Unpacking Alignment in Yoga

A few weeks ago in my public classes I shared some thoughts about my perspective on "alignment" in yoga and what that does and does not mean to me as a practitioner. One thing I did notice while sharing, is that there is so much to unpack around this subject. 

In an effort to explore and clarify what asana alignment looks like in my practice and teaching today, I thought I would dive deeper in this blog. 

What is the correct alignment? 

I suppose that the first impression that many students have about alignment is that it is all about the outer shape of the asanas (postures). Especially for students who have a tendency to perform (i.e. dancers, gymnasts, etc.) the experience of alignment in the yoga practice may be focused on what the pose looks like and on doing it "the right way". 

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So much of our roots of alignment yoga come from BKS Iyengar and the book Light on Yoga. While this book is a fantastic resource and can help shed insight into the practice of asana, I do not think it is the blueprint for what the poses "should" look like. 

(another blog post on should later)

First, its important to remember that our body proportions are very different from those of BKS Iyengar. For example, please notice in the photo to the right, when in Tadasana the tips of his fingers almost reach the top of his knees! My fingertips stop at least six inches above my knees. Our unique proportions are going to significantly affect the binding of the arms (for example in a twist) or the way the arms support the torso in a backbend.

Our unique body proportions are caused by a combination of factors: our genetics (i.e. bone shape, structure, & angle and connective tissue stability or laxity) and how we use our body throughout our lifetime (not only currently, but also from infancy). These variations in body structure and proportions will impact how we experience the asanas and what our body is doing to compensate in each posture. 

This leads me to conclude that each person practicing yoga will look different in each asana. I would even go so far to say that asking a person to perform correct alignment of outer shape is impossible. There is inherently too much variation in all bodies for their to be one "correct alignment" for each asana. 

And this brings me to my next question: 

Will the postures have the same effect on each person? 

In my experience, the answer to this falls into the realm of both/and

To a certain extent, each posture has a relatively universal effect or potential effect in the body. AND each person will experience the asanas in a different way depending on their unique body structure and history of movement. 

This gets complicated. And messy. And beautiful. Quickly.

It lives in the realm of paradox.

It lives in both/and.

Especially when trying to teach a public class of varied levels, abilities, histories, and injuries. 

Wow. Let that sink in for a minute.

I'm struck by how challenging it is to teach a public class that meets the diverse needs of each student. Especially in cities where the average class size is 50-100 people. It makes me grateful for the small studios I teach at and the private sessions I get to do with students. 

As a teacher, how can you cue postures when each person has such a different structure and history? This question has lead me to insist less and less on the "classical yoga alignment", and has lead me to welcome more variation in the outer shape of my student's bodies.

If the outer shape isn't possible and isn't the point, then this leads me to the next question: 

What is the purpose of an alignment cue or guideline? 

In my classes and practice, I offer alignment cues not to get the asana "right", but to allow students to explore feelings and sensations within their body as they hold the asana. Cues are designed to initiate action in the tissues and shift new awareness into the experience. 

In other words, the asanas and alignment cues are there to evoke (and invoke) feelings, sensations, connections, understanding, shifts, and flow within our experience of our body on any given day. 

The alignment cues I offer are an invitation for students to feel into parts of their bodies that may be uncharted territory. I think this is why during our first weeks and months of yoga practice we find intensely strong sensation in so many postures. Because they are NEW. Our bodies haven't moved in these ways before. 

Our body is the territory, and the cues may be a map of sorts. Please don't confuse the map with the territory. They are not the same. 

Over time, these intense sensations are replaced by more familiarity and ease in the movements. And I think it is important to note here that chasing strong sensation and bigger "deeper/advanced" shapes at this point is not helpful (and may actually be an addictive part of practice that leads to injury.) 

Instead, this lessening of sensation is a sign that your body has adapted to your practice. You have put in the time, presence, and energy to "advance" your practice. 

By the way, my definition of an advanced practice has nothing to do with performing handstand or "advanced" postures.

Instead, an advanced practice is one in which the practitioner offers presence, intention, and awareness to their practice in a way that reveals insight into blind spots and challenges in body, breath, mind, and LIFE

There are three things I recommend that you do in this stage of your movement practice: 

One, look at the subtlety in each posture. Feel into your organs, the small nuances of your breath, the warmth or flushing that happens in the tissues. Explore refinement of body, breath, and mind

Two, notice where your mind travels and the stories it tells you. Your mind has a little more space to roam (because it is not all-consumed with keeping you upright), so it is more free to explore your inner landscape and tendencies. Do you judge yourself? Compare your practice to others? Start thinking about what's for dinner? Dream about past/future? Fix your ponytail for the 108th time? 

