“Posing” The BIG Questions
What, Why and How Do We Find Alignment?
I recently listened to one of my favorite podcasts, Yogaland, with Andrea Ferretti. The guest of the day was Roger Cole, a long-time Iyengar teacher and disciple. Andrea asked why B.K.S. Iyengar stressed meticulous alignment in a yoga practice.
The answer stopped me in my tracks.
I had to replay the section more than once.
I had always assumed Iyengar’s excruciatingly detailed alignment cues were due to some anal compulsion – a desire to have his students approximate the beautiful extension and incredible contortions he alone was able to achieve. But, as with all yoga masters, his ultimate goal was to help us achieve the physical state that would allow us to find balance and stillness in the mind.
According to Roger, Iyengar was not seeking physical perfection. For Iyengar, equanimity and balance was everything. When you’re properly aligned, the balance in your bone structure supports you in a way that allows your muscles to relax (without collapsing), enabling the nerves that control your muscles to stop firing some of its signals.
When the nervous system quiets down, you find stillness of mind, the ultimate goal of yoga.
Roger had perfectly verbalized the feeling I have when my body is properly (not perfectly) aligned – my breath flows naturally and I can move in synch with it without struggle. After over a dozen years of practice, I’ve only recently been able to achieve this state more regularly in my practice and I credit it mostly to my alignment-based practice,
When I first resumed a regular yoga practice at late middle age, I was captivated by how it made my body feel, even though I was pretty out of shape. As I got physically stronger, I gravitated to vinyasa yoga in its many variations, from Jivamukti and Ashtanga to Rock-asana. I mainly practiced at my local gym, so there was minimal instruction on alignment because gym goers primarily just want to move. The practice was fun and invigorating, but I eventually hit a plateau in my practice.
When a couple of my favorite yoga teachers moved away and were replaced by less experienced instructors, I started venturing out to the local yoga studios. That was my first exposure to more specific cuing on alignment – the studio closest to my home was Iyengar and Anusara based – and it was a difficult adjustment for me to be constantly guided to change the way I was holding myself in my poses.
And yet, I found that my practice improved exponentially. Poses I had found difficult became accessible and I began to feel more ease when holding the pose for a period of time, rather than just quickly flowing through to the next one.
Once my ego dealt with the fact that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, alignment-based yoga became my practice of choice. I started to seek out workshops and more instruction to develop my knowledge.
So, what is alignment?
At its most basic, alignment means using your muscles to move your bones into their proper placement in a yoga pose. The most fundamental reason for this is to keep your body safe; think having your knees pointing in the same direction as your feet or not pushing your knee past your ankle when in a lunge to protect your knee joint.
But alignment is more than just knowing where to place your feet and hands and which way to bend or extend in a pose. To understand how to align your body, you need to develop a foundational understanding of body mechanics and anatomy, particularly how the spine and the major joints are naturally designed to work. (No need to be a total anatomy geek, though, unless you happen to enjoy it, like me!)
I’ve personally found that understanding body mechanics helps me get into the pose with less effort (albeit with more mental focus). It helps me to set my foundation properly and to create more space in my body and joints before I start moving, so that I can move more freely.
Alignment also informs the proper movement for transitioning in and out of a pose. Often, the body is most vulnerable to injury during the transition, mainly because we take our attention away from our positioning once we release the pose. Understanding the mechanics of the pose allows for safer entry and exit from a pose. When I pay attention during the transitions, they become almost the most important part of the practice, like the take-off and landing of a flight.
In my mind, alignment goes beyond just the positioning and entry into a particular pose. It also encompasses the thought process behind the progression of a class; sequencing the poses methodically so that the body is prepared to move into more complex poses with more ease. I love classes where the teacher takes the time to reverse engineer a peak pose so that the actions needed to achieve the pose are repeated and expanded upon as the class progresses. I think we’ve all been in classes where the body just doesn’t feel right in a pose because it wasn’t yet ready for it, or because the prior pose wasn’t compatible with the one you’re trying to get into right now.
Movement for the sake of movement just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. I still practice vinyasa, but with more mindfulness. While I used to love elaborately choreographed classes because they challenged me physically and mentally, now I appreciate the more simple intelligently sequenced class. I feel so much better afterwards and I’ve learned something about my body and mental attitude in the process.
All this being said, alignment is a very personal thing because everyone’s physicality and body proportions are unique. (Iyengar had abnormally long arms and legs.) Experimentation, along with proper instruction and the strategic use of props, is key to finding your personal proper alignment, but once you begin to find it, it will be a game-changer for your yoga practice. It will morph from being just a very enjoyable and cathartic workout to a moving meditation that carries over to your life off the mat!
May Louie first took yoga in college to fulfill a Phys-Ed requirement and immediately fell in love. She unfortunately did not continue with her practice but reconnected with it when she retired from her corporate job in 2002 and has since become a serious yoga enthusiast. After her second retirement last year, she completed her 200 hour RYT certification, studying with Dina Crosta, Ellen Mosko and Jamie Segal Hanley, with a focus on alignment based flow.[/box]
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