Does Alignment Matter?
Yoginis everywhere like to argue (but with great lovingkindness and compassion!) about alignment in postural yoga (aka. asana) practice. At Hot Yoga Dublin, where I am doing most of my teaching, we have been studying (and practicing) Yin yoga for a couple of years now, and each time we hold a training or workshop we see how it challenges the whole notion of “right alignment”. Wait, are we doing this right? Who do we listen to: the tradition with (possibly) millenia of history? Or the newcomers, with their blend of Chinese medicine and Western science? And while we’re at it, what about the differences between existing yoga practices and styles today?
This post started with three short answers to the question “Does alignment matter?” which, quite simply, are:
And then it got longer. Because yoga is a deep ocean. Yeah, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
So Does alignment matter in asana practice? Well...
This is the most historically honest position. When we look down the long history of yoga practice, we find relatively little is mentioned about asana. The point of asana was to prepare the body and mind for meditation, and any other benefits from asana practice, were just additional benefits.
This is not to say that the sanskrit texts are silent concerning asana; just that it is a relatively minor topic. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (widely regarded as the foundation text of modern yoga) only say this:
Another major text contributing to the modern practice of yoga, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika says this:
but it only mentions 15 asanas, nine of which are simple seated postures. Other asana are mentioned in the tantras, and many others were passed down within families or by other oral tradition. In any case, it seems that the ancients never felt a strong urge to record their physical practice in precise anatomical detail.
Yoga is a physical practice. That means that we are doing things with the body, so there must be some description of what we do. Who would call slouching at their desk a physical practice? We know that the founders of modern yoga certainly did not! And clearly B. K. S. Iyengar (who produced the system that bears his name) and Pattabhi Jois (founder of the Ashtanga method) had some very clear ideas about how the body should be aligned. Both of them were students of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, probably the greatest influence on modern yoga of any teacher since Patanjali.
In addition to his yoga practice, Krishnamacharya was also a skilled practitioner of ayurveda, and during his years in Mysore developed the ancient connections between yoga asana, ayurveda and western healing modalities. And it is clear that, for many ills common to modern life, asana is very helpful. Repetitive motions, poor posture, sedentary life, and poor nutrition take their toll on the body. Yoga, in general, and the practice of asana in particular, has much to offer people who suffer from these modern ills.
In this context, by adhering to the “classical” alignment we work with the body’s full range of natural motion. But there is also a down side: Krishnamacharya’s “classical” shapes do not always correspond with modern biomechanical knowledge, nor do they account for the normal variation in human bodies. Also, as we mentioned above, there is no real record or agreement about on what constitutes “classical” alignment, so we are using Krishnamacharya’s opinion on what was “correct”. Nevertheless, when used carefully, asana provides a language which speaks blessing to human bodies.
It is interesting to note that the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga (developed by Pattabhi Jois) is also called chikitsa yoga, which means “yoga therapy”. The primary series is meant to cleanse and organize the body for more advanced work, and as such, is practiced with a fair amount of detailed attention to particular alignment. This alignment is important because it serves as a preparation for deeper work with more complex asana. And most yoginis would attest to the importance of getting excellent alignment in simple asana as a requirement for many advanced postures.
There is an important contrast between chikitsa yoga and modern “yoga therapy”. The modern practice of yoga therapy is done with a specific therapeutic intention, and is tailored to the individual’s specific physical issues. It does works very carefully with alignment; however, when faced with a choice between the traditional knowledge of a classical alignment and the results of a scientific understanding of a specific client’s body, yoga therapy always chooses modern, evidence-based practice. For yoga therapy, alignment is an important component of healing, but the alignment is towards what is natural and improves the health for the client.
One final point to remember is that chikitsa yoga is meant to prepare the body for more. The lessons learned by practicing with good alignment enable the student to practice more advanced asana. Of course, this leads to the next question: “why would a yogini want to learn more asana?” In the context of physical work, strength and skill, are their own reward. However, most practitioners feel like there is something more to yoga than just a physical fitness practice.
This is where it starts to get tricky. Is magic even a thing? But many yoginis have experienced some kind of moment when their asana practice brought them to a place of insight, emotional release, or (dare I say it?) even orgasm. As Arthur C. Clarke (renowned author of 2001, A Space Odyssey) famously said in his third law
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
And for some things, it seems, yoga might just be a sufficiently advanced technology.
As the ancient yogis used their “faculty of discrimination” to understand the world around them, they developed a detailed map of the human experience. The map describes the relationships that make up everything from the physical body to the deepest inner secrets of the heart. Most practitioners have, at some point, heard a teacher talking about chakras, the “energy body”, or maybe “nadis”, which are parts of the map which are reasonably close to our every day experience. While they do not correlate exactly with anything known to modern science, many yoginis (and others) have felt and had experiences that match up with the map.
This gives some reason to trust the map into areas that are more difficult to perceive — the structure of what we call the “subtle” body, and the mind. The ancient yogis went even further beyond this to explore the essence of intuition, wisdom, and the fundamental joy of being. But even as strange as that may be, the map shows the path from the body all the way through to the process (and practice) of samadhi.
This connection is discussed at length in the third and fourth chapters of The Yoga Sutras where Patanjali discusses unusual experiences that a practitioner may encounter as they refine their practice. When it comes to asana, that refinement is expressed as improving alignment. In this way, asana is a container for the practices of concentration, singular attention, &cet.
Other “magical” benefits are tied up somewhere in the borderland between mind and body. For example, David Swenson, in his book Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual points out the cleansing properties of the Ashtanga primary series. He claims that the primary series will help to untie knots (granthis) bound up in the energy body, which the yogini may only recognize after they have loosened. Granthis arise from a variety of sources, from the relatively mundane emotional and/or physical injuries, to esoteric samskaras arising from karma.
The common thread is that what you do with the body matters. Working to a relatively precise alignment standard is a way of expressing your commitment to the body as the vehicle for your life, and to developing your expression in the world. Which brings us to the ultimate question:
Which is a great question to ask every time you roll out a mat, pick up a mala, sit down to meditate, or read through a book. All of these are mentioned in the Yoga Sutras as being part of the practice of Yoga, for which this quote, from right at the very beginning (v 1.2), makes a fairly clear statement of purpose
Yoga is when the thought-filled mind stops its endless turning
and it nicely informs all of the answers to our question “Does alignment matter?”:
Now, if asana is a tool that we use to help navigate through our human experience, we might not be looking to “stop the world” (link, bottom of page 2), but we can bring nearly any purpose to our practice. Even something simple like “feeling better” is a fine purpose as we stand in the spotlight on our personal reality show. So the best answer to the question “Does alignment matter?” must include the purpose which we bring to our asana practice. And by bringing our practice into alignment with that purpose, we keep it fresh and interesting; as well as opening the door to a magic laboratory for understanding our lives.
This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.