Are Alignment Cues About Safety or Aesthetics?

Ten years ago I was in my second decade of teaching alignment informed yoga classes heavily influenced by my years of practicing with teachers who had studied with BKS Iyengar. 

Trees come in all shapes and sizes. So do bodies.

So when a student described a workshop she had attended – a workshop about something called ‘yin yoga’ where poses were held for minutes at a time and any thought of alignment was tossed out the window – I’ll admit to feeling annoyed. No alignment cues? Impossible! Unsafe! Ridiculous! But I was also intrigued and when the opportunity presented itself I hauled my yin-curious self to the nearest Paul Grilley workshop. 

Midway through the first day, from the back of the room I called out, “But what about alignment?” He looked at me, smiled, and then gazed out across his rapt audience. It was the yoga equivalent to Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and Grilley’s first beatitude might as well have been: ‘Blessed are those who study yin and forgo alignment, for they shall learn that alignment is about aesthetics’.

The moment blew my little yoga brain into pieces and was the catalyst that changed forever how I teach.

Until that moment I had never considered the obvious. That although we are all made up of the same components – bones, muscle, connective tissue and so on – those components will differ in length, width, tensile strength, yield strength, efficiency and power depending on the gene pool in which we swim and our lifestyle. We’re sort of like cars, I guess. A Maserati does not drive like a Mini Cooper. A car that has its oil changed and tires checked does not drive like a car that hasn’t seen the inside of a garage for fifty thousand miles.

In other words, we are all different. 

In other words, alignment is about aesthetics. Kinda. Some alignment cues are about safety, too, and that’s something we shouldn’t forget.

A decade ago I returned home from that weekend workshop questioning if everything I’d ever believed about asana was wrong. The answer, of course, was ‘no’, but maybe it was time to reevaluate my attachment to the philosophy around alignment I’d studied for so long. I had never considered that there might be another way to move through an asana practice. To move through space. For so many years on my yoga journey there was only one ‘right’ way to practice.

But that’s not true.

Every beautiful human moving through a series of yoga postures is having an experience unique to their body, their mind set, their belief system.

As teachers, we should remember that. 


Movement as Meditation: A Therapeutic Approach

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There was a time in my teaching journey when my classes consisted predominately of demonstration, repetition and analysis. I was a strong advocate of perfect alignment. It was what my teachers taught me and to this day I encourage individuals new to yoga to spend time studying lineages that encourage strong alignment. Practicing safe alignment early on a yoga path is like practicing piano scales. Once you know them you are free.

As my practice (and my body) changed so did my teaching. My hard, straight edges have softened. My teaching has a flow and an emphasis on breathing with that flow. I still offer alignment cues but the days of strong hands-on adjustments have disappeared. I’ve shifted my awareness from the external form of an asana to the internal. I no longer consider how I look, I consider how I feel.

Beginning on Tuesday, May 5th I am offering a new class at Samyama Yoga Center. We’ll meet each Tuesday and Thursday from 11:30 to 12:45. I’m calling it Movement and Meditation. Our intention will be to examine how our asana practice, in conjunction with our awareness of breath, can draw us toward a flow state as described by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. After a short opening meditation we’ll transition toward sequences that move through active and passive shapes and encourage a sense of peaceful presence. We will also consider the clinical applications of this practice and how it might bring relief to chronic physical pain, anxiety, sleeplessness and mild mood disorders.

I hope you’ll join me.

Samyama Yoga Center
Tuesday and Thursdays from 11:30 to 12:45 beginning May 5, 2015