Alignment? What is that?
I have been considering what alignment means. I purport to teach about alignment, but what am I referring to? Is there a correct alignment of each yoga pose? No one really knows. I personally wasn't there when these geometric shapes for the body were invented (though I admit to inventing more than one myself). We do know that individual physical alignment in general impacts joints, bones, muscles, the nervous system, the breath, etc.
I have started to realize that being “aligned” is a lot like being “on” a diet. You can change your diet, but you don’t really go on or off your diet. You might consume junk food or meat or lots of vegetables, but whatever it is you’re eating, that’s your diet. Throughout your life, what your body needs nutritionally changes with your age, your activities, illnesses and injuries. You have changed your diet numerous times over the years. And all of this has been your diet. By now, you’ve likely discovered the best diet for your current stage of life. You might not always consume those foods, but you certainly have some understanding by now of what constitutes healthy eating for your needs at this time. (And I hope you also recognize that those needs differ from the people around you.)
Alignment is how your skeleton is positioned in space. How you sit, how you stand, your gait, etc., that's your alignment. It has been influenced by the kinds of activities you do most often, as well as by genetics, injuries or illnesses, our physical environment and cultural norms. How you align your body can be beneficial and sometimes it can be harmful. And like your diet, your alignment changes based on the demands upon your body at given stages in your life.
My job, as I see it, is to help you understand the mechanics of how bodies work. I can watch how you move and then help you discern whether your body is working at its best. Our environment and culture have altered our movement patterns over decades (sitting more, walking less, staring at screens) and this has changed our alignment. Certain muscles, bones, and joints are designed for certain movements. As a variety of movements have disappeared from daily life, individual alignment has become imbalanced. Those imbalances can lead to injury.
For example, most of us sit much of the time (hip flexion), and we barely walk during the day relative to how much time we spend sitting. Walking is the one activity humans naturally do that asks the leg to extend back behind the pelvis (hip extension). The lack of walking has led to an inability to fully experience hip extension. This lack of hip extension leads to shorter strides when walking, but it also can lead to pelvic floor issues, foot pain, hip immobility, lower back pain, a tight psoas, tight hamstrings, overworked quadriceps, knee pain. All that from one cultural development: sitting more, and walking less.
When we get on the mat, we are told there is a proper alignment of the poses. What if instead, we learn how bodies are designed to function best? In other words, what if we learn what constitutes good physical alignment in general, instead of assuming there is a proper alignment of a pose? Toes are supposed to be the widest part of the human foot, and should point forward in an aligned body. But look around in a class and see how many people have pointy-toed-shoe-shaped feet and/or have toes that are turned out (a little or a lot). Those two details let me know that the foot muscles are tight and that the outer leg and hip muscles are under-utilized. Alignment for mechanical function means reintroducing standing with the toes pointed forward. And getting those toes to spread back out. So is the correct alignment of Tadasana (Mountain) toes are pointed forward? No, but practicing Tadasana with those pointing toes forward will help with better individual alignment.
Years of looking at bodies has led me to instruct classes in particular ways to help engage muscles and joints and bones in a manner that isn’t familiar. I can see the misalignments our modern world has created generally, and the specific misalignments of individuals. I can use particular instructions for yoga poses to help individuals move toward better skeletal alignment.
By waking up muscles that are under-utilized, your skeleton can reorganize and perhaps enter a next chapter of alignment. When I teach a group, I often give instructions accompanied by the question "what happens if you...?" This leads to students' curiosity about their own body instead of about the right way to do a pose. When I work with individuals privately, I have even more license to suggest positioning specific to that individual. Eventually, all of this leads to people in my classes doing poses that look nothing like mine or anyone else’s. Sometimes it means a student eliminates a pose that is aggravating an injury. The process of altering poses/practices and moving in ways that bring positive change (flexibility, strength, increased ROM, endurance, balance), isn't any different than a person realizing they need to remove dairy and wheat from their diet.
I still consider myself an alignment-based yoga teacher. But I am pretty clear that I am talking about alignment regarding the skeleton, not the poses themselves. I no longer believe I know the correct alignment of a pose. It’s been quite a journey for this rule-follower to let go of absolute rules about poses and start playing. Not just for me, but for my students as well. I’m still going to suggest ways to move in a pose, but it’s not because that makes the pose “correct.” It’s because that instruction might wake up your body in a particular way, and that change might bring you toward alignment that serves you better in the future.
