Yoga Alignment How-To Guide


What is Yoga Alignment?

For this discussion, we will consider the use of musculoskeletal cues that move the physical body in a predetermined direction and/or shape. There is, of course, a world of subtlety beyond this level of practice. The same nondogmatic approach discussed below should be relevant to breath-led, energetic, emotional, and spiritual cueing but is not directly covered in this discussion. 

Why Use Yoga Alignment?

It seems that the obvious answer is that we want to do the poses right. Well, trying to do the poses right is a bit like trying to shoot a moving target. The minute we think we get it, we go for a long run and suddenly our legs aren’t working the same, or we’ve gotten another year older and the joints ain’t what they used to be, or most ignominiously, in the quest to reach some outrageous pose we f-up the rest of our body, because, really, it was never in the cards for us. But, nevertheless, right, or good, or intelligent alignment (as opposed to the stupid alignment everyone else uses), seems to be all important. So we seek the magical yoga instruction manual that just tells us how to do the damn pose. On that hallowed day when we open its sacred and vegetarian vellum, we will stand illuminated in the golden light shining from its binding, and read and dutifully follow the directive to “put your foot there and exhale thrice” and boom we’ll be in hanumanasana.  

If only it were so easy. If only we all had the same body type that worked according to plan. I think this dilemma all depends on how you use alignment. Do you use it to chase idealised forms or do you use it to go deeper into the experience of embodiment?

How to Use Yoga Alignment

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” – Albert Einstein (attributed)
 As a student and a teacher, this is a work in progress for me and probably always will be. Here is what I’m prioritising, along with practical tips for practice and teaching to ensure alignment serves a greater purpose.

Maximise Efficiency and Stability

The clearest priority of an alignment instruction is to lessen the frustration a practitioner may encounter in trying to form a yoga posture. There are numerous resources available from the worlds of yoga, sport, biomechanics, and connective tissue research to help you figure out how to work with the physical body in ways that will apply to most and offer tools to manage the exceptions. Cues should help the gross physical experience feel integrated while avoiding over-expenditures of energy in isolated regions of the body. If the body is over-worked, or you are just pissed off because you don’t understand what is happening, there will be no room for deeper explorations.

Tips:

  • Develop a step-by-step plan for the most practical incremental entry into every pose.
  • Emphasise stability, structure, and support at every juncture.
  • Notice when there is over exertion or tension arising from an instruction and adapt accordingly. 

Break habitual patterns

Now, be prepared to throw your carefully laid plans out the window. When alignment is a one way street, ‘do this, do this now, this is the right way,’ often we’ll ignore the important signals that prevent injury or just having a crappy practice out of faith in what we are being told. When alignment is unyielding it can never adapt to ageing, changing circumstances, temporary or permanent injuries. It’s also highly likely that your way of approaching alignment is highly biased by your body’s individual balance of strength and flexibility. Others will be different! You must be able to let it go and do what feels right. In short, you must be adaptable, curious, and willing to experiment to keep the practice going for the long run. 
 

Tips: 

  • Explore options and modifications without relating them to a hierarchy of ‘beginners’ or ‘advanced.’
  • Adopt a ‘try this today’ approach, rather than ‘this is the way forever and ever.’
  • Notice when you have become attached to a way of doing something. What is your incremental pathway into a pose? What happens if you change it?

Invite inquiry

Are the alignment cues you are using a final destination or an invitation to explore and inquire? Be flexible. Be nondogmatic. Be prepared for cues not to work. The body isn’t one size fits all, but we do our best to find a way into these shapes for ourselves and for others. Alignment must be the starting point for inquiry rather than the end. Much like every musician will interpret a piece of music differently based on their own personal experience and technique and limitations, so shall you interpret asana.  

“There is no universally correct alignment—there is only correct alignment for an individual in a specific asana.There is no universally correct alignment—there is only correct alignment for an individual in a specific asana.” – Leslie Kaminoff

Tips:

  • Let alignment cues be suggestive of areas to watch, notice, and feel.
  • Try questions rather than directions.
  • Allow moments of individual curiosity and exploration. 

Establish a Meditative Focus

Each time we give ourselves an alignment cue, be it the lift of an arch or the turn of an elbow, we can potentially establish a mental anchor to lessen mental wanderings. We all know how easy it is to start thinking about lunch during a 12:30 flow class. Instead of wondering what the soup of the day is, can you notice your toes? Taking awareness out of the thinking neurotic mind and into the body is on its surface a helpful distraction and necessary rest. Furthermore, it lays the groundwork for even deeper explorations (yes, it keeps going!).

Tips:

  • Emphasise the role of the cue as a mental anchor, i.e. ‘if you find your mind wandering bring your awareness back to x.’
  • Limit these physical anchors to 2-3 for any given class or practice. You can only pay attention to so much!
  • Not every cue has to be meditative.

Broaden the Mind-Body Feedback Loop

There are arguments that too much alignment in a yoga class can take the brain straight into overdrive and have you thinking more than feeling. In other words, reinforcing our same old patterns of disembodiment and mind-body dualism. This arises when we use a strictly independent mind to tell the independent body to do something. This establishes a one-way road with pretty poor feedback mechanisms. 
 
In actuality, we must embrace the sometimes confusing and mysterious circular feedback pathways of the non-dual mind-body network. Outside of the brain, the body has its own memories, emotional responses, and complicated interactions with everything that makes up what we are. This mindfulness of the body is referred to as interoception.
 

“Interoception evokes the quality of the relationship between our mind and body. Can the mind move out of its comfort zone? Can it learn to tolerate and even seek out the gentle surrender, the humility required to enter the wilderness of the body? Can it cultivate a sense of neutrality, a kindness toward the pain and suffering it finds inside?” – Bo Forbes

Instead of just using the body to perform poses, you can use poses (both active and restorative) and somatic explorations to dive into the interoceptive experience of embodiment. Depression, anxiety, IBS and on and on may be deeply rooted in disembodiment. So get back in there! Based on Bo Forbes work, here are some tips for practicing interoception:

  • Subtle is key. Turn down the volume and try gentler, smaller shapes.
  • Let go of any predictions of what you’ll encounter.
  • Resist becoming “fixed” on a particular sensation.

Take Joy in Movement

Sometimes it’s just not that serious. In the nondogmatic spirit that practice can change from day to day and week to week. At some point in the practice, or even for whole practices, or whole periods of time, just enjoy moving your body.

Tips:

  • Allow time in practice and class where alignment is not prioritised.
  • Simple and symmetrical movements best serve this free movement.
  • Turn on some music (audible or of the soul) and let your body feel free.

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