Saturday, February 23, 2013

Avoiding Injury in Yoga Forward Bends: the YogAlign Method

YogAlign Standing Forward Bend
My work with YogAlign clients who present chronic pain is showing that the global body positions we engage to perform a majority of yoga asanas goes against the structural tension balance (bio-tensegrity) and shock absorbing forces needed to maintain the structure and natural alignment design of our human body. With the injuries and repetitive strains that are commonplace in the yoga world today, it is imperative that we reconsider and shift some of the basic biomechanics in yoga poses to serve posture, not poses. My work has shown that if a pose does not serve how we move and use our body in real life or accommodate deep rib cage (diaphragmatic) breathing, then it can and will contribute to long term strains and possible joint damage that are leading to hip and knee joint replacements in famous yoga teachers and long term practitioners.

Examining the Bio-Mechanics of Forward Folds: Long and Short Term Risks

Let’s examine straight or extended knees, ankles flexed stretching positions such as seated forward bend (paschimottanasana) or standing forward bend (uttanasana), as an example. At no time in real life movement do we engage the joint positions and muscle actions enlisted to do either of these poses. Hold the joint actions of both knees extended and ankle in extreme flexion and try to stand upright with good posture or to run, walk, or sit without slouching and losing the natural curves in our spine. Notice how the abdomen has to shorten to hold the knees straight and the ankle flexed. This compartmentalized intense flexion of our spine and ankles does not contribute to the overall healthy functioning of our body. These actions are akin to driving with the brake on. So what are we really achieving and is it necessary or kind to our body to perform these poses?  

Flexibility Can Be a Liability

Highly flexible people do forward bends with ease, unaware that in many cases, reversing the natural tilt of the sacrum by using muscular forces to bend with both knees straight, is stretching out the ligament tension needed to keep the hip joint stable throughout a lifetime. Ligaments do not have a lot of sensory nerves and so we cannot feel when they are being compromised. It takes years for pathology in the hip joints to show up, but a continuous tugging on the SI (sacral/hip) joint that occurs in these poses undermines the curving forces needed for shock absorption and hip stability. It starts with groin pain and tenderness when you walk or maybe a sharp pain when doing a pose like triangle. This is the beginning of the tragic hip destabilizations that are rocking the yoga world. 

Injuries in the short term will happen more to the tight muscular people who in private will admit that they detest these toe grabbing poses but decide that they can someday get flexible by doing the pose over and over. With their shorter ligaments and strong muscles, they can actually cause disc herniation. Trying to crank the round curves of the human body into these flat and right angle spine positions is risky. If you can see the vertebrae of your back poking out under the skin, then you are causing damage.

The problem is that the human body cannot achieve a functional balance of strength and flexibility by stretching individual parts and most people only get temporary shifts in flexibility by doing toe touching yoga poses and stretches. These forward bending positions, which are so prevalent in yoga practice, override the tensegrity of our natural curving structures and ligament forces needed for joint stabilization in real life movement. In YogAlign, we focus on postures that align the spine in various primal movement positions rather than doing poses focused on stretching parts at the expense of the integrity of the spinal column and hip joint. Focusing on improving an overall balance of strength and flexibility needed for daily movements ensures the integrity of our natural infrastructure is preserved and also allows for the deep diaphragm movements that are the cornerstone of a yoga practice.

The Key to Healthy Alignment is Accommodating Your Breath

The word pose or poser is sometimes used in slang vernacular to describe people who are acting fake, wearing a fa├žade or trying to put on an air to be something possibly better than others. Are we doing yoga “poses” to our body or are we allowing our natural design to be the dominant theme? Do the yoga poses or postures we do contribute to our deeper body value system, which are our own unique and inherent postural patterns?

If we really focus on what the value of a pose is rather than buying into the belief that it is “good” for you because it’s yoga and it’s “traditional,” I think we can avoid many of the repetitive strain and even more serious joint pathologies that are occurring in the practice of yoga asana. 

Breathing dynamics provide the best tool for checking the actual value of a yoga pose versus the belief. If you cannot take a full breath that allows your rib cage to expand, then the pose is activating externalized forces in your body that override the body’s natural and essential infrastructure. For instance, a pose like crow and many other balance poses are impressive to an onlooker and certainly require a lot of strength but how does the pose contribute to the overall functions of natural life movement. The shortened abdominal strength it takes can create patterns that pull the head and shoulders too far forward.  

YogAlign Advocates a “Whole Body” Approach to Yoga

What is truly important in a yoga practice is a global engagement of the whole body in every position that contributes to overall good posture, not “good poses.” The mindset in Western fitness and even yoga has been to stretch parts, and strengthen pieces with the idea that the whole body will then come together in one big organized picture. It will not and over a period of time, yoga practitioners like any discipline that has positions or compartmentalized poses that over-ride natural anatomical function, will suffer from injuries in the long and short term. When posture is naturally aligned, the human body stays flexible without the need to do intense stretches to relieve tension of the parts.

When doing any yoga pose or fitness position, check in with your breathing functions and the position of your spine and neck angle. If your spine is flexed (spine has a C shape) because of intense muscular contractions engaged in your trunk, you are programming your nervous systems to enlist muscular/fascia forces that override natural anatomical functions.