Three, explore different ways to move. And notice both physical and mental vritti (whirlpool, fluctuation, flow) as you do so. Here are some ideas of things to try: 

  • Enter and exit the poses in as many different ways as you can.
  • Use props in a variety of ways (blocks, straps, blankets, chairs, etc). 
  • Play with practices such as SATYA (Sensory Awareness Training for Yoga Attunement).
  • Practice getting up off the floor without using your hands as many different ways as you can think of.
  • Trace the full alphabet with your feet/ankles.
  • Add in other ways of moving your body: running, swimming, dancing, biking, lifting weights, etc.
  • The possibilities are endless.

This brings me to the next question: 

What if alignment in yoga is not just about posture? 

I want to invite you to think about alignment in a much broader context. Please come back to this idea of alignment as an opportunity to explore uncharted territory - what if this uncharted territory is not just our western idea of the anatomical/physical body?

In yoga philosophy, the Koshas model describes the body as being made of five layers or sheaths. While these do not fit the model of those stacking dolls, one inside the other, that is often how they are illustrated. 

If we think of the five Koshas as many threads that weave together, we may start to notice how the rich tapestry created by weaving the threads together is impossible to separate into disparate parts, even though we can see the influence of each thread in the whole. 

The Koshas are identified as: 

  • The Annamaya Kosha = The physical, food sheath
  • The Pranamaya Kosha = The pranic, breath sheath
  • The Manomaya Kosha = The thinking, analytical mind 
  • The Vinanamaya Kosha = Intuitive knowing 
  • The Anandamaya Kosha = The blissful body, the spirit 
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As we explore alignment in our body and in our life we may use different lenses to give us perspective. These lenses might include (but are not limited to) the Koshas, western anatomy, asanas, pranayama, mythology, and poetry. Each of these lenses has at its core pulse & flow

As we invite this flow in soft, slow, and small ways it ripples through our being-ness and impacts us physically and emotionally.

It brings us gently into our unique uncharted territory.

What if this uncharted territory is also our heart/mind? 

For those finding their way into yoga classes hoping to get more flexible or reduce injury (like back issues from repetitive use or unsustainable posture), this idea may be more than you bargained for. Please take what you can use and leave the rest (keeping in mind, what you can use may be triggering or uncomfortable at first). 

Yoga is a vast system with many schools and traditions that all attempt to explore the human experience of body/breath/heart/mind/spirit. It is one of many traditions throughout the world that explore the universal existential questions of life and death. 

These existential questions rarely make their way into the average public 60 minute yoga class (which is shorter than the average 90 min class that was common 10 years ago.) 

I invite you to ask yourself:

In what ways does alignment or misalignment show up in your life?

Do your actions support what you say about yourself?

Do your actions align with your intentions/passions/goals? 

How does your practice of asana help you see alignment or misalignment in your life off the mat? 

Where do you see evidence of flow in your life? Of stagnation or lack of flow? 

How might misalignment contribute to lack of flow? 

What lights you up in your life? And how much time and energy are you dedicating to this? 

Are there ways you are numb to emotion and feeling in your life and relationships? 

Does your public life align with your private life? 

Are you doing what you (or others) think you should do? Or what you know you need and want to do? 

Are you exploring new, varied ways to be in your life and relationships (like the experimentation we do with props and variations in the asanas)? 

Does your treatment of others align with your treatment of yourself? 

Are you avoiding what is uncomfortable in your practice and your life? 

Have you experienced trauma that your body is protecting you from? How can you accept support (perhaps a therapist) and gently find new ways of healing from these traumas that involves body and breath(check out "The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, & Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk) 

Do you "punish" yourself in practice by working hard and to the point of exhaustion? 

Are you addicted to the "bliss" (the "hjgh") of certain types of yoga classes? Do you feel let down when you don't experience this? Are you chasing this bliss? 

Do you welcome fluidity and change into your practice and your life? 

My Role as a Teacher

My role as a teacher is to honor what I do and do not know about your body and history, and to do my best to skillfully guide you as you journey into your unique inquiry. I can't and won't do it for you. Nor will I assume that I know more about your experience than you do.  

I commit to continue my own studentship, inquiry, and exploration. I will share what I can of this journey, and I will do my best to align my actions with my words.

I also acknowledge that what I teach will change over time as my understanding deepens and evolves, and in some cases will conflict with what I once understood and shared. 

Saha Navavatu 

Om saha navavatu, / saha nau bhunaktu / saha viryam karavavahai / tejasvi navadhitamastu / ma vidvisavahai / Om santih santih santih 

Om. May we both be protected (teacher & student). / May we both be nourished. / May our effort have strength together. / May our study have brilliance. / May we not be antagonistic towards one another. / Om. Peace. Peace. Peace.