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.
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Deep, and not so deep, thoughts on bodies, movement, yoga, art, shoes, parenting, dogs. You know, life.