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David BRISSON
Yoga Tree teacher Kumiko Koba and student Satoko Yoshikawa appeared in videos for Yoga Works.

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Alignment in Asana: Part I
2015.03.02 - BLOG

This is the first in a series of articles on alignment in the practice of hatha yoga. Many students ask at our studio about the purpose of alignment and have questions about how it should be practiced. I hope that these articles will answer some of those questions and inspire you to think of others.

If you spend much time in different kinds of yoga classes, you’ll eventually be given hundreds of different alignment instructions, many of which you will soon start to notice contradict others. In a vinyasa class, for instance, you might be asked to stand in Tadasana with your feet hip distance apart. Meanwhile an Iyengar yoga teacher may ask you to stand with your big toes and heels together. In a different class, the teacher might split the difference, insisting that it’s important to keep your big toes touching, but it’s okay to separate your heels a little bit apart.

Is there a right answer? Does it even matter?

I would say that the right answer depends a lot on your individual body and the intention of your practice. And, yes, it does matter.

When yoga teachers talk about alignment, what do they really mean?

Basic alignment instructions have a purely practical purpose: They help you avoid injuries. Aligning your feet in standing postures encourages even spinal extension that saves your back. Maintaining correct alignment of your knee and hip joints can prevent torquing and other aggravating forces on the ligaments of your knees in many postures. Keeping your hands aligned in the downward facing dog pose enables even weight distribution, which reduces the incidence of shoulder pain. And the list goes on.

I believe that there are various ways to approach good alignment in the body. This is a simple example: One of the teachers I revere the most teaches students to align their feet heel to heel in standing postures. Another teacher I adore teaches heel-to-arch alignment of the feet. In no way do I feel that one of my favorite teachers is right and the other one is wrong. They have simply taken different paths to teaching good posture.

Because I fear dogma more than the possibility of making a mistake, I avoid rigid alignment rules. I also know that with billions of different bodies in the world, no set of instructions will work for everyone. But I do believe that paying attention to how you align your body in each posture will make a huge difference in your practice.

It’s all about awareness, isn’t it?

To be sure, practicing alignment will bring faster progress to your practice and prevent injuries, but alignment has a deeper relationship to yoga: to concentrate on the alignment of your body in an asana is to be aware. And awareness is the window through which a yoga practice flourishes.

So line your feet up heel to heel, or heel to arch. Stand with your heels together or apart. Position your shoulders directly over your hips, or line up the base line of your brain with your pelvic floor. Experiment and feel the different sensations that come from different ways of alignment. As long as you pay attention to what you’re doing, you’re practicing yoga.

Some students complain: I don’t like thinking about alignment. I want to move my body freely!

Me, too. Fact is, when we obsessively think about we’re doing, we miss out on what’s most important: the experience. If you are going to practice yoga asana, you should enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes with it.

But I disagree with the notion that yoga is about shutting off the mind and moving the body in time with your breath or whatever tune is playing in the background.

Fact is, every physical discipline relies on technique. From martial arts to aerobic sports like swimming and cycling to the art of dancing, technique is essential for any degree of success. Yoga is no different. We learn techniques, which include how to properly align the body, and through practice, alignment starts to come naturally and we do less thinking and more feeling.

So, how much attention to alignment is really necessary?

Well, that’s not a question I or anyone else should answer for you. But I do believe that the more precisely you notice your alignment in a posture, the greater the clarity of mind you will experience. And clarity of mind is where yoga begins.

In the next article, I will write about the relationship between alignment, movement and actions in asana.

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