Does it matter where I put my hands?
Well, yes and no.
Alignment has different degrees of importance throughout different styles of yoga. But teachers will always edge you towards furthering some degree of alignment. But why?
Really there are three ways to look at alignment in our asana practice. Prevention of injury, flow of energy and acceptance of self. Only when we learn to find the medium between these do we create a truly aligned practice.
In the first understanding of alignment – prevention of injury – we concern ourselves about how to ‘enable’ the body for continued practice and sustained muscular health. After all, it would be quite oxymoronic if we ended up injuring ourselves through the very activity we’ve undertaken to increase our health. Equally it’s important to know how to modify different postures if we already have an injury. So learning how to correctly hold an asana from an anatomical point of view is of great importance.
That said, the downside is that we get caught up on details, end up over thinking each movement and subsequently fail to reap the benefits of our practice. Furthermore, it can be very healthy for the mind, body and spirit to be submerged in the ‘flow’ of the practice. As such, stopping every two minutes to asses where your elbow is won’t be of any help to still the mind.
In the second approach to alignment – the flow of energy – we get to explore the energetic framework of the body. Yogis call this the nadi system and it’s a big part of an Ayurvedic understanding. (The nadis have a similarity with the meridian system in Traditional Chinese Medicine – read more here) When we practice asana, we interact with this energetic system in a way that can be particularly purifying. Indeed, there are numerous pressure points that we want to activate as we move through our practice and as such it’s important that we learn some traditional alignment principles and favour these over and above simply going with what’s easy.
However, the draw back of this perspective is that we can get side tracked by adhering to details that may not be needed in our practice right now. Indeed, it might well be best to let things go before we strive to achieve them. First focus on simply getting the breath steady and a simple sense of structure within any given asana. Once we’ve achieved that, then we can start applying this energetic layer to our practice.
In the third modality of alignment – acceptance – we learn to simply accept our limits. Accept that our legs need to be bent right now; accept that we our spine isn’t straight quite yet; accept that our alignment is a bit out of line.
Of course, if we become too accepting of our limitations, we never push past them and they begin to define us and our practice. We back away from the fullness of our potential and the ever increasing benefits of the practice.
So what’s the best way forward? All three! Get a good foundation in simple bodily awareness, explore the energetic system of the body and ultimately come to find an acceptance in where you’re at.