in the core of the body allows the free flow of the energy within even when the outer body – skin, muscles, bones, contract into the core as the effort is initiated. This expanding and contracting spirals help align the body, particularly the arms and the legs.
The organic energy as the fifth principle of alignment in yoga helps us expand physically and spiritually, in each asana, keeping in tune with the ultimate purpose of the spirit to expand freely in the most creative and joyful way as possible.
The seven energy loops also connect into these five universal alignment steps as follows:
- Setting the foundation helps to establish the kidney loop,
- Muscular energy helps to initiate the ankle, shin and shoulder loops.
- Expanding spiral relates to the thigh loop.
- Contracting spiral relates to pelvic loop.
- Organic energy helps to initiate the skull loop
In order to understand the practical implications of these universal principles of alignment in yoga let us learn to apply them to each body part.
Legs and Pelvis Alignment Principles in Yoga
The pelvis has a neutral anatomical position which resembles the shape of a box. The four sides of the box of pelvis are square with each other. The pubic plate (pubic symphysis) is the front of the box, sacrum (coccyx) being the back of the box, and the Ilium represent the left and the right sides of the box.
This is the optimal blue print of the pelvis or its neutral position. A change in position can cause the back of the pelvis to become narrower and the front broader.
The goal of aligning the pelvis is to create movements so that the position of the pelvis is restored to is natural optimal blueprint. The pelvis also has a floor and a ceiling which makes it a closed box structure.
The genitals, anus, and the inner rim of the lower part of the pelvis marks the pelvic floor. In standing yoga poses the pelvic floor must be kept levelled: sitting bones are level across with each other, and the genitals and anus are level with each other.
In order to align the pelvis one needs to first adjust the Ilium (left and right sides of the pelvis) and then the front and the back. Let us see how we can apply the universal principles of alignment in yoga to aligning the pelvis to its optimal blueprint. These principles work in progressive sequence; each step includes the previous steps.
Setting the foundation of the Pose
Soften and release the pelvic focal point. Now allow the inner and outer body to expand softly.
Muscular energy of the legs is engaged in three different action that build on each other in a sequential way.
- Softly engage the muscles of the legs to the shins and thigh bones from the outer periphery toward the core evenly on all sides.
- Squeeze the legs toward the midline of the body, also known as adduction. The leg muscles adduct (pull inwards) the shins and the thigh bones toward the medial plane, while the pelvic muscles firm in against the pelvic bones and draw in toward the median line in the center of the pelvis.
- Draw the muscular energy from the feet through the legs into the pelvis and to the focal point. This energy runs from insertion to origin on all the leg muscles.
Inner (Expanding) Spiral
Inner spiral is an energy spiral that resembles a tornedo, and starts from the inner edges of the feet and moves upwards, ever expanding (moving outward from the core) progressively widens as it spirals upwards to the outer edges of the waist line. When near the median plane it moves from front to back plane.
From the upper inner thighs its spirals around the back of the legs, up around the sides of the hips to the front of the bottom of the pelvis.
From here it moves from the corers of the pubic bone back to the inner edges of the two sitting bones. It then moves out from the sacrum to the sides of the pelvic bones and around to the front towards the navel. A key element to the activation of the inner spiral is the degree of strength and awareness of the upper inner thighs. Inner spiral has three primary effects.
- It turns the front of feet, legs, and pelvis inward or towards the midline.
- It moves the inner edges of the feet, legs, and the pelvis (pubic plate and sitting bones) backwards. The inner heels, inner knees, and inner thighs move back.
- It broadens or laterally expands the legs and the pelvis apart.
Other characteristics of activating the inner spiral are –
- The inner edges of the feet stretch backward and the outer edges of the feet stretch forward
- The front groins soften and become hollow
- The inner sitting bones move back and apart which increases the inward arching (Lordosis) in the lower back
- The top of the sacrum tips in front and is lifted up
- The tailbone lengthens as it moves back away from the pubis
- The pelvic floor opens and expands
- The front and the back of the pelvis expand at the same rate
The Outer (Contracting) Spiral
It is the energy spiral that moves from the waistline area to the feet. It is a ever-narrowing spiral that turns from the outer edges of the waist line down through the tail bone and out through the legs and the feet. When near the median plane this spiral moves from back to the front plane. Outer spiral has three primary effects.
- It turns the pelvic bones, legs, and feet outward.
