by Ali Valdez
Part of the practice of asana is being attentive to the orientation of the body in space, both for physical development and preservation, but also for the movement of energy. There are many points of view on proper alignment; none are absolute, even if some teachers might want to say they should be. It should be generally agreed upon that a one size fits all approach to the idea of proper alignment is not the way to go. With the advancements of technology, anatomy and biomechanics being applied to traditional yogic methodics, even the approach to alignments is under the cyclone of transformation.
Some facts indeed are inalterable: the joints of the body can only move in a finite amount of directions, muscle and connective tissue are conditioned through different techniques. Certain alignments bode well for certain body types but maybe not for others. Some people have a greater level of flexibility. It’s hard to fully ascertain the needs of each student through every pose, every day they choose to practice.
It was thanks to the breakthrough work of Iyengar, that our contemporary obsession with alignments is so pervasive. His contributions to the science are masterful and probably the singular most influential contributor to the yoga we know in the West. But we are also in an era of vast popularity for the yoga movement. Iyengar did a level of meticulous analysis, experimented with all sorts of props from bolsters, blocks, to sticks and rope. His did not conduct his classes to the masses mindlessly jamming club tracks and creating artificial heat with infrared toaster ovens tacked to the ceiling.
Iyengar analyzed the potential of the form of thousands of individuals and then made some alignment imperatives.
I had the pleasure of beginning my asana journey in the Iyengar tradition, being informed the first four years of my path with daily practices and regular workshops to connect the importance of alignment with the practice.
It was the incredible work of Paul Grilley who considered that maybe heads of femur, and range of motion of joints might vary with each person. If I were to stand my heavier set five foot two female frame against a six foot tall, slender male, to say that a pose in our bodies will feel the same and requires looking the same seems irrational. Again, certain logic makes sense. With every Utthita Parsvakonasana, I am fighting for relevance in the lower side body. My torso is at best two inches long laterally. My thighs are big and my arms disproportionately short so finding a clear triangle from armpit to hip is only possible with a block on its high rise and barely visible to the human eye.
Although I am hardly ready to join the circus for my anatomical oddities, I find some poses work to my advantage, and others just seem unsteady and unnatural to hold in pinpoint Iyengar alignments. That’s just the way I am built.
For others, it’s just how they are in their body at the moment. This is especially true for the newbie. The poor soul already traumatized at the prospect of walking into a yoga class for the first time where others around them are ‘warming up’ with drop backs, full splits and the fallen angel. An example: Uttanasana, the standing forward fold. If the one person’s hamstrings are tight, or the uddiyana is not drawn up, their ability to fold forward with straight legs will be different than someone with very flexible hamstrings, the lift of the sits bones not rising as high.
As teachers, even the good ones, under high priced, branded yoga fashion, we cannot see the scars from knee surgery, or maybe know about the repetitive shoulder injury, etc. We don’t have time to hear everyone’s life history or diatribe of injuries or discomforts, nor can we know everything there is to know about the human body. But we can help our students be more conscious about the effects and benefits they can receive from the pose.
Last week, scientists just found the ALL; a new part of the knee, a previously unknown ligament that somehow nobody ever found before. So how can twenty hours of anatomy in yoga teacher training possibly gear a teacher in a room of forty sweaty bodies to assess perfect alignments? Iyengarists study these details for years with a master teacher, not weeks in a resort town.
Several years back I was studying with Andrey Lappa, founder of Universal Yoga, whose meticulous and authentic approach to yoga was rigorous and scientific. But when we practiced at times he encouraged us beyond the obvious alignment principles to simply close our eyes and connect with the sensations, the subtle moments of energy. He taught me that finding the yoga in the body goes deeper than structural anatomy. Bone will meet bone in its time, unique to their formation beneath the flesh.
Your body will tell you when something isn’t right once you turn down the music, connect with your breathing and ‘feel’.
As you branch out and study many different lineages, history will show similar poses of like names but the alignments will be dissimilar. A knee may be bent past the ankle and yet those yogis did not cripple. Some lineages condition the joints, even employ slight hyperextension and yet those yogis can still walk to the market without being in a sling. Each lineage has their own justifications for the reason they do things. Perhaps, in the advancement and innovations of yoga over the centuries, as asanas blossomed and diversified, alignment was less important than experiencing new forms and the spectrum of sensations they created, thus developing a new and heightened level of body awareness.
The purpose of this post is not to condemn those who do their best managing rote alignment cues but to reconsider why we are prompting for alignment beyond basic and obvious safety. Nothing is worse than having a new teacher make an adjustment on me that is pointless. Do they know I have diastis recti? Do they know about my popliteus or that I fell out of a tree and lodged my forearm between two branches? No, and of course, I don’t expect them to know either; but as I work through my yoga asana, there are some things that I choose to do differently but for a logical reasons. As I meet and study with different teachers I admire, I am willing to open up to trying it their way and see value in their process.
It is just about being conscious, understanding and respecting each body and that abilities are different both by design, level of conditioning and tenure of practice. As teachers, are we using more than the eyes to see the student, speaking beyond textbook learning, exploring what the asana can mean to the individual, and teaching them to find the expression of the posture in their own bodies? Nothing can best prepare us for this level of service than years of dedicated practice, by finding the energy and anatomical systems of our own bodies and through years and years of teaching, seeking to understand teach student where they are that moment on the mat.