Disclaimer: I am very clear that not all bodies function the same, nor do they have they same possibility for particular movements. People with disabilities and limitations can still work toward alignment based on their specific needs. Helping someone move better after a stroke will require very different instructions than what I'd offer to a general yoga class, as does helping someone who uses a wheelchair or is missing a limb. The means to align the body are always going to be specific. You can bring better alignment to any body but it will not look like anyone else's alignment. Start where you are and figure out what's possible through observing, asking questions, and listening. That goes for the teacher as well as the student.
Chaos On The Mat?
A student stayed after class recently to ask a question about all the various classes she's taking. I'm paraphrasing here, but her concern was if all these different practices were working together or creating chaos, and should she be sticking to one type of practice. This led to a great conversation about what happens in different classes and why there is no definitive answer to her question.
Here are my two cents, more of a set of opinions than an answer.
Some classes, like mine, are all about self-awareness and body knowledge. Learning how your body works, what movement patterns are well-honed and which ones need some attention, that's what I teach. Other classes, such as a Vinyasa class are all about flowing movement that takes your body into a variety of geometric shapes, connecting to the breath. These can be quite vigorous. Still others are more focused on meditation, or energy or breathing, and some emphasize community. All of these are good classes.
My body, with all its accumulated injuries, has guided my teaching and practice toward the first of these: self-awareness and body knowledge. I do crave movement, but I'm more likely to dance or walk or hike when I want to move without care. I no longer find Vinyasa classes appealing when I have to stop and modify throughout. I end up with my "teacher brain" turned on. My need for movement is curtailed by consciously adapting throughout lest I re-injure myself. I will happily attend a meditative class. I find I can much more easily let someone else do the guiding and I get to be a student in such gentle settings.
Other people need steady or vigorous movement more than they need to tune in, slow down, and pay attention. You can certainly get that on the mat, so why not? And still others go to class as an activity they do with a friend. Or they create friendships over time so they return to that class to maintain those friendships.
All of these are valid reasons to attend a particular class. And if you've been practicing a long time, you might have different classes that you attend for different reasons, as was the case with the student who asked this question.
What happens if your teachers give instructions for a particular pose that seem contradictory? This is not uncommon and that is where it can feel as though maybe you are courting chaos. Teachers have their own experiences and training that they bring to to the class, and you may find that you're being given different cues from each teacher for the very same pose. I suggest you take some time on your own to try the pose. Do it a few times, each time using a different set of instructions. With each version, notice how you feel before, during, AND after the pose. If one set of instructions leaves you breathing easier, and another eases tension in your hip, and another makes you feel powerful, then all are beneficial to you. You get to decide which you do when and why. (You are a grown up; you get to attend to your body your way.) If no one set of instructions seems to be that different in your body, then you can do what each teacher instructs when in their class. And if one seems beneficial and the other(s) do not, then it is important to honestly inform your instructor that you may be doing XYZ pose a little differently because it is helping you in some way (addressing misalignment or injury or breathing, etc.). As a teacher, I'm pleased to know you are consciously choosing something because you've learned it serves you better. If you don't tell me that's what you're doing, then I might assume you don't understand my instruction.
The short answer to my student this week was that it's only creating chaos if it feels chaotic. Know why you're there: self-awareness/body knowledge, movement, meditation/breath, community. While you might find a class that meet all those criteria, no single class needs to do all of that.
Enjoy each class for what it provides.
The Last Yama --- Non-Attachment
In April, I had to have an ovarian cyst removed. It was laparoscopic surgery and I was supposed to be back to normal activities after a few days. I was not back to normal. It took some time and effort to convince my doctor that something wasn’t right, but eventually I got the hernia diagnosis I had anticipated, and on May 28th, I will have surgery to repair it.
This word, detachment, leads to my topic du jour. Usually referred to as non-attachment, Aparigraha is the last yama or moral guideline outlined in Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. The other yamas are Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), and Brahmacharya (moderation). I use the word detachment because I find something compelling about the active form of this word rather than the passive “non-attachment.” I’m sure that says something about me, but that is not today’s rabbit hole.
In January, I usually choose a word of the year to underline or focus my intentions. I chose the word detachment after the upheaval and enforced adaptability of 2020. Clearly I knew what I was doing when I chose that word. I have continued to learn more about teaching online. I have regrouped and switched from rarely demonstrating when teaching in person, to demonstrating all the time online, to not demonstrating at all as I recovered from the last surgery, to easing back into demonstrating this past week, to getting ready to teach solely with verbal instructions again after another surgery.
