Why Yin Yogis Care About Skeletal Variation

Are you a non-conforming yogi? If you like to do your own thing in yoga classes, you may feel like a bit of a punk – but you also may be using an intuitively intelligent approach to yoga called Functional Alignment.

The opposite of Functional Alignment is Aesthetic Alignment. When a yoga practice is concerned with how the postures look, then can be said to be aesthetically focused. This kind of yoga prioritizes the appearance of symmetry and visual lines in the body. It's usually taught with very specific guidelines about where one should place their arms, legs, hands and feet.

Most kinds of yoga and movement are taught aesthetically.

But on the flip side, we can choose to adjust yoga postures based on how they feel instead. This is functional alignment. When we practice functionally, we use yoga postures as a tool to stretch, stress or stimulate a target area – for example: the spine, hamstrings or quads.

Here's a short video about Functional vs Aesthetic Alignment in Yin Yoga:


Aesthetic Alignment: It's about how it looks

Have you ever attended an in-person yoga classes where it felt like the teacher was trying to line everyone up and make them look exactly the same? This teacher may move around the room confidently, fixing a student's arm here, a foot there – working hard to "correct" everybody's position until every person in the room looks the same.

A teacher like this is primarily concerned with teaching the aesthetics of alignment. 

In my experience working in yoga studios for 20 years, I've seen how this type of yoga instructor can become very popular. The detailed instructions make her sound authoritative. She recites remarkably specific alignment instructions.

Beginning yoga students tend to like this because it's easy to follow these precise instructions. Also, many people also just enjoy putting their trust in an authoritative presence.

This emphasis on conformity, however, has its downsides. It promotes the notion that there's an ideal alignment for each pose, and it ignores the fact there is vast skeletal variation among bodies. Not unlike how we all have different faces, we also have different hip bones, leg bones and spinal architecture.

Unfortunately most Yoga teacher trainings are taught aesthetically. These trainings leave instructors with the belief that there's one ideal way that all people should look, and that anything that doesn't look like the "full pose" is a lesser version.

What sets Yin Yoga apart from other styles of yoga is its loyalty to the acknowledgment of skeletal variation and the use of functional alignment. In Yin, it's not about how it looks, it's about how it feels.

Functional Alignment: It's about how it feels

When you're doing your favorite yoga pose, do you know the anatomical target area that's being stretched, compressed or engaged? Each Yin Yoga posture has at least one target area such as the hamstrings, spine, glutes or groin.

Any given Yin Yoga posture also has an infinite number of variations. This is because there is a vast variety among human skeletons. You can imagine how different a ballet dancer’s bones are from a bodybuilder’s.

A good Yin Yoga guide – whether it's a teacher, a video or a book – will mention the target area of each pose and will suggest multiple variations of each pose. In a yoga class setting, when making adjustments or corrections, a good Yin teacher will have a dialogue with the student to determine whether or not the correction helped or hindered their ability to feel the stimulation in the target area.

In a Yin Yoga class taught this way, everyone in the room looks different, and nobody is concerned with conforming to an aesthetic ideal that the teacher is setting.

When a beginner is not told where she should feel a pose, she may tend to focus on outer form and aesthetic values rather than internal cues. Even if she feels discomfort or pain, if noone tells her it isn't normal, she may push through. With the lack of good instruction she will naturally try to make her body look like the teacher’s or like someone else’s.

Unfortunately many of the yoga instructors teaching Yin Yoga classes have not had adequate training in Yin Yoga. In a basic 200-hour yoga teacher training taught by an aesthetically-focused teacher, typically just a few hours may be dedicated to Yin Yoga.

Traditionally trained teachers who lack Yin-specific training often do not understand certain basics differences – such as how the Swan pose of Yin Yoga differs from the Pigeon Pose of Hatha Yoga, even though they might look very similar. These teachers have primarily been trained to teach specific alignment cues and to make everyone look the same – the exact approach that's just not appropriate or helpful in Yin Yoga.

This is made even more complicated because the vast majority of yoga teachers think that aesthetic alignment is equivalent to safe alignment. Often, however, the opposite is true. When a student is told to ignore her inner cues like pain and resistance in order to attain a specific outer shape, she is in a danger zone for injury. If she were to follow her body's intuition instead, she might allow her hips to become un-squared in pigeon, or she might widen her legs in reclined hero. These are examples of intuitive adjustments that can actually protect some people's knees, but would not be acceptable in a traditional-alignment yoga class.

While functional alignment can be applied to all forms of yoga, it's more important in Yin Yoga because of the longer amount of time we spend in a given posture. This means there’s more potential for harm if the student's individual anatomy is not being considered.

Do Yin Yogis think we should do away with alignment altogether?

Aesthetic Alignment is effective for yoga beginners, who are typically much more visual and haven't yet developed somatic sensory awareness. Children also learn aesthetically – all of us are born with mirror neurons that give us a natural ability to copy movements. 

However, as we advance in yoga, we gradually gain awareness of the uniqueness of our bodies and our own somatic experience. We become what anatomist Gil Hedley calls "Somanauts" – space explorers whose realm is the inner world of the body.

It's easy for a yoga teacher to impress yoga beginners with authoritative, exacting alignment instructions. However, the more a yogi advances and learns, the less impressed she is by this. 

The people who are drawn to Yin Yoga tend to be more experienced yogis who have a well developed sense of intuition. In yoga classes, experienced Yin Yogis insist on doing things their own way as they follow their inner guidance about what feels right. 

In a gentle way, this is how we resist the concept of an ideal, externally-imposed shape in yoga. 

That's why I call Yin "the punk rock of yoga." Yin lovers tend to be nonconformists who do things their own way.

I'm sometimes asked if I think we should we do away with yoga alignment altogether. Definitely not. That's where good training comes in.

When a yoga teacher has been well trained in Functional Alignment, she understands that each student's bone structure is in charge of her alignment. The student's movements, body angles and limb placements are guided primarily by his or her intuition. This is not a lack of alignment, but instead a more deeply attuned and personalized alignment. 

The aesthetic, outward shape of the posture is much less important than this inner sense.

The Functional Approach to Yoga was created by Paul Grilley, who taught me Yin Yoga. It's a brilliant approach to customizing yoga so that each individual can find what works best to stimulate subtle energies in beneficial ways.

"In a functional approach to yoga there is no perfect pose. Each hand and foot position helps or inhibits our ability to stress the target areas. The most effective way to do this varies from person to person." – Paul Grilley


If you're a yoga teacher wanting to train in this method, check out my Online Yin Yoga Teacher Training.