ALIGNMENT, WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
Alignment, most generally, refers to how we arrange our body position in relation to gravity. In yoga, it’s the term used to describe the “ideal” way to do any given pose and create a stable foundation in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the risk of injury. How we align ourselves with gravity affects the pressure we feel on our joints and tissues and overall affects what we feel in each asana. Finding alignment on the mat requires the development of deeper body awareness as well as a mindful and consistent practice of not only moving through the asanas, but feeling them.
In his book “Light on Yoga”, BKS Iyengar explains how he uses an approach described as function-follows-form, emphasizing lining up parts of the body to create an idealized asana. This means that the student experiences the functions or benefits of the poses in Iyengar Yoga in deeper ways with practice over time. From the opposite end of the spectrum, Ashtanga yoga approaches alignment with form-follows-function. This method encourages students to be messier while prioritizing the action or function of the pose over the form. All other styles of yoga fall somewhere in between these two opposite approaches.
The approach may vary from class to class and teacher to teacher. In a perfect world, maybe the approach would be more one size fits all, maybe our arms and legs would be equal lengths, our right and left sides would be in total balance, our tops and bottoms, and our pelvis would be in balance too. But the reality is that almost none of us live in perfect harmony and alignment. Over time, we’ve created unique patterns our bodies have learned, maybe we’ve been injured, and we might even have some genetic things adding to the imbalances in the body. Luckily, alignment is a rather flexible structure that offers options and variations for all levels of practitioners. It’s in no way a means to try to fit everyone inside a box or weed anyone out, and it’s true that TOO much focus on alignment can create a sort of right-and-wrong thinking of how yoga is supposed to be rather than focusing on tailoring the practice to the individual. The alignment cues and directions given in class may also be used to help reduce potential injuries, increase stability and create more flow in our breathing. What alignment looks and feels like in practice is specific to each person and their situation.
It has to be said that what you do/who you are OFF your mat carries into your practice on the mat whereas what you uncover ON the mat will follow you off the mat and out into the world. Let your values and intentions weave throughout both.
Journal Prompt: What other aspects of your life could benefit from tweaking their alignment? Is it the people you surround yourself with and maybe finding friends or a partner more aligned with your core values? Is it your work/life balance? Aligning your words and your actions? Could it be practicing what you preach? Treating others the way you want to be treated? Treating yourself the way you want others to treat you? Remember, aligning yourself with your core values, how you move through life, and how you experience other people is a practice, just like yoga. It might change from day to day and the outcome may not always be optimal, but stay consistent, stay disciplined, keep learning with an open mind, keep showing up to the studio, and you will see and feel the benefits with time.
10 Alignment Reminders to take with you into practice:
Work from the ground up to create a strong foundation (pay attention to the cues about your feet when you are in standing poses).
Change your angles as necessary. “90 degree angle” is a common cue given in postures involving the elbow or knee. Always listen to your body first and if that particular angle doesn’t work for your body… change it to find what’s best for you.
Your spine has natural curvature (proper spinal alignment is NOT a straight line).
Use yoga props liberally. Try it out!
Don’t be afraid to glance at your form in the mirror, if one handy.
Use your senses of sight and touch to help place your body.
You don’t need to hit every cue! Sometimes teachers give more cues than you’re ready to handle. Don’t worry, just focus on the few that make sense and work for you.
A yoga mat with good traction is an undervalued asset (have you ever felt your hands and feet sliding in downward dog or warrior 2?)
Use your good old common sense. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
Ask questions! Working towards better alignment in yoga shows a great deal of respect for the practice. Always feel free to discuss postures before or after classes with your teacher or set up private lessons for more individualized guidance.