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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 II
2015.07.11 - BLOG

This is the second in a series of articles on alignment in the practice of hatha yoga. Many students at our studio ask 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 in your practice.

Alignment is not asana
Some yoga students find in precise alignment and attention to detail an infinite source of fascination. For others, all the concern with details seems to smother the practice. Personally, I think of alignment as necessary—we know that it prevents injuries and ensures a sustainable practice—but in the big picture, it’s only one small part of the asana practice.
One of the smartest things I’ve ever heard about alignment was said by the Iyengar yoga teacher Gabriella Giubilaro: “Alignment is not the asana; it’s the precondition for the actions that make the asana.” In other words, it’s a starting point. To understand what she means, consider the difference between actions and alignment.

Actions and alignment
Think of ALIGNMENT as the Where of your asana practice. It’s where you place each foot in relation to the other. It’s where your hips find optimal support above strong legs. It’s where your spine attains stable foundation from which to lengthen fully. It’s where your shoulders are positioned in relation to the body to assure their best mobility. And it’s where your head is placed to optimize your balance and, as a side benefit, prevent neck and upper back pain.
Think of ACTIONS as the How of your asana practice. They include muscular contractions, counterbalancing relaxations, and energetic adjustments you perform to create a posture. Alignment instructions for entering Trikonasana may begin with turn your front leg outward, extend your arms, and then place your right hand down on your leg. But that only makes a shape. You discover the asana when you engage your legs in certain ways for stability, make adjustments that extend and rotate your torso, balance the effort in the upper body to gain freedom in your spine, and so forth.
Alignment and actions complement each other. Correct alignment provides a stable, well-balanced foundation for the posture. Intelligently performed actions deepen the posture.

Follow advice from the Yoga Sutras
If the notion of working with alignment and actions sounds complicated, think about it more simply. Most of us have heard that every yoga posture should be stable (sthira) and comfortable (sukha). This comes from one of the most cited of Patanjali’s yoga sutras, sthira-sukham asanam (2.46). In my copy of the Yoga Sutras, the translation reads “Right alignment (asana) is accompanied by steadiness and ease.” In other words, a well-aligned body ensures comfort and stability, which is a precondition for the clear state of awareness that we seek from yoga.

Think Less, Feel More
Once when I was explaining the relationship between actions and alignment to a class, a student complained: “So now we have to think about alignment and actions, too!?” Actually, no. Truth is, it’s better to think about nothing at all. An empty mind will give you a much better perspective on how to practice.
Seriously. Thinking too much about alignment details and which actions you should perform in an asana guarantees nothing but less enjoyment of yoga. Instead, tune your mind to feel how certain adjustments in your posture produce greater ease. Remember words your teachers have used for key actions: ground your feet, lift your kneecaps, and so forth. Then, train your mind to be still so you can listen and feel more. One thing’s for certain: the usual chatter of the mind is even more distracting than obsessive focus on alignment details.

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