How Important is Yoga Alignment?
My first yoga teacher was a student of the venerable Indra Devi. I only took classes from her for six months before moving to another state, but those classes planted a seed that has been flowering for 30 years now. June Bains was not a flashy teacher. She didn’t teach detailed yoga alignment—at all. But somehow who she was gave us all permission to explore not only the muscle-and-bones physical body, but the subtler layers as well.
When I moved to Salt Lake City, I was introduced to Iyengar yoga. In addition to the focus on alignment inherent in the system, my teachers were a doctor and a physical therapist. Alignment details abounded in those classes, and in the many workshops I attended with national Iyengar teachers like Judith Hanson Lasater, Donna Farhi, Elise Miller, Mary Dunn, John Schumacher, George Purvis, Ramanand Patel and Felicity Green. Sometimes the details came at me so fast it made my head spin. I literally felt like I couldn’t keep up with the instructions and integrate the details at the same time. I always learned a ton of information at these workshops, but I also always left feeling as if I’d integrated only a fraction of what was offered.
When I finally went to India to study with B.K.S. and Geeta Iyengar in 1989, I felt grateful for the foundation I’d received from so many competent and inspiring American teachers. It was Iyengar, though, who explained his emphasis on alignment in a more profound way, that made me truly understand the significance of alignment awareness as a gateway to deeper practice. Here’s what he said (and I’m paraphrasing):
“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.
Practicing Your Scales
I’ve played classical music most of my life, on piano, oboe and English horn. When I was a child, while I was quite resistant to practicing boring scales and arpeggios, I did so nonetheless. Practicing scales and arpeggios, like practicing alignment in yoga, set a foundation that allows me to play everything else with ease. When you have integrated scales and arpeggios—much like yoga alignment awareness—they become the jumping-off point for exploration.
Years ago I heard Béla Fleck and David Grisman speaking in a workshop about their creative processes. Both related stories of how early on, they were both interested in pushing boundaries with their instruments. After a few years of exploration, both went back and learned the chops that were the foundation of their instruments’ technique. Béla learned and practiced the whole Earl Scruggs catalog, and Grisman learned and practiced everything Bill Monroe. Both said the experience gave them a much more solid foundation from which to explore the outer reaches of their instruments.
While all the teachers I mentioned above got their start with Iyengar yoga, some teach within the system even today, while others see their Iyengar foundation as a jumping-off point for their own innovative techniques.
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.
in all my years at KYM, never heard the word “alignment.”
I rarely actually use the word myself. I do think that the attention to alignment–or whatever one wants to call it–that Iyengar brought to asana practice has been largely positive. I also think that alignment is very slippery, and my observation after more than 30 years is that there’s no such thing as “universal principles” that apply to everyone at every stage of practice. That said, I think it’s helpful to give people basic tools to help them understand what physical integrity feels like. Eventually, as we become more sensitive in our bodies, we can learn to know whether we are practicing in a healthy way using our breath and nervous system awareness as a guide. Nervous system awareness is too subtle for most people to feel at first. So I use the felt quality of the breath as a gauge for people to monitor the quality of their effort and the integrity of their structures.
There are some alignment principles I learned early on that have stood the test of time in my body. There are others that I know have caused joint problems. I do admire the fact that Iyengar is still willing to modify what he teaches as he continues to learn at 95.