No one wants to return to surgery so soon. No one wants to shift their methods back and forth numerous times over a period of weeks. And now we can also add the gradual shift from online classes back to in-person classes. This shift off of Zoom is happening at widely different times (and in some cases not happening at all). I hear myself responding to questions about in-person classes from students, some of whom want online options still and some of whom have been itching to get back to in-person for months. I am breathing in and out and letting go some more, and it feels like a continuation of what I’ve been doing for over a year now, what we’ve all been doing for over a year now.
Letting go of how things were, adapting to the latest plot twist. I know I am not alone. I watch my family working through these changes, and my friends and acquaintances. Even though I am relatively healthy and sane, I am generally worn out. I recently read an article in the NY Times on languishing, a mental state between depressed and thriving. The author noted that a large portion of the population is currently inhabiting this space. If this resonates with you, I see you. And if you can manage a bit of detachment as your world remains unsteady, I am doing the same. Cheers to all of us as we navigate Aparigraha, as we practice non-attachment or detachment or whatever word you choose to describe how you are managing.
Now, take a breath and let it go.
Keep Doing the Work
If you have Irritable Bowel Syndrome, there is an imbalance in your intestinal function. You have to learn what to eat to create balance in your gut. Once you have achieved balance, and your intestinal tract is working better, you don't get to stop watching what you eat. If you go back to foods that irritate you, all those terrible IBS symptoms return.
What does this have to do with yoga and movement, you say?
Daily activities easily bring your body into imbalance through repeated movement patterns. And most of those patterns are repeated over decades. I frequently hear that it takes three weeks to create a new habit. If you can stop biting your nails for three weeks, you can probably stop for the long haul. Shouldn't the same be true of movement patterns? Movement patterns are not the same as habits such as nail-biting. Picture the position of your shoulders and upper body when you drive, cook, read, work on a computer, pretty much everything. Arms in front of you, shoulders rounded. Do this for years, as we all do, and muscles get very good at maintaining this position.
I can teach you ways to rearrange your upper body, to build strength to counter the way you've been holding yourself. But doing that a few minutes a day can only do so much to counter the misalignment created when you spend several hours a day in that rounded forward, arms-in-front-of-you position.
Recently, a few different clients asked me how long until they don't have to pay attention to the positioning of their feet. All of them were relieved to discover that many years into this work, I still have to consciously place my feet throughout the day. It's not that I'm bad at the proper alignment. It's that my long-held patterns of turning my feet out are well-practiced. This is true for most of us.
Working on alignment isn't about restricting how you move. Nor is working on alignment a practice you can do for three weeks and then be done. Working on alignment is about becoming conscious of how you are moving, standing, sitting, and then taking steps to shift into other positions. It is about recognizing the ways in which your movement patterns create imbalances. The more often you shift out of the way you usually move, the more often you create new movement patterns. And the more often you do that, the more opportunities to bring balance back into the body.
Now, back to the IBS analogy. If you come to me with pain, I will give you work to do to relieve that pain. If you find that pain goes away after a few weeks of doing the work, that's wonderful. If that pain is due to movement patterns, you will likely do that rehabilitative work for a very long time. And if you stop, the pain may well return.
Without changing the culture of cars and chairs and flat, level surfaces to stand on, without limiting harmful footwear and sedentary-ness, restorative work will be yours (and mine) to do for the rest of our lives.
Keep doing the work. I'm right there with you.
What am I doing in this pose?
Simple questions can lead you down interesting rabbit holes.
"What are you doing in this pose?"
I ask my students this question in many varying ways. Sometimes, I ask them to notice their breath, sometimes where their weight is on their feet, sometimes their energy level. Learning what you are doing in a given pose is a central premise of my classes, my teaching, and my personal practice. When you stop to ask that question, you start to learn.
I've written about paying attention before (here's one post on the topic), but it bears repeating. When you stop to ask what's going on, you begin practicing self-awareness. Let's try it right now: What position are you in as you read this? Where is your weight? Is there tension anywhere in your body? Are you breathing? How deeply?
You don't have to know much to ask questions. You don't need to know what to do with the information you glean either. Not right away, at least. It's in the repeated asking of questions and noting what you discover that you begin to learn patterns: what positions you sit and stand in most commonly, where you hold your tension, how you breathe, etc.
