Iyengar said: “We practice asana in order to create an environment of quiet and ease in the body, so that the mind can also dwell in quiet and ease.” Aligning the body so that every part is participating in balance with every other part creates a state of ease and integration. When this happens, the asana is meditation.
What is Alignment?
We have all heard alignment cues in class e.g. “Stack your knee over your ankle” or “Move your shoulders down and back” but what is the essence of alignment in yoga?
Balance, core strength, effortlessness, flow and lightness rests on an efficient use of the body. When you use your body well you release power that is otherwise tied up in inefficient patterns. When you release muscle tension you free physical and mental energy for other actions of your choice. How do you free that? A good use of the body, or healthy alignment, as it is often called, is the key. To move better, healthier and more efficiently, it is essential to work with a dedicated focus on how to move. It is essential to move from a conscious state rather than a place where what feels normal is considered natural and therefore healthy and efficient. This is because sensation of right and wrong is often simply based on habitual patterns from the past.
To quote Iyengar
“We practice asana in order to create an environment of quiet and ease in the body, so that the mind can also dwell in quiet and ease.” Aligning the body so that every part is participating in balance with every other part creates a state of ease and integration. When this happens, the asana is meditation.
The Philosophical Reasons for Teaching Asana Alignment
(by Alexandria Crow)
I translate that sutra as something like:
Choose to do difficult work—often the opposite of your initial impulse—that you know will get you to a better place; pay attention to whether the work is beneficial or if it’s injurious and make wise choices toward the former; surrender to the process, knowing that the work leads to a life of less suffering and more ease.
My teacher taught me that these principles can not only inform the teaching of asana but also make it a complete yoga practice without needing to add esoteric things that I wasn’t ready to discuss in a clear and simple way yet. I was taught to learn anatomy on a deep level, teach alignment very well, teach students to make wise choices in the moment about props and modifications, teach them to work hard, to stay present, and to surrender to the process, rather than focusing on the end result. I explain that the final pose they see in pictures doesn’t matter, that achieving the very simplest variation of that pose with effort and then building upon it over time will eventually lead them to exactly where they should be.
I can’t teach them about effort without alignment, and if there’s no effort, according to sutra 2.1, it’s not asana. Alignment is the building block of how to safely approach each pose each day in the present moment. If I add to that hard work the ease of breath and the letting go of any disappointment or judgment around achievements, I am teaching asana as Patanjali defines it. Plus, by pairing those two philosophies—effort/ease and wise decision-making—I aim to get people to pay attention to the “now.” In doing that, they are really practicing yoga, using alignment as their tool.
The Practical Reason for Teaching Alignment in Yoga
Each body is different and has its own individual work and ease. There is no one-size-fits-all alignment and no one-size-fits-all pose. In class, it is the alignment-teachers’ focus to identify alignment priorities for students. Then by giving them progressive steps, based on anatomical principles and muscular efforts, toward the peak pose, students can decide in the moment if the next step was doable in keeping with the priorities. This method gives students a step-by-step path from the simple to the seemingly unachievable pose. It also limits their risk of injury. People will get hurt. They will mistakenly make choices that injure them. But at the end of the day, part of this practice is about learning the difference between discomfort and harmful pain and it’s my job to prevent the harmful pain as best I can.
Teachers focused on alignment are generally looking for the relationship of bones, joints, and muscles as they interact to produce particular postures. For example, students in tadasana (mountain pose) often have weak upper backs and tight chests, which results in a slouchy-mountain. Teachers of these students will encourage them to “open their chest” which requires more energy in the upper back and produces better alignment. From a functional perspective, this adjustment improves breathing and generally enhances the mood of the student.
However, if the instruction to “open the chest” is given to a student without the structural problem mentioned above (i.e. a student who already has good posture), it will produce excessively tight muscles in the back and create new structural imbalances (and a puffy, Mary-Lou Retton-esque posture). Like continuing to prescribe a medication well after a medical condition has been resolved, yoga teachers can create problems for their students by adhering to alignment “rules” rather than applying their knowledge of postures to students on a case-by-case basis.
Leslie Kaminoff asserted that asanas don’t exist separate from the individuals doing them and he makes another bold claim: “Asanas don’t have alignment, people have alignment.” Kaminoff is attempting to change the conversation by asking us to reimagine alignment as entirely based on the individual performing the pose. That is, “never say never” when teaching asana.
Never Say Never When Teaching Asana
According to Kaminoff, context is key. “Never” and “always” decontextualize any statement that follows. There are times when certain alignment cues apply for certain bodies in certain poses and other times when they don’t. There is no universally correct alignment—there is only correct alignment for an individual in a specific asana.
Our unique physical composition is exactly just that — unique. Asserting that there is only one right way to do something (especially something physical) feels absurd in this context. Rather than utilize the practice of asana to harmonize our breath with our mind and body & to enter a state of complete self-awareness, singularly focused attention on alignment is a maintenance of the typical perfectionist self-dialogue that possibly inspired our desire to practice yoga in the first place. After all, when we’re struggling into “right alignment” what does our thought process look like?
Kaminoff studied under T.K.V. Desikachar, son of Sri T. Krishnamacharya and author of The Heart of Yoga, who dedicated the majority of his life to teaching a highly individualized method of yoga, adapting the asanas, practice, and tools of yoga to the individual’s changing needs. “If I got nothing else from my studies with Desikachar, it’s the necessity to respect the individual in this process because the individual is the ultimate context of this yoga practice,” says Kaminoff, who doesn’t teach standardized asana to groups, but instead espouses a non-standardized, adaptable breath-centered approach to yoga.
Shift the Focus
“Yoga is not about doing the asanas—it’s about un-doing what’s in the way of the asanas,” Kaminoff likes to say. “In order for asana practice to truly be a yoga practice it has to be done in the context of understanding that we’re challenging our patterns while invoking svadhyaya, or self-reflection.” That is, rather than the end goal, it’s the process we’re after. All of the benefit and the greatest potential for change lies in the trying to both learn something about ourselves and to do something we couldn’t previously do.
There is no perfect pose because the poses do not exist as entities independent of a human body in which they are performed. Every pose is entirely dependent on the body in which that that pose is performed as well as the context in which the pose is performed. The “perfect pose” is the pose that best suits the person doing the pose at that moment. Alignment is important—but not alignment for alignment’s sake. Alignment is a tool that we use to produce particular results. However, the results are what we value, not the tool. Spending our time trying to “get it right” confuses the ends and means of yoga practice. Learning alignment—really exploring it: trying things out, determining which alignment details truly work for you and which do not, and integrating the points that work for you—gives you a jumping-off point for safe and inspired practice. Practicing yoga alignment awareness to the point of integration—and this can take years—creates the building blocks that then allow you to let go of thinking about alignment. When you can let go of thinking about alignment, you can be the pose instead of simply doing the pose. That is when yoga becomes meditation.