I love alignment. As a student I love the stability and ultimately the freedom I feel in shifting my bones to their true natural anatomical positioning from whatever has brought them out of it throughout my day. As a teacher I love seeing a student’s own body in alignment with their own anatomy. This excites me for many reasons.
When the asanas* are done with proper alignment with one’s body, prana** moves more freely through the body, carving out space for healing and growth. In the book “How Yoga Works”, the main character Friday uses the metaphor of a clogged bamboo pipe. She explains that the poses or asanas are like banging the clogged pipe from the outside, to loosen up the stuff stuck inside. If we do our asanas out of alignment, then how can the pipe get clear? Where else would the gunk get stuck inside on its way out? I’m obviously simplifying the idea of prana and asana here, but we know that it is essential for greater health for our prana to be able to move freely throughout the body. Asana practiced in a way that aligns with our own anatomy creates this space and freedom.
Health, Wellness, and Delving Deep
Properly aligned asana also helps prevent and even heal injury or misalignments in the body; it helps the body be more comfortable and well. As if this isn’t enough, with a greater sense of wellness our attention is free to shift to the deeper layers of ourself. This creates space to work through our patterns that no longer serve us, inviting in the deeper parts of yoga.
However, when I am misaligned in my body, particularly if I get injured and feel pain, my focus is outward on my body where the pain is; it isn’t free to delve more deeply into anything else at that point. This makes sense physiologically as pain and discomfort serve to make us aware that we are out of alignment, whether in our body and/or in our life. At these times, could I choose to focus less on the pain? Could I learn to “overcome” my body and ignore these pain messages? Sure, but why would I want to do that? What would be helpful or effective about tuning out my body’s wisdom, its way of communicating with me about misalignments? I believe it is this very wisdom that increases our awareness of a need for change; it provides motivation to step on the path towards growth.
In terms of pain and discomfort, it is important to decipher between the pain and discomfort of misalignment and the discomfort that comes from challenging ourselves in our bodies as well as in our mind and beyond. These two types of discomfort show up differently for me. Discomfort from challenging my body feels intense, as though I can feel myself building strength, both engaging and expanding. During this type of discomfort I am able to breathe more evenly; my flexibility increases inside and out. Whereas, discomfort (and even pain) from misalignment in my body feels “crunchy”, like my bones are rubbing together or fitting incorrectly. Inside I have awareness that I am pushing for something for which I am not ready. I am unable to steady my breath.
This difference may not be easy to identify at first, particularly if we haven’t had a lot of previous experiences involving the body. So then the question becomes, how do we develop this type of body awareness? For me, I believe this awareness stems from years of aligned asana practice, from years of learning about my own anatomy (inside and out). It is also likely that years of yoga practice in general have increased my awareness and contributed to my ability to feel the difference between discomfort from challenging myself and discomfort from misalignment that may lead to injury. However, I believe it also is because I had amazing teachers relatively early in my practice of yoga, who were aware of the importance of aligning the body. They opened up this learning process for me in a safe yet challenging way.
Remembering back to my early days as a yoga student, I was not able to find the proper alignment of my body “on my own” through practice. I needed teachers sharing this knowledge. Despite having a great amount of body awareness from dance and 14 years (at the time) of being a fitness instructor, I was not able to just figure it out through practice; the poses were like nothing I had ever done before. Nor was I patient enough or willing to risk injury in the meantime while I figured it out. My guess is, I am not alone.
In our culture that moves quickly and where our minds are often disconnected from our bodies, it is rare to find people who are this well connected with what it feels like to be properly aligned with their own anatomy. In classes that do not teach any kind of alignment, I have found that students tend to do what they see others doing. At best, this is ineffective as our bodies are so unique. Additionally, this doesn’t lend itself to truly honoring our body. When we don’t know how to align our bodies properly, we do what feels good in our bodies now. This is often more congruent with our postural patterns (e.g., thighs forward, upper body short, shoulders rounded, head forward) rather than optimal alignment. Thus, instead of clearing the misalignments in our body, we further propagate them.
When I specifically share the Universal Principles of Alignment (which I have learned and continue to refine from studying Anusara yoga), I have found that this helps students find their alignment in their body and increases their mind-body awareness. As with myself, I truly believe this not only helps prevent injury, but that it increases body awareness so that we can hear the subtle messages the body sends us about both physical and deeper misalignments.
While I suppose it is possible that we could learn from yoga injuries that occur while trying to find our alignment on our own, my guess is that most people would not look within for the learning. My guess is that most people would “learn” that yoga is what is unsafe. This is truly sad to me.
What Aligned Asana Practice is Not
Aligned asana is not a practice that aims to match a “perfect” picture of the pose. We are not trying to make ourselves look like we could be on the cover of Yoga Journal. Instead, the focus is to find our own “optimal blueprint” (a term I love from Anusara yoga) in the pose. We each connect with our own individual anatomy and alignment, recognizing that this will be unique for everyone. That is why I find the Universal Principles of Alignment so fascinating; they are general enough to apply to everyone, but honor that the end result will appear different in each body. The point is that we connect with our own experience, our own body, helping heal our body so we have the time and energy to delve further into the practice of yoga.
It is not a practice that only considers the body. We know that there is so much more to yoga than asana practice. Christina Sell once wrote “it’s not only about the poses”. After all, if the poses don’t matter at all then why do them. Traditionally, the purpose of asana was to prepare the body for meditation and the deeper parts of yoga. I believe this is still important today. What I have found equally important through aligned asana practice is what I learn about myself - my challenges (physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) and how I tend to address them, my patterns around success and joy, and even how I navigate relationships (particularly through group asana practice).
Eventually, I may have learned all of these things another way and already have learned much about myself other ways. However, yoga is different. For starters, I feel empowered to notice these things about myself on my own with the support of a trusted teacher - as though my mat is a laboratory for svadhyaya or self-study. I also feel supported by a community of yogins, fellow seekers, encouraging each other to be authentic and truly learn the things we need to learn to heal and grow. Furthermore, yoga offers a path of healing and growth, one that allows us to work through our habitual patterns that no longer serve us. If I can start by non-judgmentally noticing the patterns in my physical body, my misalignments there that no longer serve me, then perhaps it is less scary to tackle the deeper parts of myself that are hidden underneath. With this, I feel increasingly more empowered until I am ready to move through the discomfort of addressing those habitual patterns as they, wrapped in sensitivity, guilt, and maybe even shame, are often harder to embrace. And if that isn’t reason enough to embrace attention to physical alignment in our individual bodies, than I don’t know what is. Thankfully, we all have a choice.
* Asanas are the poses we practice in yoga. Asana is also said to mean “seat of the soul”.
** Prana is the energy or life force that moves throughout our body. Breath is one part of this life force.