Saturday, February 9, 2013

From Yoga Injury to Yoga Evolution: the Creation of YogAlign

Downward Dog - YogAlign style
Yoga injuries have been on my mind for two decades, ever since I suffered a painful knee injury in a bound half lotus standing forward bend. My name is Michaelle Edwards, and I have been a student of yoga for forty years and a yoga teacher, posture educator and body worker for over twenty-five years. I was fortunate to study with Swami Satchidananda in 1972 and I have also studied the Iyengar and Ashtanga traditions in depth.

I play hard in the ocean in Kauai, surfing, wind surfing, swimming and sailing, and I decided in 1988 to learn Ashtanga yoga, to go beyond the Iyengar inspired practice I had cultivated for years. I was entranced by the challenge and convinced that this practice would take me to Samadhi. Boy, was I wrong. 

After a year of practice, I tore my lateral collateral knee ligament doing ardha baddha padma uttanasana. I limped around unable to go windsurfing or running for months, and of course no lotus pose for over a year. Eventually my knee healed but the injury led me to question the inherent safety of many common asanas.

In the beginning, I set out to just modify my practice so that I could keep doing asana even though my knee hurt. But eventually, I began to change my entire practice once I realized how many yoga poses require us to engage our body in positions that do not simulate our real life physical movements.

As the years went on, I began to meet more people who had yoga injuries, as well as chronic pain and postural issues, despite many years of yoga practice. Many told me that yoga hurt, but they believed that if they practiced hard enough they would arrive at a place of comfort in their body and get ‘better’ at doing yoga.

For me, this made no sense because now is where we live. If you are not comfortable now, you will never be comfortable. I had to find powerful tools to help people heal, and not harm, their bodies.

Anityasuciduhkhanatmasu nityasucisukhatmakhyatiravidya”
Misapprehension leads to errors in comprehension of the character, origin, and effects of the objects perceived. What at one time feels good or appears to be of help, can turn out to be a problem, what we consider to be useful may in time prove to be harmful.)   From Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, translation from Heart of Yoga by Desikichar

Challenges lead to change

YogAlign student after
4 days of practice
After my injury, I set out to create a whole new system of yoga and self-guided bodywork that would achieve the benefits of yoga, but without the pain. I discovered that combining special breathing patterns with natural spine alignment positions creates postural shifts that make a dramatic difference in health and appearance. I call it YogAlign.

I am excited to share this new system with those of you interested in thinking outside the yoga box, and specifically outside the box of right angle body positions that make up a huge majority of yoga asana today.

There are no straight lines in nature

My research shows that the biggest reason for yoga injuries is that the human body is not designed to be in right angles that resemble the chair shape.

Over a period of months or years, forcing your round body into square positions can cause an over-stretching of the ligaments that string your sacrum to your hips. Your lumbar spine and sacrum form an important shock-absorbing curve that keeps your hip socket and knee joints from compressing.  

Repetitive practice of poses that flatten the sacral angle and pull on the ligaments that attach your sacrum to your hips causes SI joint instability. In my experience working with clients suffering from SI joint pain, removal of poses requiring toe touching and twisting with the knees extended led to stabilization of the SI joint, and ended the pain.

We need to stop trying to stretch our curves and parts when doing asana and instead learn to engage the body as a whole.

Why are many seasoned yoga practitioners needing hip replacements? Power Yoga teacher Beryl Bender Birch wrote about her double hip replacements in her book, Boomer Yoga, and called upon the wisdom of the sutras to learn how to accept the failure of her body. But what if the yoga asana is the cause of the replacements? Is it possible there is an avidya or avoidance about what we are really doing in asana and how it actually affects our body as a whole?

The body is global…there are no parts

My massage therapist training led me to the work of Thomas Myers, creator of the Anatomy Trains fascia continuity system. He teaches manual and movement therapists that the human body is not made of parts, but is linked together in a web of fascia. This web determines our posture, movements and even our moods.

