February 3, 2011

Alignment Matters in Yoga. ~Colin Hall

Am I Doing this Right?

Yoga teachers are notorious for debating the finer points of alignment in postures and encouraging their students to correct their alignment. Stacking joints, lines of energy, lengthening the spine—all of these phrases are common in yoga classes around the world. We could get into a discussion of what defines good alignment, or how to get better alignment in postures, but I think a more interesting question is: “why does alignment matter at all?”

Before getting into why alignment matters, I think it would be wise to define exactly what I mean by “alignment”. Teachers who concern themselves primarily with alignment are generally looking for the relationship of bones, joints, and muscles as they interact to produce particular postures. For example, students in tadasana (mountain pose) often have weak upper backs and tight chests, which results in a slouchy-mountain. Teachers of these students will encourage them to “open their chest” which requires more energy in the upper back and produces better alignment. From a functional perspective, this adjustment improves breathing and generally enhances the mood of the student.

But here is the rub—if the instruction to “open the chest” is given to a student without the structural problem mentioned above (i.e. a student who already has good posture), it will produce excessively tight muscles in the back and create new structural imbalances (and a puffy, Mary-Lou Retton-esque posture). Like continuing to prescribe a medication well after a medical condition has been resolved, yoga teachers can create problems for their students by adhering to alignment “rules” rather than applying their knowledge of postures to students on a case-by-case basis.

Alignment is important. If you do trikonasana (triangle pose) without good alignment of your shin and thigh, you are likely to either hyperextend or apply an unhealthy lateral torque to the knee joint that is potentially injurious. There are many other examples of how poor alignment can lead to yoga injuries, and there is no question that good alignment prevents injuries.

But what about instances where no injury is being prevented? What is the point of being properly aligned in that case? If a student is perfectly comfortable in a trikonasana and at no risk for injury, why would a teacher continue to make adjustments?

Why does alignment matter?

Different teachers will give you different reasons for doing poses in different ways—to get the “energy” flowing, to make poses more efficient, or even because that is the way they learned it from their teacher. Proper alignment is not a given. Consult five different teachers on any given pose and you are likely to get five different alignments. So the question is not “what alignment is best” but rather “what does the alignment accomplish?”

On a surface level, one can align trikonasana to accomplish particular results. A wider stance will get your hand closer to the floor, for example. More often than not, however, alignment adjustments are based on the appearance of the pose. In most instances, students are instructed to make their postures look more like their teacher’s postures (or their teacher’s teacher’s postures).

Many teachers, perhaps without realizing they are doing so, hold Iyengar’s photos in Light on Yoga as a gold-standard by which they judge and re-align their students. As a teaching methodology, this is not helpful for students.

There is no perfect pose because the poses do not exist as entities independent of a human body in which they are performed.  Every pose is entirely dependent on the body in which that that pose is performed as well as the context in which the pose is performed. For example, an offensive lineman in the NFL will not perform postures like an Olympic gymnast. Not only that but somebody who just woke up on a January morning in Saskatchewan will perform postures much differently than somebody who just got off their surf board in Hawaii. The “perfect pose” is the pose that best suits the person doing the pose at that moment.

Alignment is important—but not alignment for alignment’s sake. Alignment is a tool that we use to produce particular results. However, the results are what we value, not the tool.  Spending our time trying to “get it right” confuses the ends and means of yoga practice.

Alignment is like prescription medication—you use it to address a need and then stop taking it.  Because one person’s condition has improved by taking a medication, there is no justifiable reason for that person to recommend that medication to anybody else. In the same way, you may well have had a powerful experience or resolved a postural issue as a result of aligning a pose in a particular way, but we should not assume that we have found the “right” alignment or that it will be beneficial for anybody else. Yoga is, after all, a path of personal discovery.

Colin Hall runs a yoga studio in Regina, Saskatchewan with his wife Sarah Garden. He is the father of two beautiful little people, has a MA in religious studies focusing on the teacher-student relationship in hatha yoga traditions, and has always dreamed of being a stand-up comedian.

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