There are no inherently bad movements, but there is the problem of moving in habitual ways for many years on end. This leads to misalignment as certain muscles overwork and others become atrophied from lack of use. Muscular imbalance and skeletal imbalance feed each other. You can't just address one or the other.
As you notice patterns, as you discover imbalances, you have the ability to decide what to do with that information. If a movement still serves you, fine, but if a movement pattern is leading to or has led to injury, it's time to make changes. Imagine traveling a long distance in a car. You reach an lake and need a boat. The car is not suddenly a bad vehicle. But it no longer will help you on your journey. The boat is not superior to the car. But it is necessary now that you are going to travel by water.
When you start asking questions, it is probably because you need a new vehicle, a new movement pattern. Most people come to my classes with an injury of some kind or another. As they settle into the practice, get more comfortable with the postures, the questions finally begin. "I've noticed that my knee hurts when I do this pose." "I have trouble breathing in this pose." "My hips don't move in this pose." All these revelations are the beginning of learning. At this point in the process, I can do more than lead people through shapes. I can begin to teach. Specific teachings to specific bodies.
It all starts with asking simple questions, questions that lead you to notice habits. Once you discover those movement patterns, you can discover whether and how to change them.
Commitment for the New Year
That's a big word. We all know what it means, and it is certainly true that some commitments are easier to make than others. What does it mean regarding movement?
You can commit to walking every day or going to the gym or taking a class every week. Some of us prefer the community and gentle peer pressure that comes from moving in a group or class setting. Some of us crave solitude and find we prefer to move on our own without the eyes of others upon us. Either way, when you commit to moving on a regular basis, you will find you gradually get stronger or more flexible or have greater endurance or breathing capacity from the simple act of sustained practice.
I have decided to renew my commitment to building upper body strength and increasing my shoulder mobility. Twice a week, I plan to do a limited regimen of exercises with numerous repetitions. Then I'll practice yoga and other movements on other days.
Supine pullovers with weights 10x
Hanging vertically from a chin-up bar 10 seconds, 2x
Some variant of push-ups 10x
Using a blanket on the floor, pulling from Incline to Downward Dog 5x. (This will start much smaller, working on my hands and knees first and building to the bigger version as I'm able.)
This whole set will be repeated three times for now, eventually four times.
This is a goal. It is possible I cannot do this much three times through. But I'm throwing it out there and seeing what can happen.
It is almost Rosh Hashanah. I love the Jewish New Year. It always feels like the real start of the year to me. So I'm taking this High Holiday season to start a movement commitment.
I'd love to hear: if you decide to join me, what are you going to commit to?
Too Many Ideas
In conversation with my friend and assistant, Kim, I started dipping into teaching principles I've drawn on for decades. Some come from my former dance teachers. Some from high school teachers I had. Some are ideas from my yoga teachers, Roger and Kari, and some from other yoga and movement colleagues.
So here goes. A few thoughts on pedagogy and yoga that I've adapted over 23 years of teaching:
Finally, I have taken a former dance teacher's ingredients for what makes a good dance class and transformed them for my yoga classes:
I have no idea if this list of ideas about yoga and teaching is of interest to you. But I have so many recent failed blog attempts because I had to get all this out of my head.
NOTE: Related blog post on my heretical yoga thoughts can be read here:
Watch yourself. Literally.
I often talk to my classes about taking what your learn on the mat off the mat. This has layers of meaning.
1) Discovering a movement pattern that is leading to/feeding an imbalance.
If you pay attention on the mat, you just might discover habitual movement patterns that are preventing you from recovering from an injury, causing an injury, or are creating an imbalance that may in time cause an injury. This information can be used in your outside of class time. Once you know that you externally rotate one foot, you might well spot that rotation in how you walk or how you stand when you are waiting in a line. And you just might be able to make changes to your physical habits that go beyond what you do in class.
2) Discovering an approach to your practice that may be reflected in other areas of your life.
Do you push hard through pain? Do you constantly readjust your pose? Do you move gradually toward a challenging pose? Do you poo-poo "gentler" work? Do you compare yourself to others? How much do you want to bet that you do that in other aspects of your life? (I personally wouldn't bet against that if I were you.) It's simple: If you are busy watching what everyone else is doing on the mat, you are probably doing the same in other spheres of your life. If you are pushing past your physical limits on the mat, overriding pain warnings, you probably take on too much and neglect your health off the mat as well. It is worth noting your approach in class and seeing where that same approach is showing up in the other arenas.