We must begin to approach asana in a similar global way, to reflect our natural design and how we move in real life function. Our bones are spacers that should float in the web of fascia.

Compartmentalized stretching with the idea of isolating muscle groups, for example, the hamstrings in seated forward bends with the knees straight, creates a line of pull that affects the tension balance of the entire body and reverses the necessary shock absorbing angle of the sacral platform. As the sacral ligaments become lax from repeated forward bends of this type, fascial planes also pull the breastbone down which causes the head to go forward. This adds even more tension to the extensor muscles that form the superficial back line of the body, as muscles in the neck, back and legs are strained to hold back the shortened tension in the anterior flexors and stabilizers. Shortening the front to stretch the back creates the same scenario that is the cause of so-called hamstring tightness which is actually a 'locked out long' strain that creates hamstring weakness disguised as 'tightness'. 

If we consider functional anatomy, shortening the front to stretch the back makes no anatomical sense because it is a band-aid that does not address the root of the postural imbalance; which is a lack of tone in the deep postural core. At no time in real life function do we need to enlist muscular forces to create the degree of spinal flexion that is enlisted in straight leg forward bending.

Three simple tests determine whether a pose serves the human design:

  1. It should allow the spine to maintain its natural curves.
  2. It should not restrict the ability to do deep, diaphragmatic rib-cage breathing.
  3. It should have a real-life correlation to functional movement positions.

Yoga can heal and yoga can hurt

It is not necessary to try and stretch out parts of our body and compromise the spinal curves in the process. Many yoga injuries can be avoided, if we just remove the poses that do not simulate real life function and movement.

I always remind my students to practice naturally aligned posture as the most important asana. If an asana does not support your spine in good posture, does it make anatomical sense to do the pose anyway?

The human body is designed to move, and we must bend at least one knee to do that. Try walking without bending your knees and you will get an experiential awareness of why YogAlign does not require toe touching without a deep bend to the knees. People are often stretching out the very springs and shock absorbers needed for functional pain-free movement and joint protection.

I hope that those of you reading this can embrace the idea that perhaps we need to redo asana from the ground up. In YogAlign, the basic tenets of yoga are all there; conscious breathing, ahimsa, and all the eight limbs. The difference is that we consider the natural biomechanics of the human body, and use asana positions that engage our natural curves and simulate real-life function. 

Yoga is an Evolution

Remember, yoga is an evolution that men created to help rid ourselves of obstacles that prevent us from living in our hearts, and acting with compassion towards self and others. Ideally a yoga practice can provide us with hands-on tools to feel integrated with all levels of our body, mind, and spirit. Do we really need to put our feet behind our heads or do plow pose to achieve spiritual integration?

In order for yoga to evolve, we must use critical thinking, awareness and simple biomechanical common sense.

The science and practice of yoga has changed over the centuries, as do all of man’s practices. One hundred years ago, few women were practicing asana, and now the majority of practitioners are women.  Yoga needs to evolve, and we need to take off the blinders and take a serious look at why yoga injuries are really happening.


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. Interesting article.
    Also: from where I stand, it is not Yoga where people hurt themselves, it is the damage that shows as a result of ALL the things they do outside yoga or during the time before they took up Yoga practice. Often it is a last resort and people expect yoga to JUST WORK for them. which it doesn't. The sum of everything is what matters.

  2. Hi Michaelle,

    I greatly appreciate this article + your perspective. Our understanding of how the 'fundamental' asanas affect the human system is overestimated :: most of the asanas we practice are fairly new by yoga's standards. Although this is an uncomfortable truth + is surely bound to ruffle some feathers {particularly in an Asthanga class ;) }, it behooves all practitioners to cultivate a deeper awareness of their own body, their own movement habits -on + off the mat- + make therapeutic adjustments as necessary.

    Thank you for the article + for the great work you're doing!

    Kellie Adkins
    Director, the Wisdom Method School of Yoga

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