There is a difference between doing a yoga pose with proper alignment and not being able to do a pose with proper alignment. However, the latter is inconsequential since you can modify every single pose to meet its intention. Now, we can debate on intention and it is debatable. But for the sake of the pose, there are generally agreed upon reasons for doing a pose. You may overlay a concept like chakras, energy, or some other add-on intent, but it doesn’t change the function of a pose.
When I was in Army Drill Sergeant’s Academy, we learned four basic areas of soldier development. This can be applied in most settings in a 2×2 table. But I’ll list them here:
Unwilling & Unable – people who don’t want to participate and don’t have the means to do so.
Unwilling & Able – they don’t want to participate even though they are capable to do so.
Willing & Unable – these are most beginning yogis. They want to be there and want to learn.
Willing & Able – these are people who want to do better and are actually doing it.
We do what we can to make everyone reach the Willing & Able category. We give them basic tools of alignment and then they can adapt those tools to every pose. In general, we have two fundamental concepts based on the Anatomical Person:
1. External rotation of the shoulders
2. Internal rotation of the thighs
You’d be surprised how these two elements come up in every pose. There are two common places where I see #1 violated in the shoulders. The first is any plank or chaturanga type positions. Any time the elbows flail out to the side, you know they are out of alignment. But you can see this in forward folds of all kinds as well. The second is in standing poses, like parsvakonasana (side angle pose). They reach forward with their thumb down violating internal rotation. But you see this in any reaching pose.
Places where I see the violation of external rotation of thighs is in back bends. Many yogis, even very advanced ones, will sometimes turn their toes outward in bridge or upward bow. The torque allows them to lock out weak thighs and hips when the strengthening in these poses is supposed to be the quadriceps. For the same lack of strength reasons, I see people turn toes outward in wide leg forward folds. This creates impingements in the front of the hips and disengages the glutes and hamstrings.
From an engineering standpoint, I visualize bodies as cranes and pulleys. I can see the cables (the muscles) and want them to work at the upmost efficiency. When the muscle wraps in strange ways, it decreases its efficiency. This is especially true with knee and foot alignment. In nearly every pose, I say that your foot should point in the direction of your knee or knee bending. In skandasana (side squat), the extended leg should rotate so that the knee turns upward and, thereby, the toes turn upward too. This is extremely crucial in seated poses when you bend the knee and fold the lower leg back (virasana and triang mukha pada paschimottanasana). My cue is that the folded foot should have the baby toe touching the floor. Otherwise, the foot turns with toe outward greatly compromising the knee. This is where knee injuries occur. Teachers need to teach!!
So back to the original topic. For standing poses, a teacher always places feet first before moving the rest of the body. Its the first thing we look for as we scan a class full of yogis. I even see Instagram hosts with terrible foot placement for poses. And don’t get me started with health magazine covers. I taught yoga at a health club and the marketing person would post a picture for my yoga classes where the model was totally out of alignment. I always protested and asked if I could suggest a picture instead. It is a pet peeve of mine. Place the feet, see where the knees track, look at nutation of the hips, see the spinal alignment, where are the shoulders, and lastly elbows and hands and head. Dristhi guides everything!
Unfortunately, I’ve attended yoga classes where these basic tenets of yoga are not abided by. The teacher is basically a demo model. They may as well broadcast a YouTube video because the teacher is not aware of the class one bit. Ahimsa means not creating harm. And a teacher who doesn’t guide a student’s alignment can actually harm a student by not assisting and adjusting them. Having a qualified teacher is the greatest benefit of going to a yoga class at a studio.
Alignment, intent, breath, drishti, bandhas — this means everything in yoga. Its as basic as a squat or a deadlift in a fitness class. There are basic movement patterns that need to be followed to stay healthy and get the most benefit. If a student is willing and able, place them in the correct position. That simple correction will bleed over into all their other poses as well. Basic alignment is key.