Month: April 2012

The Fundamentals of Alignment

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Alignment is a hot topic in yoga and widely discussed by yogis. If you do yoga you might have heard the word in many of your classes and your teacher might even mention it from time to time as well. I had a teacher who never, ever mentioned the word alignment in her classes in the nine years that I did yoga with her. It was only when I did my Teacher Training Course that I was introduced to the concept of alignment in yoga. For a while I felt my teacher neglected a very important aspect of yoga and I felt I missed out, so I set out to read and experience as much as possible about alignment, talked to other yogis and teachers about it and recently I realised again the great wisdom of my teacher Sri Durga Devi – she taught alignment so profoundly and deeply all those years without ever mentioning it, because she knew by talking about it, it just creates ego gratification.

Alignment has different meanings for different people and here are some of the general ideas conveyed to me over the last three years by many yogis and teacher alike about alignment:

  • it means for them to be more advanced in their practice, to do the more difficult asanas, 
  • it is the ability to know the “tricks” of how to get into certain advanced asanas, 
  • it’s about a straight back, shoulders back approach, 
  • it depends on how open you hips are, if the hips and knees are aligned then you are aligned (seriously this was one of the comments I once heard and that from a teacher!),
  • something to do with the chakras being in alignment,
  • alignment improves your health.

For my own teacher yoga was about feeling, many times after an asana, we would go into corpse pose and Sri Durga would ask us to feel what we have done, to be totally aware of where the energy flow, to keep asking questions about what we feel and where we feel it in our bodies. She usually reminded us of that very important aspect of yoga: where awareness flow, energy follows as well. And this was the greatest benefit of her “alignment” based yoga for me although she never mentioned the word in her classes.

When I set out to educate myself more about alignment, I have been as a teacher to other yoga classes where the teacher walks around the class the whole time and do physical adjustments constantly. In other classes the teacher would constantly refer to alignment as if everybody in the class knew exactly what she was talking about, yet in another class I was told my alignment is totally out, without any further reference or explanation. Yip, I am sure you can see the huge question marks! Again I realised the wisdom of my teacher, alignment is an inner attitude, it is something that nobody can actually teach you, because the constitutional limits of each person in your class is different. It is that integrity of the pose that you realise when you are allowed the space and time to become aware of the balance, the flow of energy and the refinement of the asana within. Alignment for me is when yoga is taught with this level of awareness, which my own teacher taught so diligently, that you will enjoy the greatest benefit.

My own teacher taught us that there is no right or wrong way of doing an asana. “The appropriate form for you of the asana is within,” she would constantly remind us. It is like being a sculptor, initially you are faced with this huge granite block in front of you, a mass of hard undefined granite, but as you chip away, constantly being aware of what you want to sculpt out of this block of granite, that the appropriate form emerge. Alignment allows the inner yoga to manifest over time.

In kirtan 30 of the Sivananda Prayer Book there is this line: “Enquire who am I? Know the Self and be free. Adapt, adjust, accommodate.” The main idea of yoga is to know the Self. It’s about understanding, where you can go in a pose and keep asking questions about it. This means, once you have learned the basics of an asana, you need to be attentive and doing the same asana with greater awareness every time you do it in a class and through that attentiveness the inner yoga will manifest itself!

Awareness of what?

To understand this, you need to understand what makes yoga so different from any other form of of exercise. Over the years I had many different people with a variety of different disease conditions – lower back pain, sciatica, people with immune system dysfunction, injuries and so on in my classes. And interestingly, after doing a few months of yoga, which entails asana, pranayama, meditation, chanting, yoga nidra, constantly reminding them to be aware of what and how they feel after an asana, allowing moments of total awareness in the class, almost everybody was feeling better.

Why do people with such different conditions all get such a wide range of health benefits from yoga? Here are some of my observations: 

  • When people afford themselves the balance of physical activity and deep rest, coupled with an acute awareness of what they have done, the results are amazing. 
  • Creating awareness of your attitude towards what you experience in your body during the pauses between the different asanas, allowing you to “feel” with your heart, instead of thinking with your mind is much bigger than just the limited ideas we usually carry around and will have a profound transformational effect. 
  • Stress-related issues, i.e. conditions of the mind and emotions, are among the first conditions being alleviated by this awareness and change of attitude.

After all of this evidence of so many yogis over the years, I have to conclude and concur with my own teacher that it’s not just the physical aspect of yoga that are responsible for these amazing effects, but it is something much deeper and much more profound, it is directing the heart and mind of the student to that flow of energy within which we call prana.

To the yoga teacher: Of course, yoga is about the physical alignment in the pose, it is about the circulation of blood, lymph and cerebrospinal fluid that is improved, it is about being safe in an asana and as a teacher you cannot and must not ignore improper alignment in asana. However as teachers we should be careful not to impose too much of our own ego on what the asana in a student should look like. As teachers we should first and foremost allow attitude, awareness and intention within the student to manifest itself into the appropriate form for that specific body.

To the yoga student: When your teacher turn a hand, adjust a shoulder, ask you to keep the feet together or ask you to “feel” what you have just do, know that he or she shifts the alignment of an asana, both physical and spiritual, and be aware that you are are actually shifting more than just a few muscles and circulation, but that you affect the flow of Prana, that is, the vital force in your body.

My Six Alignment Tips:

  1. Be steady and at ease: Yoga teaches that each asana has its own sthira (point of steadiness) and sukha (ease or comfort). In other words, you need to find that point where you are both steady and at ease and comfortable in an asana without strain and hurting yourself. 
  2. Know the difference between pushing and forcing yourself: We all need to challenge ourselves in different asanas from time to time, but there is a huge difference between forcing yourself, which is ego driven and about showing off, and pushing yourself gently through awareness and the appropriate actions a little further in an asana. The key is awareness. 
  3. Realise your limitations: Physically we are all different, realise your limitations and move within the boundaries of your body and realise that some asanas are not meant for you and make peace with that. Move your awareness within those asanas that you can do and direct your energy into those asanas. 
  4. Start with the basics: That’s why teachers have beginners or foundation classes, to teach the basics of the asanas and the basics of the other practices such as meditation, chanting etc. It is important to learn during this time where your feet, hands or even eyes should be, pay attention and establish a secure foundation from where you can move forward and move prana. 
  5. Listen to your body: We are tempted to do more than what our bodies can actually handle, especially so if we grow older it seems. It is important to learn to listen to your body and if you feel that you cannot do an asana, rather leave it, your body has its own inner intelligence and know certain things that you might not be aware of, in learning to listen to your body, you become sensitive to the inner voice and intelligence and creates space for your body to actually heal itself and move prana. 
  6. Above all have fun and joy: Above all, enjoy what you are doing in your yoga class and have a little fun as well sometimes, yoga is not just about seriousness all the time. If you don’t feel an inner joy with your class and teacher, then you have to ask yourself, am I aligned with the right teacher or style of yoga? This is the most difficult piece of alignment you will have to do, and that is to find the teacher and style of yoga that you inwardly align with. You may find that after years of aligning with a specific teacher or style that you are suddenly out of alignment with this teacher or style. Is it perhaps time to move not just prana, but move physically forward?