I recently received a query from a writer for Yoga International, asking whether I’d respond to questions for an upcoming article in the magazine. The article will address the value of biomechanics in the teaching and practice of yoga. There seems to be a controversy about whether focus on alignment in yoga practice may actually cause injury. The questions and my answers are below. Thanks to Amber Burke for the nudge to write about this.
1. What I keep hearing is “misaligned movement does not necessarily cause pain or problems, and that aligned movement could cause pain or problems.” What do you think about this?
How far from “ideal alignment” is the mover?
People injure themselves when they strive to achieve an ideal performance too quickly. This is a problem of our culture in general—the electronic age has provoked the habit of expecting instant results. Our bodies—organisms—change far more slowly and intricately than do electronic patterns. (Also, there may be a variety of ways for defining “ideal alignment.”)
I can understand the term “misaligned movement” in the context of yoga where progress from one asana to another is specified. But in a wider context of human movement, I think it would be better to compare connected and disconnected movement. Does the action or gesture flow through the whole body from joint to joint like water in a stream? Even where water must flow around obstacles in the stream, still the flow of the water is connected.
When pain occurs, the problem may be the ability of the whole system to adapt to the flow of movement being performed. A crazy B-boy move causes no problem so long as the body has adapted to it, but if I were to spin around on my head I would surely injure myself.
2. Even the most die-hard members of the anti-alignment camp believe that it makes sense to recommend different movement strategies for those who are experiencing pain as a result of a certain movement. But some say, “We need to get away from the idea that there is a best way to move to prevent injuries.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Awareness of one’s own body —embodiment — is the key to moving well and avoiding injury.
Emulating someone else’s performance — a teacher or another student — takes us out of our own somatic experience. So the “best way to move” is very individual. It depends on where each person is on a particular day. For example, after three weeks in bed with the flu, the body’s fascia is short and tight from having been immobile. So expecting one’s asana to attain pre-flu expansiveness could risk a hamstring tear, sacroiliac subluxation or sprained spinal muscles.
3. Looking specifically at page 13 of the intro to The New Rules of Posture, you forecast rounded posture leading to headaches and pain in the jaw, neck, shoulders, and lower back and eventually to dowager’s humps, sciatica, and bunions. To play devil’s advocate, isn’t it possible that many people with terrible posture may never feel any dire consequences from that posture? Greg Lehman, for instance, says he’s a “movement optimist”—he does not foresee doom and gloom for those who are misaligned, but rather has confidence that most bodies will successfully adapt to different stresses placed on them. Is it possible that most inveterate slouchers might be just fine? Why or why not?
I doubt that most inveterate slouchers will be just fine in the long term. I won’t be around 50 years from now when millennials start having hip replacements and spinal fusions. But I’m sure that the contemporary work style of being seated for a long hours hunched around a narrowed perceptual focus will have had an effect on biomechanical options, not to mention respiration and digestion.
However, our sloucher might not be sedentary, but someone who moves. A mover has a better chance of surviving gracefully into old age than a sitter. Human bodies did not evolve to sit in chairs all day. (Though they may be evolving in that direction presently. . . .)
4. An argument against creating and maintaining optimal posture is that when someone feels pain from standing or moving in a certain way, what they actually need to do is vary their movement strategies, not move or stand in any particular way. What do you think?
The more varied the movement strategies the better. One of the four keys to fascial health is innovative movement. The movements of modern life occur largely in the sagittal plane, i.e. in front of our bodies, and at a middle level. Our activities require very little reaching up or crouching down. Lack of varied movement in space also constrains our perceptions. Diminished spatial perception creates compression in the body. That diminution of interior body space is a major cause of poor postural organization and limited range of motion. Changing how you stand or move is not the answer. Changing how you perceive and interact with the world is. This idea, or “perceptual tensegrity,” is developed in my new book, Your Body Mandala—Posture as a Path to Presence.
5. Another argument against alignment and biomechanics is that we could possibly cause people to expect pain or to fear movement if we make it sound like there is only one good/safe way to do something. Furthermore, we could be projecting the view that bodies are vulnerable instead of resilient. What do you think about this? Is there a way we can give movement advice while encouraging students to trust their bodies and move with confidence?
It’s important to teach basic biomechanics, not to limit movement, but to help people understand what they are doing with their bodies. Embodied biomechanics could be part of every yoga or Pilates teacher’s lesson plan. A little bit of education embedded into every class. However it’s also important for the disembodied masses to understand that there is no ideal body, no perfect performance, and everybody is different in capacity, range of motion, shape of bony interfaces, ligamentous resilience, muscular strength, degree of innate coordination, history of injuries, fascial adhesions and compensations, etc. etc. We cannot all do the same thing the same way.
A safe way to organize movement is to constantly reinstate one’s perception of support from the ground and awareness of the space surrounding the body (the overall theme of The New Rules of Posture.) This polarity of perceptions automatically creates more space within the body, and that, in turn, allows joint mechanics and fascial interfaces to operate optimally.
© 2019 Mary Bond