"Anyone can learn to safely practice yoga and experience its healing effects. A beginner's mind is required, a flexible body is not." - Michael
For many years, I practised yoga two to three times a week with very little knowledge or concern for alignment. I could already muscle my way into many challenging postures, so I figured, “What’s the point?” When teachers gave me physical adjustments I thought it was just plain weird. “I know how to do a lunge,” I would tell myself.
When you practice the physical Yoga consistently, it really starts to work. The postures do their job, and the body can change quite fast. It was once I started to practice yoga on a more daily basis that the importance of alignment became obvious. On one hand, I was fast becoming much stronger and getting way more flexible than I thought possible. On the other hand, the minor aches and pains I was experiencing during and after the yoga practice became more pronounced, until eventually I had my first major yoga injury. It is at that point where many of us abandon the practice of yoga postures entirely, but if we can change our perspective on these injuries, they become our greatest teachers.
I dove deeply into the world of yoga alignment, consuming great yoga books, and kept up a regular practise under the watchful eye of phenomenal teachers. I became receptive to their feedback and adjustments. As I continued my practice, many of the old aches and pains went away, and my first big yoga injury healed up. Surprisingly, the rest of my body continued this transformation of “coming into alignment.” I used to be that dude whose shoulders always slumped noticeably forward, and I thought there was no hope for my posture ever improving. Today I stand up straight all the time with ease.
The combination of strengthening subtle muscles and developing flexibility was what made realignment possible. Realigning the body requires not going “as far” as you may think you can go, and instead lining up the bones and engaging the right muscles. When alignment principles are used in the practice, the subtle muscles can be discovered and strengthened through many common yoga postures that are often overlooked for their apparent simplicity. Alignment is complicated to learn at first… But once the fundamentals are down, it is fairly obvious… I believe it is important to teach people the fundamentals right away, rather than guiding them through a bunch of “feel good” exercises right away. This way, bad habits can be avoided, and replaced with good habits. Alignment is as crucial for flexible students as tight students — those who begin yoga with flexibility often have the hardest time learning, because they have such a wide range of motion and are able to get into the ‘form’ of the pose (how it looks) without learning its ‘function’ (what the muscles are doing). Function is infinitely more important than form.
Therapeutic Yoga – Yoga-Chikitsa
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, the style I had been practising and now weave into every class I teach (besides yin), is a form of physical therapy for the entire body. The Sanskrit term Yoga Chikitsa actually translates to “Yoga Therapy”. That is why it is so hard, as physical therapy should be if we want our muscles to become strong enough to pull the body’s bones into their ideal positions and hold them there during every day life. The healing process realigns the spine by strengthening all the subtle muscles as the core of the body is fully awakened. This is a reality I have seen in uncountable people and experienced myself.
Without any innate sense of alignment or acquired knowledge, it is very difficult to practise yoga without strain in the body. With alignment, it becomes possible to become absorbed into that state of “effortless effort”, where an athlete is in the zone, where the dancer becomes the dance, the poet becomes the poem. There is no struggle with the ego, so the experience may become egoless. Physical signs of this state include deep audible yogic breathing, where the inhales and exhales are always of equal duration, and a relaxed quality in the facial expression and jaw.
In “Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras”, the often quoted book of yoga philosophy written sometime around 600 BC, there is only two brief sutras that make any mention of asana (postures). “Sthira sukham asanam” is an often quoted line, which translates roughly to “The posture (asana) for Yoga should be steady, stable, and motionless, as well as comfortable.”
With alignment and awakening of the core of the body, it becomes much easier to do many poses. The subtle muscles of the body awaken from a lifelong sleep and take much of the load — I’m referring to those obscures postural muscles most people don’t know exist. There are many of these muscles, but the two yogis mostly concern themselves with are:
- Mulah Bandha – the root lock: Located at the base of the spine in the pelvic floor/coccyx. This can be accessed by engaging the muscles used to stop the urine flow and by contracting the anus. These cues help bring the awareness to that region, though Mulah Bandha lies between these two areas for men, where the pubo-coccygeal (PC) muscle is located. All of the yoga postures grow out of its root, and may be engaged through the whole practice with some exceptions.
- Uddiyana Bandha – The diaphgram lock: Accessed through slightly engaging the lower abdomen (lower section of transverse abdominus). This is a few inches below the navel, just above the pubic bone. It can be drawn in and upwards. Uddiyana helps stabilize the pelvis to correctly practice a wide variety of postures, from backbends to forward folds. This too may be engaged the whole practice.
Tips for learning alignment
If you’ve been in a class and gotten confused about the Warrior I posture, you are not alone. I often observe that most students are unsure about the same aspects of the practice, perhaps even confused by the multitude of styles out there that use emphasize different aspects of the same poses, sometimes neglecting certain key details. As teachers, we often give generalized advice on alignment — but the distance between the feet of a student is often determined by their height, the length of their legs, and the relationship between the proportions of their legs to arms, and can even change over the course of one’s lifetime as flexibility increases.
I’ve found the combination of studying yoga alignment through books and getting personalized verbal instruction and physical adjustments from others dedicated practitioners is the key to “getting it.” The expression “do what feels right” certainly has its applications, but does not usually clarify postures. How are you supposed to know what feels right if you’re in triangle posture and your back foot is turned in the wrong direction, quietly torquing the knee and pulling the rest of your back leg with it? Often times in big classes, not enough attention is given to the alignment of a posture. But if your feet aren’t lined up right in a standing posture, it is often impossible to work the posture correctly, which in turn means our efforts are dangerous or of limited benefit.
It is also useful to practise the same intelligent sequence of postures consistently, rather than reinventing the wheel with creative sequencing. I was once a confused student who liked to “explore many different styles,” most of which had little structure or consistency. I also see it in longtime students, who are often confused after 10 10 years of practising many styles, in comparison to a student who sticks to a style for 1 year and is able to learn quickly through the ritual of repetition.
Putting in some extra time to understand our own bodily alignment in postures is crucial for any serious student of Yoga who wants to minimize their chances of injury and get the most out of the practice, on both the physical and spiritual level. There are some great books I can recommend. I’m also in the process of covering many of the alignment essentials — you’ve probably heard about these in class with me before, but I’ll post more information and photos on here in case of any confusion.