Back to Blog
janu sirsasana bad yoga adjustment

Adjusting in Yoga Postures: Intention and Participation

alignment yoga anatomy yoga postures Mar 01, 2022

Any yoga posture is an adjustment of our posture. From a more generalized perspective that is.
The question if adjustments make your practice better or worse, we’ll leave for a different discussion.
Think of yourself standing somewhere, in line to get a beverage maybe. Would you be like a good majority of people and could do with an adjustment of your posture?
After all, we live in an environment constantly affected by the forces of gravity. Slouching, hunching, and leaning are all part of our constant repertoire when giving in to gravitational pulls.
In a yoga class, we might have differing intentions and images of ourselves, but the same gravitational forces still apply. And that force pulls straight down to the ground.

On first thought, this downward force may look advantageous when, for example considering a standing forward bend. Gravity could help us (adjust our body) further downwards into the posture.
This precisely is the point we need to look at more closely.
Let’s take the standing forward bend, uttanasana, as a simple pose to study.
In simple terms, “what comes down needs to go up first”. Which means for the standing forward bend, we first need to make the effort, use our muscles to come off the ground, stand ourselves up and support the feet, ankles, knee and hips sufficiently to hold us up against gravity. Only with the lower limb muscular effort still in place can we make use of the gravitational force to allow the upper body to move, or hand forward.
Or in other words: strength and stability in some areas of the body allows freedom to move in others.
The more stable and supported you want to be the more precisely and possibly stronger our muscles need to be engaged.
The previous statement includes a further important notion for yoga practice. Support is derived from muscle engagement. For those of you that believe alignment is a kind of support, think about how you get to any particular alignment and then maintain it.

Much of yoga practice suffers from imagery. This time it’s not about the distracting prettiness or setting of a social media post, but the reductionist arrest of a yoga pose caught in a frame. Yoga poses are still movements that allow you to arrive at a certain posture. Photos or other ‘one frame depictions’ neglect the process of muscle engagements and coordinated movements to arrive in the posture.

Adjustments given in yoga classes aim to help approximate complete postures more closely. There are good arguments on both sides for or against this practice. I’d like to ask you to think about what is necessary to make adjustments successful, especially physical, without becoming a challenge to the health and integrity of the person being adjusted.

Stability is probably the most important consideration.
- For the teacher or person giving the adjustment, are you stable enough to guide the practitioner through the anticipated movement without loosing balance or ending up in an awkward position yourself? Can you place your hands in a reassuring way on the practitioner to communicate and maintain their stability and not push them over?
For the practitioner, are maintaining sufficient muscle engagement to stabilize your posture and the anticipated additional movement?

Take another look at the picture above. The practitioner appears mainly passive. In the janu sirsasana posture / head to knee pose. The straight left leg has a relaxed foot and is slightly rolled out. This likely indicates the hip joint, knee and lower back are not supported by muscle engagements. All these joint areas will receive additional compression and stress from the adjustment.
The folded right leg, shoulders and spine appear equally passive. The right knee, right hip, lower back and entire spine might feel compression and tension respectively but are not supported.

Active muscular engagement across the body would provide the counter force to gravity, bringing about functional body connections and joint support.

When we examine the adjustment itself, the image gives a number of clues.
The left arm and hand of the adjustor presses the lower back and hip of the (muscularly unsupported) practitioner down. This does not facilitate the movement of the posture and likely just adds compression while countering the movement.
The right arm with the hand on the right shoulder blade of the practitioner is unlikely to achieve much either. A non-engaged shoulder blade has little functional connection to the spine. Unless strong pressure is applied, this adjustment might slide the shoulder blade towards the head without helping the posture.

Before we address the right bend knee as a third point in the adjusting of this posture, it’s worth returning to the purpose of the practice.
The purpose, of this pose could be seen functionally or otherwise intentionally.
As a forward bend, mobility of the leg/ hip connection is essential. A further intention of this posture could be spinal mobility, where the focus is on rounding / curling the spine forward.
Quite similar to our initial pose above, the standing forward bend, dedicated movement first requires stability through muscular engagement of other joints.
In other words: Without knowing what (or where ) to move in this posture, we have little chance in engaging the right set of muscles to support, knee, hip, lower back or more of the spine.
This is the unavoidable part where participation comes in.
When we practice, especially when receiving adjustments, we need to:
have an intention: be clear what is to happen, and
participate: use your own muscles to stabilize your body to protect and also to free those areas we are aiming to move.

In postures like janu sirsasana, the bend-leg knee is prone to be inundated with compressive forces on the inside of the joint. Take care to understand in practical terms how to protect the knee and how (and where) to move to make this pose effective and safe. Hint: A body that is not engaged and has restrictions to movement is not safe practice this pose long-term.

A great deal of responsibility lies with the practitioner. So many potentially supportive muscles are on the inside of the body that the majority of instructors can’t see or feel just by placing their hands on you when giving adjustments. Do not expect too much of your instructors - they are not trained to read minds or have x-ray vision of your bodies. You need to participate and engage your appropriate muscles for successfully receiving adjustments. Communicate, ask, get and give  feedback so both of you can walk out of the class feeling good.

If you can’t walk out of class feeling better than when you walked in, something need to be changed and improved.

As an individual, with practitioner or instructor, we can always learn more about the moving body. How to create more stability across some joints, how to support greater freedom in particular areas, these are often ongoing and evolving personal developments.

You might find the AnatomyShow courses helpful to learn more about how muscle engagements stabilize joints, and how connections can free up mobility when engaging specific muscles.
Learn specifically about the knee in the ‘Knee & Thigh Movement Anatomy Course’, about the spine in the ‘Spine Course’, or choose from the certificate and full movement anatomy course, that include all body areas.

If you are an instructor or teacher wanting to improve your skills and knowledge, the AnatomyShow courses can count as CE hours towards maintaining your registration.

Feel free to contact me with your comments or questions, I’m looking for to connecting.

Don't miss what's happening!

New posts, education, and movement ideas delivered to your inbox. 

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.