What alignment brings to our practice, and how to find it.
By Theresa Elliott
One of the challenges we face as teachers of hatha yoga is the practice has become so diverse and mutates so quickly that it begs the question: what do we all have in common? Although we use the word “yoga” to describe our classes, as one participant at the recent Northwest Yoga Conference succinctly put it, “yoga has come to mean, anything goes.” Indeed, the barn door has been flung wide open. This is an important idea to contemplate as we talk about our field, and for me as I taught “Technique in Transit,” a workshop at the conference focusing on strategies for teachings alignment in vinyasa classes.
Imagine a dance class comprised of Jazz, Tap, Ballet, Argentine Tango, Ballroom and Modern Dancers, all in the same room. “O.K. let’s dance!”, the instructor calls. Can you imagine the chaos? We recognize that to teach a class to multiple styles of dance all at once sounds like a difficult proposition, if not down right silly. This is exactly the challenge yoga teachers face, particularly in workshops and teacher trainings, because the variation and differences in what we call yoga are just as vast as the differences in what we call dance.
Alignment – needed by all
I firmly believe and teach that one constant is the need for alignment and technique. Principles of the body govern all forms of yoga, just as they govern all physical disciplines. We respond instinctively to great form, and you can see the principles of asana alignment are the same principles used by professional bowlers, skilled volley ball players and trained dancers.
Alignment is more than form
I’m a mechanic at heart and place a high value on form for reasons beyond what it looks like. The nuts-and-bolts help us in many ways, but for this article I’m limiting it to two important areas.*
Safety, and the subsequent reduction of injury are clearly benefits. These are the primary reason many seek more information, particularly if one is recovering from a yoga related injury after having gone too far. But this is not the end of the story. Being a gear-head may not sound very lofty, but alignment and it’s “little helper” technique pave the way through the body and into our psyche for meditation.
“How” you do poses determines which nervous system dominates your practice, the sympathetic or the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system, also known as “flight or fight,” is stimulated when we feel threatened. Aggressively approaching the postures and blowing past correct form provokes this response as the Animal, our smart body, recognizes when it is compromised, even if the intellect does not acknowledge our peril. Contrary to our desire to hurry up and get into the full pose, sometimes at any cost, this approach actually slows our progress as the threatened Animal will block the way by tightening up and locking down to try and save us from our selves.
However, alignment can help trigger a parasympathetic nervous system response, also known as “feed and breed.” With alignment comes a sense of safety and security the Animal recognizes and agitation is reduced. Combined with a “less is more approach,” the foundation is created to take us inward to quieter states, resulting in an alignment based movement meditation.
Adaptations are often confused with principles
In addition to the vast variation in forms of yoga, students come to class for different reasons. As teachers we should have the ability to adapt the practice to their needs, whether it be for meditation, a sacroiliac injury, or just a desire to burn off the day. But teachers often get confused between principle and the adaptations required for an individual’s unique situation. This is understandable given learning principles of alignment and technique are kind of like finding “the truth.” You have to seek it, and be prepared for many opinions. So how do you go about the job of sifting through all the information offered?
How to seek
Below are some suggestions to help learn about alignment. These are ideas beyond the standard reply, “take a teacher training,” which can be useful, but not all trainings have the same goals. I have many people come to me from from 200- hour trainings with little to no concept of alignment or technique. These suggestions are other avenues to consider, some of which I have used extensively, to help work through personal preferences and get down to bedrock: principle.
Ask your instructor questions about the alignment they are teaching. Can they back up their choice with anatomical or functional reasoning? Someone fluent in alignment and technique will be able to give you clear reasoning.
Think Long Term
Look for a yoga teacher who has been practicing 10-15 years longer than you. They will have seen the fads that have come and gone, and will likely recognize faulty patterns or short cuts that may be tempting now, but will come back to haunt you later.
Look at anatomy books to help make sense of your information, and if you have no formal training, now is the time to get it. Consider it an investment.
Find a good Iyengar Teacher
There are many terrific Iyengar instructors, and you don’t have to teach like an Iyengar instructor to learn from one. The Iyengars have a long history of putting alignment and technique first. If you want a mechanic, go to a mechanic, not a hair stylist.
Look at other athletic endeavors
Principles are the bottom line and will show up in other physical pursuits. Look at professional level arts and sports, people who have a lot riding on the accuracy of their body, and relate what you see back to asana. Regard their virtuosity as part of the continuum (see next topic.)
Examine Mundane Movement
Look at what you do in your daily life. I think of the way we kneel down or go up stairs as “Everyday Asana,” and have taught this workshop many times. There are clues to functional alignment in our daily lives that warrant investigation. For example, why is it okay for our knees to go forward over our toes while going up and down stairs, or squatting, yet it is off limits in an asana class? What’s with that? This is the kind of discrepancy that gets my curiosity going.
Check Out Other Movement Professionals
Deliberately seek others who are actively investigating alignment, technique and movement dynamics, particularly if you have been teaching for awhile. I have a list of movement and body work professionals I consult with, trusted individuals whose opinion I respect, even if we don’t agree. This helps me become aware of my biases, and opens the door for cross pollination and new discoveries. I routinely talk shop with a physical therapist (whom I also conduct workshops with), an Alexander Technique Teacher, a Feldenkrais Practitioner, two Master Body Workers, and two African Dance instructors.
It can be daunting to try and understand something as amazing and bewildering, as strong and and fragile, as the human body in motion. But try we must. If you are lucky, or if you are really honest with yourself, there will never come a time when “you know.” As the old saying goes, “the more I know, the more I realize what I don’t know.”
And away we go!
* Limitation and self-study are other important areas.
Copyright Theresa Elliott, 2015
Entries in The Elliott Lexicon of Satisfactory Yoga Terminology: