Many of you have heard me describe myself as a “yoga mutt” when referring to the many streams of asana instruction I have engaged over the years and the diverse sources of spiritual inspiration that inform my practice and teaching.
I have spent time in Mysore halls before the sun rises. I have stood in many a hot room in hardly any clothing practicing the same 26 postures and two breathing exercises in the same order. I have enjoyed creative vinyasa approaches in both practice and classes of all flavors. And yet, the heart of my training and background is what I learned in Iyengar yoga and Anusara yoga, which I now refer to as alignment-based yoga. And, as I see it today, the heart of alignment-based yoga is a relationship with awareness, an exercise in consciousness.
Alignment yoga isn’t about the right and wrong way to do a pose. Alignment yoga is not about a set of nit-picky details, dogmatic protocols, or rigid impositions of outer shapes onto our bodies. Alignment yoga does not guarantee safety and will not necessarily heal an injury or structural imbalance. Alignment-based yoga is no substitute for meditation, pranayama, mantra, psychotherapy, or good common sense.
I have not been living under a rock or shut away in a cave and so I do know that alignment-based yoga is frequently presented through the lens of right and wrong, nit-picky details, dogmatic protocols, rigid impositions, and so on. And, I know alignment-based yoga is often sold as being safe, therapeutic, and meditative.
And, I know that in many cases, it may be all that and more.
These days I am pretty doubtful that I will arrive at some future point in time where my knee and ankle are in an exact line with one another in my front leg in trikonasana. I have yet to sit in that happy place where my sitting bones are perfectly balanced in sukhasana, or where my I can triumphantly lift my chest in tadasana without losing fullness in my back body. And so on. And being a competency-oriented type of person, what I am describing here is not great news on the surface.
Don’t get me wrong. I aim at those alignments and more, but in my years of practice, I have come to see that a “well-aligned pose” is a bit of a moving target. As soon as I establish one action, I lose another. I get the lost action back and something else calls me to tend to it. And on and on the game goes until I leave the pose, start the next one, and the same exercise in futility begins again.
I don’t say “futility” to imply that the pursuit is pointless, that no progress occurs, or to indicate any measure of disillusionment with my practice and what practicing this way has yielded. I say “futility” to pierce through the perfectionistic, competency-driven, type-A expectations that drew me to the alignment-based approach in the first place. As I participate sincerely in this exercise of futility called alignment-based yoga, I am using the alignment protocols— no matter how impossible they may be to achieve perfectly— as a guide. As my guide, these principles give me a mirror upon which to see where I am, where I am not, what is stiff, tight, weak, strong, supple, movable, immovable, and so on within me. I can see my relationship to being both able and not able. I can see my relationship to understanding and confusion.
I can see my relationship to preferences, opinions, rationalizations, limits and boundaries. I can see the ways my body conforms to “common tendencies in the pose” also known “common misalignments.” I can see where, in some cases, the protocols simply do not work for me or my body at a given time and I am beholden to myself, not guiding structures or mental concepts. As my guide, these principles and structures— so often confused with right and wrong, good and bad, and imposing outer standards— have helped me develop an internalized awareness that is personal and empowering.
The act of aligning oneself in yoga requires a relationship with one’s attention. And as we tend to the position of the body, muscular recruitment, the energetics of the biomechanical action, the resultant physical, emotional and attitudinal effects, etc. we are in a field of consciousness that can, over time, open a portal well beyond the shape in which we are taking such an interest. While all that outer maneuvering and inner churning is happening, there is another level of possibility that can be found.
In 2004, I was in Northern India at an Iyengar yoga school in the mountains. One day our teacher, Rajiv Chanchani, looked at us and said, “Here we are, dressed for gym class for an exercise in consciousness.”
Since that time, our gym clothes have gotten a heck of a lot nicer and yet the exercise in consciousness remains the same; the call to attention every bit as potent. When I bring my consciousness to bear on my posture, coupled with my awareness that I am doing such a thing, I am weaving web much deeper than physical position, perfectionistic expectations, dogmatic compliance or rigid adherence to protocols. I am placing myself in a stream that says, “Pay attention because your prana will follow your attention. And as you watch all those details in your body, watch, feel, sense and come into relationship with who is doing all that watching in the first place.”
So, like that.
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