- It moves the inner edges of the pelvis (tailbone, base of the sacrum, and the sitting bones) forward.
- It draws the sides of the pelvis, legs and feet together ( into the midline).
Other Characteristics of activating the outer spiral are –
- The flesh of the buttocks is drawn down to the sitting bones
- The sides of the hips firm in toward the core. and the pelvic bones wrap around toward the tailbone
- The sacrum dips down towards the tailbone and tips backwards, this decreases the arching (lordosis) in the lower back
- The tailbone moves down away from the sacrum and forward towards the pubis
- The sitting bones move toward each other and forward
- The pelvic floor contracts and become smaller
- The front groins harden and project forward
- The lower abdomen lifts from the pubis to the navel
As per the universal principles of alignment in yoga the inner spiral is always activated before the outer spiral so that the pelvis can attain maximum opening and stability. Initiating the outer spiral first will prevent the femur bone head from setting back into the center of the hip sockets and the pelvic floor will remain closed. Outer spiral and the inner spiral needs to balance each other in every pose.
For this to happen one needs to attentively engage the upper inner thighs (while initiating the outer spiral) in every pose in order to prevent the generally stronger buttocks – than the upper inner thighs – from pushing the top of the thighs forward and constricting the pelvis. IAs per the general principle the inner spiral occurs more naturally in forward bends, the outer spiral occurs more naturally in backbends.
Organic energy is the extension from the inner body (core) that radiates out in all directions. One has to follow three sequential actions to engage organic energy.
- Extend out from the focal point through the core lines of the legs to the feet and the toes. Thus, the muscles of the legs extend, and the joints of the hips, knees, feet, and toes open up.
- Expand the pelvis and the legs (move apart) out from the midline.
- Expand the muscles of the legs and the core lines of the pelvis out toward the skin concentrically. The muscles and the soft tissue move out from the bones toward the skin expanding the legs and the pelvis.
Alignment Yoga Sequence for Shins
The movement of the shins (lower legs) must be in the opposite direction to the thighs. As the upper legs widen out away from the midline due to the action of the inner spiral, the shins maintain the muscular action by hugging in toward the midline.
Yoga Alignment Principles for Knees
Universal principles for alignment in yoga for the knees, for standing postures, state that the femur (thigh bone) must be vertically in line over the shin bones. This way the knees will not be bent or hyperextended. The shin loop is the key to this alignment.
The four corners of each knee cap should be square to each other in the same plane. The sides of the knee caps should be vertical, even in students with bowed legs and / or knock knees. This alignment can be achieved by moving the shins toward each other (muscular energy) and keeping the thigs apart by the action of the inner spiral.
Yoga Alignment Principles for the Feet
As per the alignment in Yoga principles for the feet the four corners of the feet are the mound of the big toe, mound of the little toe, back of the inner heel, and back of the outer heel. The four corners of the heel are the front inner, front outer, back inner, and back outer. The universal alignment principles in yoga state that for all poses all the four corners of the foot must be kept equally drawn toward the lower leg muscularly.
The four corners of the foot should be kept equally, organically extended away from the shinbone. The anklebone should extent straight down through the front of the heel in standing poses like Tadasana. Keep the feet placed parallel to each other, align imaginary lines running from the center of the front of the ankles to the middle of the second toes so that these lines stay parallel to each other.
Alignment Principles in Yoga for Shoulders and Arms
The shoulder girdle is made up of the clavicle (collar bones), humerus (upper arm bone), and the scapula (shoulder blade). As per the universal principles of alignment in yoga both the anterior and posterior sides of the clavicle must be have the same lift and action in a pose. Activating the shoulder loop will help create this effect.
Let us see how we can apply the five progressive steps of yoga alignment principles to the shoulders and arms in any posture.
Setting the foundation for the pose
Relax and soften the heart. With humility in the mind inflate the kidneys and activate the kidney loop. Slowly, evenly expand the upper torso and the shoulders. Equally expand the front and the back of the lungs.
Muscular Energy – Shoulders and Arms
Muscular energy for shoulders and arms is build in three different actions that build upon each other in a sequential way.
Evenly hug the muscles of the upper and lower arm (biceps, triceps, inner and outer edges) from all the four sides to the bone of the arm.
Initiate the shoulder loop by drawing in the muscular energy from the fingertips equally along all the four sides of the arms into the shoulder blades. This will open the throat and lift the chin as the energy moves backwards from the upper palate and down the back of the neck.
