Misalignment in Yoga Postures: Understanding the Five Movements of the Spine

Olga Kabel is a certified yoga therapist and prolific writer on all things yoga. She is the founder and managing director of SequenceWiz.org, a web-based yoga sequence builder that assists yoga teachers and yoga therapists in creating and organizing yoga practices. In this interview with YogaUOnline, she discusses common compensation patterns, spinal movement, and her YogaUOnline course: Avoiding Yoga Injuries – Common Alignment Mistakes in Forward Bends and Twists

Yoga U Online: One of the key focuses in your teaching and in your writing is on a problem that I think haunts most yoga teachers – the problem of helping students find correct alignment in yoga poses.

Olga Kabel: Absolutely. In simple terms, many students come to a yoga class at the end of the day, often after spending their days sitting at a computer or doing physical labor. They acquire all kinds of movement habits and body positioning and postural alignments that they bring with them to a yoga class. When they arrive on that mat, those habits don’t go anywhere. When they start moving their bodies in the course of the yoga practice, they fall into the same patterns of movement and body positioning that they have all day.

Yoga U Online: As yoga teachers, what can we do to help students with these movement habits?

Olga Kabel: What we are trying to do as yoga teachers is pay attention, keep an eye on all the students and try to foresee where the potential problems and injuries can arise. Sometimes it can be overwhelming for teachers, especially in a large class, to pay attention to everybody. The good thing is that there are very specific patterns of misalignment that are typical for each directional movement of the spine.

There are over ten thousand yoga poses out there; we cannot possibly memorize how to do each individual pose. Therefore, we need to have a system in place so that we can group the poses based on what are their basic principles and what are you trying to accomplish. The simplest way to do it is by identifying what your spine is doing in any pose that you’re trying to do. The spine can only move in five ways: it can bend forward, bend backward, bend sideways, rotate, and lengthen upward (axial extension). Five is much better than ten thousand! Once we identify a pose’s category, we can immediately understand and remember what it is that we’re trying to accomplish, as well as the potential issues with moving the spine in that way. We call those “release valves” in Viniyoga tradition.

Yoga U Online: Please tell us more about release valves.

Olga Kabel: A release valve is essentially when your body tries to avoid working in certain areas and falls into patterns of body positioning that you acquired in the rest of your life. Some common release valves are sticking the chin out, hugging the shoulders, and chest collapse. Interestingly enough, most of those are situated around the spine; they are related to the position of the cervical spine, thoracic, lumbar, and they are related to sacroiliac joints. Because they’re all concentrated along the spine, that is the first thing that we want to look at when we watch our students do poses.

Yoga U Online: For a moment, I’d like to play devil’s advocate: Sometimes a student comes to class and they do poses with misalignment, but they don’t get injured. Why should we care?

Olga Kabel: There are several reasons we should care. First of all, students can get injured both within the space of one class, but also by doing the same thing over time. If they consistently have the same pattern or body positioning that’s not the best for their body, it will show up one way or another at some point. Another big thing is that if we fall into those compensation patterns, we actually avoid all beneficial effects of the yoga pose. What’s the point of doing it? It becomes another way of reinforcing the same patterns instead of working through them.

A major part of yoga practice is developing students’ awareness of their own bodies, their own body positioning, and teaching them to understand the pose. Sometimes we talk about energy lines, and how proper body alignment in yoga possible looks and feels more organic. The energy flows more freely when the body is positioned properly. My teacher uses the analogy of stepping on a garden hose. The water flows through the garden hose, but if you twist it or step on it, the water stops flowing. It’s the same idea in yoga, if you do a yoga pose where the chin’s stuck up all the time, the energy, life force, doesn’t flow as freely through that area of the neck. We’re trying to create channels for the energy flow in the entire body.

Yoga U Online: The concept of alignment has always been something that has dominated the focus of yoga teaching, but one criticism is that when we are too rigid on alignment, we’re really forcing a concept instead of looking at the person we’re teaching. The argument is that we should be teaching people, not poses. What would you say to that as a way of bringing the discussion forward?

Olga Kabel: I’m not a big fan of rigidity in any aspect whether it’s physical alignment or anything else. One way that I like to approach it is the idea of form versus function. In the Viniyoga tradition, function is the key meaning. If you’re trying to stretch the lower back, how would you need to position your body to get that benefit without compromising or stressing anything else?  For one person, this pose might pull one way, but for someone else, it might look a little different. If somebody has tight hamstrings, for example, there will be adaptation. There’s always this place for adapting the form of poses to the needs of the individual person. However, it all stems from the intention of what you are trying to accomplish. It’s not about putting that picture on the wall of the classical form of a pose and then trying to fit everybody in your class to that image. It’s not about that. It comes from function, and then form stems from there.

Yoga U Online: Olga, you have a course on YogaU on this topic of alignment. Please share some more detail on the course and what is covered.

Olga Kabel: The course is called “Avoiding Yoga Injuries,” and in it I talk about alignment in two specific groups of yoga poses – forward bends and twists. The course goes through the basics of what a forward bend is, and what it seeks to accomplish. When we bend forward, there are specific intentions. Once we identify those primary and secondary intentions , then we can try to understand how we need to align the body to manifest those intentions. Based on that, we then see how we can accommodate students if they have specific limitations, what kind of release valves or compensations patterns can show up for people in specifically forward bends and then twists and then what can we do to troubleshoot them. The course is very specific and detail-oriented; we go through those release valves one by one; we examine what’s happening with each one, and what we can do to troubleshoot them.

Interested in learning more? Check out Olga’s Free Download: Understanding Compensation Patterns in Yoga: The 5 Essential Movements of the Spine

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