Even if your mind is clear of distractions, there's still a lot to think about when practicing yoga asanas. Sometimes, trying to physically perfect a pose may seem overwhelming, but being mindful of your body alignment is one of the ways in which you can find a comfortable challenge in each pose and stay mentally focused on your practice. Keeping in mind that everyone's "perfect" asana looks different, the following suggests a simple method to align your body and remain present in any pose.
I like to remind students to mindfully scan their bodies from their toes, all the way up to the crown of the head. This simple method is a great technique because it's easy to remember and is applicable for any yoga asana. It does take time and concentration, but it works well. Using Warrior 1 Pose as an example:
1.) Toes & Feet: Beginning with the toes and feet, be sure that they are facing at the right angle and direction (ask your instructor for tips if you're not sure). Then check to make sure that toes are active, spread wide and engaged with the mat. Our feet and toes form the foundation and provide stability in all of our standing yoga asanas, so it's important to keep them flat.
2.) Lower Legs & Knees: Working your way up the body, be sure that the bent knee is directly over the ankle, not leaning forward, back, inward or inward. Scan the back leg and make sure that it is active and reasonably straight. In Warrior 1 Pose, it is important for the legs to stay engaged, so that we're not just hanging out.
3.) Upper Thighs & Bum: Upper thighs are really working in Warrior 1, but don't forget about them in other poses, such as Mountain. As for the bum here, it is fully engaged, helping to support the lower back and legs.
4.) Hips: For Warrior 1, the hip bones should be parallel to the front of your mat (if you're able.) Proper hip alignment can "make or break" a strong and comfortable Warrior pose.
5.) Abdominals: In Warrior 1, the abdominals are very active (uddiyana bandha), so zip them up from bottom to top. This helps to keep the pelvis tucked forward and also aids in a strong ujjayi breath.
6.) Chest: The chest should be open here, so lift up the heart center.
7.) Shoulders & Arms: Scan the shoulders and arms for tension. Shoulders should remain relaxed down and back, away from the ears. The arms are engaged, reaching upward.
8.) Neck: In Warrior 1, the neck is in a neutral position, but we have a tendency to stick the shin forward. Be sure it's tucked back slightly, flattening out the back of the neck a bit. It should feel comfortable, so don't force anything.
9.) Face & Head: Check for proper head alignment by focusing your gaze (drishti) straight ahead or slightly upward. Make sure to release any tension from the face or jaw.
10.) Fingers & Hands: Open the palms and fingers wide and focus on feeling the space between each finger. Our fingers are something we often forget about, but keeping them engaged can make a big difference in many asanas.
With a little guidance from your instructor, you can use this method as a tool to strengthen your entire practice. Checking the whole body from the bottom up is a comprehensive and easy way to develop a strong mental practice as well as muscle memory. The next time you're struggling in a pose, trying to cultivate focus or just want to do your best, break down your asana to small increments...from toes to fingertips!