The shoulder blades draw down the back by moving down and into the spine and into the chest. The bottom of the shoulder blades lefts the chest and the collarbones by moving into the body towards the top chest. The skull and kidney loops move counter to the movement of this loop.
The action of the muscular energy must draw the arms into the shoulder sockets more deeply and integrate them with the torso. Draw the hands, arm bones and shoulder girdles toward the midline of the body.
The expanding spiral of the arms widens the upper back and the shoulders. The position of the arms in a given pose effects the expanding spiral. The expanding spiral of the arms is always created by the inner spiral of the arms, except when the arms are overhead and in line with the spine as in Adhomukhasvan Asana. In that case the outer spiral creates the expanding spiral of the arms.
The outer spiral of the arms starts at the head of the arm bones and spirals to the hands rotating the upper arms and the shoulders externally from the inner biceps to the outer biceps, then from the outer biceps to the outer triceps.
It continues to rotate the forearms out, and turn the palm up (supinate). The inner spiral starts at the hands and spirals into the upper back and shoulder blade area; the hands rotate inwards (pronate) turning the palms down, the forearm and the upper arm also rotate inwards.
The upper arms are the key to the outer spiral, while forearms and hands are the key to the inner spiral. As per the yoga alignment principles, in all poses, emphasize outward rotation in the upper arms and to balance it emphasize inward rotation in the forearms. One must properly utilize the muscular energy and the shoulder loop to prevent the shoulder blades roll out, expand to the front plane – as the expanding spiral broadens them up – so they stay flat on the back during the expanding spiral.
The contracting spiral of the arms contracts the upper back and draws the shoulder blades more strongly onto the back. Contracting spiral always follows the contracting spiral of the arms; if inner spiral was applied first to create expanding spiral, outer spiral of the arms would be used to create contracting spiral.
Organic energy is engaged by three sequential actions.
- Extend from the focal point through the core lines of the arms to the finger tips. This stretches and lengthens the arms and the fingers.
- Expand the shoulder girdle, to chest, and upper back circumferentially. Expand the rib cage and the shoulder blades laterally. Also, move the arms away from each other.
- Expand the arms concentrically from the core lines to the skin.
The Positions of the Arms – Alignment Principles
Another way of analyzing the alignment of the arms and the shoulders in any pose is by categorizing the position of the arms in one of the basic five positions.
- Neutral – in side plane, in line with the spine, e.g. Tadasana, Savasana, Urdhvamukhasavan asana, Chaturanga Dandasana. here the creases of the elbows turn to face forward when the arms are in aligment.
- In the front plane – perpendicular to the spine, e.g. Cat/Cow pose, Phalak asana (Plank Position).
- In the side plane – perpendicular to the spine e.g. Virbhadrasana II, Trikonasana, Vashishtasana, and Jatharaparivartanasana. When in alignment, the creases of the elbows turn upward in the same direction that the top of the head is pointing in.
- In the back plane – perpendicular to the spine e.g. Sarvangasana, Purvottanasana.
- Over head – In line with the spine e.g. Adhomukhasvan asana, Virbhadrasana I, and Handstand. When in alignment, the creases of the elbows face in toward the midline of the body.
Yoga Alignment principles for hands and Wrists
The four sides of the palm are the mound of the index finger, bottom of the mound of the thumb, mound of the little finger and the mound of the Venus. Proper alignment of the hands and the wrists can be achieved by the following adjustments:
- When the hands are the part of the foundation, align the writs so that the front creases run straight across or are in line with the front plane
- Extend the fingers out away from the center point of the wrist with equal amounts of organic energy, like the rays of the Sun
- Extend out the inner and outer edges of the fingers equally away from the wrists
- Widening the fingers apart is associated with and supports Muscular Energy
- Drawing the finger close together is related to Organic Energy
Yoga Alignment Principles for Head, Neck & Spine
The muscles of the front, sides, and back of the neck must all contract and extend equally. In standing asanas (e.g. Tadasana) the head is positioned so that the front and the back of the skull have even extension upwards. The front of the upper and lower eyelids will generally be in the same vertical plane.
The Cervical and Lumbar sections of the spine should remain lordotic (curved inwards) in nature, and the thoracic and sacral sections of the spine should remain Kyphotic (curved outward) in nature.
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