Our abdomen is our neural core and if you look at any baby, you will see a relaxed but toned belly, strong butt muscles, all the natural spinal curves, and a head perched right on top of the spine. If you want to learn how to do a forward bend, just watch a toddler. They bend their knees very deeply, take their hips back and pick up the toy without any rounding in the upper back. Coming up from any standing forward bend by rounding up one vertebra at a time is another very unnatural movement common in yoga class. There are ligaments that string our vertebral column getting stretched beyond their anatomical functions when we do movements like that. Remember like all of nature, the human body is made of curves and spirals. The world is not flat and our back is not flat either. Any yoga poses or abdominal exercise that enlists your trunk muscles to push your lumbar spine flat to the floor enlists muscular forces in ways that undermine the natural design of our spine. But do not “believe” me, check the value of the pose. Hold your navel in tight enough to flex your spinal column (take the curves out) and then try to walk around. Get the big picture now? We must practice value when doing asana, not beliefs. Posture is a “biological software” that is controlled by the nervous system. What has the most value is to reboot the big picture of our innate postural patterns, and this is done by doing conscious breathing in naturally aligned body positions. 


Michaelle Edwards is a contributor to Prevent Yoga Injury. She has studied yoga since 1972 and got her start as a student of Swami Satchidananda. She has taught yoga for more than twenty-five years and has practiced as a licensed massage therapist for thirty years. After study and practice of the Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga traditions, Michaelle experienced an injury that led her to question the rigidity of some asanas and whether this rigidity was truly necessary to experience the benefits of yoga practice. This inquiry led to years of research and the development of a pain-free system of yoga she calls YogAlign.

Michaelle is the Director of the Kauai Yoga School in Hawaii and authored a book/DVD combo called YogAlign, Pain-free Yoga From Your Inner Core. She is E-RYT500 and a Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT). In addition to teaching yoga, Michaelle is a body worker, professional guitarist and vocalist and postural therapist. She is devoted to giving people the tools they need to heal themselves. Engage with her on Facebook or visit to complete her survey on yoga injuries.


  1. I loved this article. Thank you! I'm currently recovering from a severe backspasm triggered by a yoga teacher's overzealous assist during a seated forward fold and half-pigeon. My teacher training is teaching all of these incorrect principles, frankly I'm alarmed. You wrote, "Coming up from any standing forward bend by rounding up one vertebra at a time is another very unnatural movement common in yoga class. There are ligaments that string our vertebral column getting stretched beyond their anatomical functions when we do movements like that." How would you recommend we cue someone to come to a standing position?

    1. Yes, there are so many different recommended movements within a single asana, and between asanas; they should probably all be reviewed thoroughly. I would love to see Michaelle review an entire yoga class and point out the issues as they come up along the way. They probably start with some of the very first standing and seated poses. People raise their arms over their heads, press their palms together, and whoops, already there are problems.

      If Michaelle is right, it doesn't seem like Hatha yoga, at least as we've come to know it, can simply be modified or "reformed." Still, perhaps there are some core principles and issues that can be agreed upon by a growing number of teachers, even while some outstanding differences are respected.

      One small example: "The world is not flat and our back is not flat either. Any yoga poses or abdominal exercise that enlists your trunk muscles to push your lumbar spine flat to the floor enlists muscular forces in ways that undermine the natural design of our spine."

      I don't know of a single Iyengar or Iyengar-inspired teacher who would disagree with Michaelle's statement here. Nearly all of my teachers were constantly addressing this issue, if and when they saw students flatten their back, which some did, either out of some odd personal reflex or because another yoga teacher had suggested it. Again, just one small example.

  2. Great article that succinctly and convincingly puts forth the basic tenets of the YogAlign system. My wife - a teacher of yoga for over thirty years and an Iyengar student about 35 years ago - had the opportunity to study with Michaelle recently. She has embraced YogAlign ideas and modified her already safe and popular approach. Her large following of students, though at first resisting change from the Yoga with Elizabeth that they had come to love, trusted her to "do the right thing." YogAlign represents the right direction for change, and "flexible" yoga teachers and practitioners everywhere would benefit from the above article as a start.

  3. This is a great article to introduce Michaelle's YogAlign ideas. My wife, a yoga teacher for over 35 years, recently studied with Michaelle and as a result adjusted her already safe and popular approach to teaching. Her following was at first resistent to change because they were very happy with what they had become used to. However, they trusted her, made the adjustments, and are now happier than ever with Yoga with Elizabeth. Much of YogAlign is common sense combined with Michaelle's incredible understanding of the human body, which amounts to uncommon good sense. That makes for a sensible approach to good posture (and comfortable good health) - which was the original objective of hatha yoga. May uncommon good sense become commonly understood.

  4. This is very useful contribution of Michaelle. Currently I am also recovering from my back injury during yoga. Back injury can occured due to over stress on your spinal cored during yoga bent. I totally agree with you if posture is naturally aligned, the human body stays flexible without the need to do intense stretches to relieve tension of the parts. Michaelle your approach and tips in this article are very helpful for yoga teachers and yoga learners.