The Absurdity of Proper Alignment
It seems to me that I might as well be talking about religion. Different people, different schools, different systems, all have strong opinions on this subject and how it pertains to each pose. Even to the degree where people are drawn like an addict out of sobriety into judgment and criticism and other toxic mentalities due to their belief systems being disagreed with. It would not be uncommon to be taught the same pose five different ways in five different classes. The Vini style would have us do it one way, Ashtanga another, Iyengar another, Sivananda another, maybe Bikram another, not to mention many of the offshoots from those above-mentioned styles.
So which school of yoga is correct? I feel they all have a certain validity. They are all looking at the posture as a vehicle to accomplish something and they are sharing their perspective on how that is best accomplished. Yet if we step back, it is so obvious there is no one way. Really all that is happening with the alignment of a posture is people are sharing their opinions on how they feel the posture should be. And not only do many people have many different opinions, but a lot of those same people will also have changed their opinion before their life is over. I love to hear people’s opinions on the postures because now and then someone will suggest something I have not considered that I truly appreciate and I will integrate that into my practice. And there are times I have no use for what someone is suggesting at that moment. Now integrating all of what I have learned from others along with my own intuition and experience, I have discovered the way I like to practice these postures, and I hope you will do the same.
Now to be a little more specific about practicing these postures. For me, each posture has a general outline. For example, in Triangle Posture on the right side (Uttihita Trikonasana), the legs are as straight as possible and moderately spread with the right foot turned out. The right hand is down by the right foot, which means the torso is leaning to the right and the left arm is straight up in the air above the right arm and hand. In doing this movement, certain places in the body become activated, therefore having the possibility of being beneficial to those places. That is a very general and rough outline of the triangle pose. What’s interesting is most everybody agrees on the general outline of this pose. The diversity of opinions now comes with the myriad of possibilities within this general outline. For example, the distance of the feet. Are the leg muscles active or relaxed? Are the joints aligned with each other? Do the feet squeeze the floor? Is the hand on the ground on the inside of the foot or the outside? Is it even on the ground? Are you breathing naturally or deeply or ujjayi pranayama, etc.? There are so many possibilities it becomes too much to do it all or maybe even to know it all, and to the degree any of it really matters is very questionable as it pertains to love, union, faith, happiness, and even health & wellness. What I find most valuable is not any of these myriads of possibilities, but the quality of mind performing these possibilities, which is the emphasis of my Power Yoga practice and classes. Yet that being said, all these possibilities probably have value if done with awareness and most have the minimal benefit without awareness and could easily be harmful.
Alignment is such a strange word pertaining to what we are doing. You could easily correlate the word ‘alignment’ with the word ‘dogma.’ In essence, the body is unaligned or maybe we could say it has its own natural, unique alignment. So often, I see people looking at themselves in the mirror and I ask them why? They say they are checking their alignment. I believe a lot of instructors actually teach people to check their alignment. But what exactly are we checking? Is it that the hands and feet are even with each other in downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana)? Should they be even? Each foot is a different size, each leg a different length. They are not naturally even or aligned. The sides of your face are not exactly alike. So maybe in our effort to be aesthetically aligned, we are actually working against our natural alignment. Maybe we could complement the aesthetic alignment with some intuition or work with what we are feeling. We can do this by using the aesthetic asana for a general outline or idea of what we are doing; yet within that, really work towards what feels optimal on our bodies. Going to the degree that feels appropriate, optimal, or good, does not mean that we will be completely comfortable or unchallenged. Optimal meaning accessing as much as safely and practically possible, complemented with stability. Stability meaning, we don’t feel as if we will topple over or we are not putting pressure on body parts in harmful ways. This way, we are practicing these poses in a more balanced manner. The aesthetic, linear, masculine complemented by the feeling, intuitive, feminine, and therefore strengthening either of the two types of qualities that may be lacking.
Lastly, there is another reason some people put so much emphasis on alignment and that reason is “safety.” Safety seems a logical concern. Safety has never really been an issue for me. In all my years of teaching yoga asana, hot yoga postures, and other exercises, as well as having taught close to 20,000 classes, I cannot recall more than a handful (5-10) of injuries and none too serious. Maybe those emphasizing alignment due to safety concerns have experienced an injury in their own practice or with students in their classes, and they feel this can be alleviated with alignment. Yet for me, due to the emphasis on gentleness, which is possible with awareness, injury has not been an issue. The few minor injuries have been due to aggressiveness, not alignment. When we start an asana gently, we decide we would like to increase our effort. As our effort increases, we will feel how it is. If it is not feeling beneficial, we can experiment with the asana by approaching it from a different angle to see if we can find a way in or a beneficial angle that feels like it can handle the increased effort. If it continues to feel irritating or harmful, then we back off or exit the asana. I have always felt we will rarely hurt ourselves if we are gentle, regardless of alignment, and we are very likely to hurt ourselves if we are forceful or aggressive, no matter how “good” our alignment is. I remember one of the most senior Iyengar yoga instructors (“alignment experts”) in the world hurting a student in a class I was part of by giving her a physical adjustment to help her achieve “proper” posture, not aware of this person’s history of spinal problems. Also, as I will mention in another blog, injuries are not necessarily a negative thing and might well be a very large asset to our understanding and growth as a practitioner and instructors of yoga asana.
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