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Is alignment overrated?

Updated: May 30, 2020

Is there such a thing as ideal alignment? A “right way” of moving? Should we strive for “perfection”? The worlds of manual therapy, exercise and yoga are rife with messages that “correct” form is essential for a healthy, injury-free body; that deviation from “ideal” could cause all manner of problems. Were this to be true, this is a disempowering, scaremongering message which keeps everyone - professionals and their clients/patients in a bubble of limited thought and movement.

The health benefits of alignment and form are often exaggerated and overrated, with a distinct warning of “you’ll hurt yourself if you do it any other way”. This message can breed fear in the student and help the teacher achieve guru-like status, because they know, don’t they?

Many a yoga student has been injured in class by obediently following instructions, believing that teacher knows best. After all, the teacher has spent many years learning this stuff, possibly studied anatomy and biomechanics and knows more about that than the average Joe, and besides, when they said to do x instead of y suddenly they felt better. But does teacher really know best? Does the teacher know your body better than you do? Indeed, some people are so disconnected from their bodies that this is possible. But is the teacher in your body, aware of your individual quirks, strengths and weaknesses?

For certain activities, such as dance, gymnastics, Pilates and even yoga there is an aesthetic alignment and way of moving, aka technique. Ahh all those pretty pointed toes! There is a difference between alignment because of supposed safety and because, say, bringing your ribs in before you do a pirouette helps hold your body position so you don’t lose your balance. Practical cues intended to help achieve something are fantastic and help us achieve tricky technical movements.

Technique can help us as much as hinder us, however, so it can be useful to ask yourself if that particular instruction is right for you. A great example of this is American sprinter Michael Johnson who won 13 gold medals in the 1990s with a rather distinct and certainly not “ideal” running style. If he’d listened to his coaches and changed his style would he still have whooped his opponents arses?

When it comes to movement, one size does not fit all. There is lot of disagreement within the movement and manual therapy world about what constitutes best practice, which on one hand muddies the waters and potentially creates confusion but on the other it suggests that nobody and everyone is "right" and - best of all - enables the individual practitioner to experiment and choose whatever technique works for them. Or better still - get used to doing the same movement ALL ways.

If we only ever move in ideal ways, what happens when we encounter an unexpected movement challenge, such as dodging a moving vehicle, running after the dog or we trip and fall? We’re MORE likely to get hurt because we aren’t used to deviating from the norm and haven't developed the tolerance to loads that would help us not get hurt. Furthermore, repeatedly performing a “biomechanically sound” action can irritate tissues just as much as "wrong" movements. It’s not the action that’s relevant but the duration, frequency and load under which it is performed that may cause problems. For example, my handstand technique is decent, but after training for 3 hours my wrists might start to get a bit sore. Not damaged, just sore.

Take squatting as another example. Back straight, knees tracking over toes, all hunky dory. That’s how we’re told to do it and it works quite nicely. But what happens when we have to lift something heavy and awkward? Or if a knee – heaven forbid – tracks anywhere “out of alignment” or you flex your spine too much - are we doomed to break? If we're lifting more weight than we can handle, then possibly. Dun dun duuuuun. But the same applies to anything - any load that's too much can be an issue, which is why some people experience pain with relatively basic actions such as putting socks on and others only in extremes like shifting a heavy awkward load.

If you’re a gym bunny, I would recommend squatting in non-ideal ways to build a fully robust and adaptable body in as many directions as possible. Obviously start with a super light weight and gradually build up the same way you did with your “perfect” squat.

Our bodies are a lot more robust, versatile and adaptable than we give them credit for. Our movement practices require some degree of mental presence, awareness and intelligence. I've noticed that people tend to hurt themselves when they're not mentally "in" the movement regardless of their alignment - there's another article about that coming soon... If a movement hurts, try it a different way, see if that helps. Back off from it for a while (not forever – that’s not necessary) and gradually build your tolerance to it over time.

Footballers, tennis players and other athletes who frequently change direction at speed put their knees through supposedly harmful positions yet don’t necessarily suffer a higher incidence of injury from just dashing around. (Being tackled is another matter as there’s a strong external force flying at you). Their knees track all over the place and guess what, they’re mostly fine. (It’s generally repetitive explosive actions and rare extremes that tend to give them issues). So how dangerous can it be to have your knee not directly tracking over your foot in Warrior 2 when you’re holding still?

So my message to you is to move in tune with your own body; move in as many different ways as possible. Strive not for an externally imposed ideal. Take technical advice from teachers but ultimately trust yourself enough to feel what is right for you, and take their safety warnings with a pinch of salt.

Empower yourself to make your own movement decisions and don't be afraid of making mistakes - they're a great way to learn - and being told off. There is no right or wrong way of moving, so let's shut up and just enjoy it.

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