3) Cultivating self-awareness of one kind fosters self-awareness of other kinds
As you become more honest with yourself on the mat, don't be surprised if that spills over into your entire life. I'm not saying practicing yoga/alignment/movement will solve all your problems. It won't. But becoming clear about a fear you have or a catching a limiting way of talking about yourself can give you opportunities to change what no longer serves you on and off the mat.
Changing what no longer serves you.
That's the whole point of getting on the mat, isn't it?
We've been adding a little ground movement in all this week's classes. If you don't know what that is, basically it's movements performed sitting on the floor, lying on the floor, crawling, and transitioning from one to the other and even up to standing in all sorts of creative ways. (Click here to watch a fairly advanced series of ground movements.) We simply sat, leaning back on the hands with the knees bent and feet wide apart, and tried rocking the knees from one side to the other with a few variations added.
Because so many of us rarely sit on the floor for any length of time, most of us really struggle with this way of moving. Here's the thing: if you want to sit on the floor or do any of these ground movements, you have to do some version of them. Every day. And the best way is to simply make yourself sit on the floor.
When you sit on the floor, the first thing you notice is that you're not all that comfortable. You can't sit still for long without changing position. And that's a good thing! Humans are designed to move. Period. Moving keeps joints mobile, keeps muscles strong and flexible. That comfy couch may allow you to sit still for six hours binge-watching Atlanta (highly recommend the show), but when you finally get up, you are stiff and ache-y all over. From NOT MOVING.
Sitting on the floor for ten minutes may include as many as 10 changes of position: legs crossed, legs long, leaning on one hand or the other, legs tucked to either side, sitting up on a pillow or cushion, kneeling, and so many other variations. Switching from one to another is ... ahem ... movement! Switching positions puts different loads on your joints, extends and contracts muscles in multiple ways, introduces rotations. All those added movements change how other parts work, as well.
SITTING ON THE FLOOR IS GOOD FOR YOU!!!
As with anything else, the more you do it, the better you get at it.
So ... get down on it!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: If getting down and up off the floor is unsafe for you right now, please don't try this yet. Instead, try sitting on a hard chair and notice how you similarly will change position. A lot. Again, moving is good for you!
Why I Teach What I Teach
I'm from a family of educators and I'm a really good teacher. As a performer who sang, danced, and acted, there were certain expected paths for related employment: directing, vocal coaching, or teaching dance. I did direct a little, but that is as challenging a profession for women to succeed in as performing was. If I wanted to teach voice, I really felt I needed to go back to school which wasn't on my agenda when I had young children and was shifting away from performing. And I suck at choreography. If you can't put together good combinations, no one will take your dance class no matter how good you are at seeing bodies.
Around the time I was thinking of such possibilities, I found Ashtanga Yoga. It was helping my injured body get strong and healthy again. It had a set structure (no plotting out the class sequence), and I could get to know how individuals were progressing over time.
In my very first paying classes, I had a student with scleroderma. Her symptoms were mostly limited to her hands where the skin had no elasticity and she couldn't open her fingers up to place her palms on the floor. Could she participate? Of course! Yoga is for everyone. Or so I'd been told. But there was no manual on how to accommodate her needs. We eventually settled on a couple options (being on her forearms instead of her hands, and rolling another yoga mat up that she could curve her hands over when on all fours). That student attended my classes the entire two years I taught at that space.
I've been teaching yoga and movement for over 20 years now. The list of stuff I've made up to truly make a movement accessible to someone is long. I just figured out something yesterday for a private client who teaches figure skating. I had her bring her skates because she was experiencing a challenging and painful issue that was actually torquing her boot. I know nothing about figure skating, but I could see the difference in how she stood in the skates versus how she stood barefoot or in shoes. And right there, we figured out a micro-movement she could work on to ease the discomfort and to prevent torquing the new boots she will be purchasing next week.
As much fun as it used to be to watch someone achieve their first headstand, I find much more satisfaction helping someone not hurt at their job. When I hear that a student/client can now get down to and up off the floor which allows them to play with grandchildren, or that their back pain is gone, or that walking all day (at a museum, on a vacation, at an event) no longer makes their hips/knees/feet hurt --- when I hear of those successes, I feel my work is truly changing lives.
I don't want to diminish how exciting it is to help someone achieve a goal such as a headstand or a fancy yoga pose. It's really cool. But yoga should make your day better. So figuring out how that client could teach skating and not hurt is why I do this. It's why my classes skew older and/or injured. And it's why I still say, it's all yoga!
Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.