“An advanced yogi or yogini takes time to set up their pose – they do it mindfully and don’t rush in.” ~~ Desiree Rumbaugh
(Photo courtesy of Yoga Journal)
Over the years, I’ve been to a variety of yoga classes, as I think it is very important to try a variety of styles and teachers. In my opinion, no matter how long you’ve been practicing, you can always learn something new when you try out different classes and teachers.
One of the most important things that should be taught in a yoga class is proper alignment. However, it is amazing to me how many classes I’ve been to where alignment is barely mentioned. I always cringe whenever I go to a class like this, ESPECIALLY if there are new yogis in the room. For a new yogi, practicing yoga poses with proper alignment can mean the difference between injury and health.
The following, excerpted from Golden Yoga, says it so well:
Alignment, in the big picture, refers to your body’s relationship with gravity. Gravity is pushing down on us all of the time. Think about it for a moment. Gravity is literally pushing down on you right now. We don’t notice it because it is happening all of the time. But your body is dealing with gravity right now. If you lean your body to one side, just about 2 or 3 inches, and hold that position, you will start to get tired. If you consciously sit up straight you will feel a bit lighter. It’s no mystery. When the body is in good alignment, you feel lighter. When it is out of alignment you feel heavier. If you stand a pole on its end and align it perfectly, gravity’s pressure will hold it up; if the alignment is poor, it will fall. The same is true in the body.
Alignment, in the smaller picture, refers to your body in relation to itself. If you lean your body to one side, just about 2 or 3 inches, and hold that position again, you can feel the muscles on the side you lean away from begin to tense. Those muscles are keeping you balanced in the field of gravity. If they didn’t activate at the same time you lean, gravity would push you to the floor. Nobody has perfect alignment. We all lean a bit to one side more than the other, we all have one waist that is a bit shorter than the other, we each have one shoulder that sits more comfortably. Some imbalances come from overuse (use of one side or area in a specific movement that we repeatedly perform at work or sports, or even sleep), some from injuries, while others arise from simple mis-use of the body. For each imbalance, we also have a balancing mechanism, something that responds to the imbalance to keep us from falling over. These are called compensations. The smaller picture of alignment involves the whole interplay of imbalances, compensations, further imbalances, etc. all within the single body. If one shoulder is pulled in to the neck more than the other, the ribs will have to compensate. When the ribs shift, the pelvis twists, and then the foot turns. Each movement is brilliance; without any one of them the body would succumb to gravity’s pressure and fall. Although the body is balanced, it is a compromised balance, a state where many of the muscles and joints are constantly working against a subtle (or not so subtle) lean, or twist.
When we practice the asanas with the intention to bring the body into greater alignment, we address the imbalances and compensations in the body. We address the compromised balance that the body is used to dealing with, and change it to an intelligent balance; one that works with gravity rather than against it.
Also, when you are in proper alignment in your yoga postures, you can actually optimize the circulation of blood, lymph and cerebrospinal fluid throughout the body. But without proper alignment, you can sometimes get the opposite effect, cutting off circulation and/or making an existing condition worse.
If you’re a healthy person, you may read this and think you’re exempt…why worry about alignment so much if you’ve got no issues? Well, I can tell you from personal experience, IT MATTERS. Think about Chaturanga, for instance. This pose is notorious for causing shoulder injuries, and it’s improper alignment that is likely the cause. For those of you who have been practicing yoga for quite some time, you probably know the “slither” approach to Chaturanga.
When coming into Chaturanga from a Plank position, you need to maintain all the muscle support that is involved in Plank, but then move slightly forward on your toes as you come into Chaturanga. This means your elbows will end up over your wrists, and your shoulders will be over your fingers. As you lower down, make sure you keep your upper arms back and your elbows close to your body. Approaching the pose in this way keeps the arm bones in a safe place, and allows gravity to bring you down in a way that keeps your shoulders safe and injury-free. You’ll know if you’re out of alignment if your shoulder blades poke out instead of lying flat on your back, or if the fronts of your shoulders are sore the next day.
When you take the time to put effort into proper alignment in this pose (or any pose, for that matter), you will notice it becomes much easier to surrender to the benefits of the pose.
So how does this translate into your life off the mat? Well, if you put in the effort needed for any situation…the effort to listen and notice the cues presented to you along the way, then you’ll begin to notice the signals that tell you whether you’re on the right or wrong path. Surrender yourself. Surrender so you can loosen your grip on preconceived notions, so you can better hear and respond to the cues and signals coming at you. When you can do this, when you can truly surrender and just experience what your effort brings forth, you may find that your destination is greater than you ever thought possible. In any case, it will be the destination that is right for you.