Every body is different, and not all bodies are made to move the same way.
It is important to have our hands, feet, limbs and torso well-positioned in yoga asana (poses) in order to avoid injury, but in my opinion as a practitioner and instructor of yoga, it is not necessary to obsess over exact alignment.
Here are three simple yoga alignment suggestions that could help revolutionize your home practice.
1. Alignment begins and ends with the breath.
While in a pose or moving through a vinyasa (a flowing series of poses), maintain a deep, mindful, continuous cycle of breathing in and out through the nose.
In order to increase flexibility, strength and balance through yoga, we must find the edge of our comfort zone and then push just a little bit further, being careful not to let the ego take the reins and push into a painfully “perfect” execution of a pose.
If your breathing becomes shallow and labored, it’s a clear sign you’ve pushed too far.
Let your breath guide your movement. Turn inward and listen to your body. As you expand or extend your spine and limbs in a pose, inhale. As you deepen the stretch, whether it be a forward bend, back bend, side stretch or twist, consciously let go of both physical and mental tension with each exhale.
2. Do each asymmetrical pose at least twice.
As you practice, notice if the two sides of your body feel significantly different or not.
As a result of the imbalanced ways in which we carry our bodies throughout our lives, it is common for us to be more flexible in the right hip and hamstring and shoulder—or vice versa. If this is the case for your body, notice with compassion and without judgment which side is tighter.
For poses with the fingers interlaced, do it once and then re-interlace your fingers with the opposite thumb in front and do it again, noticing the subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences in sensation.
Likewise, in seated cross-legged postures, switch the leg position about halfway through, to place the opposite shin on top of or in front of the other leg.
To gradually cultivate greater equilibrium in your body, practice each asymmetrical pose for twice as long on the weaker or tighter side as compared to the stronger or more flexible side.
3. Pay attention to your hands and feet.
Of course, you’re also supposed to pay attention to your arms and legs and torso and pelvis and spine and head, but that can be overwhelming, especially at first.
For starters, focus on your hands and feet, in whatever pose you are practicing.
Spread your toes. In standing poses, feel where the ball of your foot and your heel connect with the ground beneath your feet.
Have active, open hands. Stretch your fingers out like a starfish, whether they are on the ground in poses like plank or downward dog, or in the air as is triangle or warrior.
P.S. You don’t have to master every pose.
There is a theory that we should practice the poses we hate the most in order to transcend our aversion to them.
That’s a bunch of baloney. There are thousands of yoga poses in the catalog. You’re not Dharma Mittra; you don’t have to master every single one of them.
If you can’t rock the flashy arm balances like side crow or scorpion that so many American yoga teachers love to teach, don’t sweat it.
If you hate Bikram or other forms of hot yoga, that does not mean you need to practice that form until you get over your aversion. Just don’t do it.
Be grateful for what you can do. Be grateful for the awesome gift that is your physical body.
In conclusion: breathe deeply, have compassion for your body, and practice poses that challenge you and make your heart sing.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman