Alignment is a bit of a buzz word in yoga these days. More and more styles and studios teach "alignment-focused" asana classes, and yet the physical practice of yoga still varies widely.
So what is alignment? Is it whatever a particular teacher or lineage says it is? Well, to put it simply, yeah, it kind of is.
"Alignment" as a category is merely an organizing principle within a system that keeps that system operating smoothly. Different approaches therefore end up with different principles of alignment. As best I understand, Iyengar yoga uses props and specific asana shapes to help students move continuously deeper into the capacity of their bodies. Ashtanga yoga lets the ease of breath determine whether or not a student's posture needs to change. Those are just two examples among dozens, the effects of any of these on you and your practice will be just as varied as the practices themselves.
ISHTA Yoga combines appreciation of anatomical alignment with a deep understanding of energetic alignment so that the physical body is kept steady and spacious, which allows an easy flow of not only movement through joints, tissues, nerves, etc, but also of prana (life force) through the subtle body. Anatomical alignment is any alignment that allows the normal functioning of the body to continue unimpeded without damage to any system (musculoskeletal, circulation, digestion, etc). Energetic alignment is similarly any alignment that allows free flow of the electricity that animates us!
Those are pretty broad definitions, so ISHTA teachers "break down" the skeleton into seven segments as a means to organize how they direct postural alignment. Each of these segments also corresponds with a chakra (energy center along the spine): segment 1, the legs and feet, corresponds with the first chakra; segment 2, the pelvis, corresponds with the second chakra; and so on. We typically address postural alignment from the foundation up (e.g., the feet up in tadasana/standing, the forearms up in headstand), paying careful attention to "ripple effects", because the alignment in one segment will by definition effect the alignment of at least the segments above and/or below.
In my experience, any misalignment, any imbalance of space or strength, effects your entire system in some way. Luckily, by the same token, one small shift to improve alignment will also begin to effect the whole system. (Our bodies are SUPER SMART.) Very often, I will guide a student to change her foot placement in order to create a shift in her hips and spine --a shift I don't necessarily need to ask for explicitly because she goes ahead and reorganizes her body to a comfortable position above the new foundation.
I love this approach because it is fairly intuitive once you have some appreciation for the skeleton and its structure. It also reminds me that before you change anything else in yourself, it can be useful to set a good foundation for the shift that's about to occur. You end up taking smooth steps of change rather than tumbling into an earthquake of change (which can be just as educational!).
I am also a student of the Alexander Technique (AT). AT helps students discover unconscious postural habits and then gradually “undo” those habits by, quite "simply", not doing them. AT teachers use hands-on guidance to help students identify the habits that need undoing, and while there is certainly space for foundation up adjustments, AT teachers typically address imbalances by starting with the head and neck. When the head doesn't balance evenly on top of the spine, it's a foregone conclusion that compression (lack of space) elsewhere in the body will be evident. Just as you need a strong foundation for shifting into your tallest, broadest, strongest self, you also need all the space that you can occupy available to you to fill! If a student's head sits forward of her neck or schlumps down, her skeleton does not have its full vertical height to organize into.
Having the benefit of an ISHTA and AT education, I teach "alignment" using both poles of "space making". Set your foundation so you can grow. Free your head so you can reach your greatest potential. And in the middle --well, your body will know exactly what to do. I've learned over the years from my AT study and my meditation practice that they key aligning myself is to undo unconscious patterns. That's not easy; it takes a deep consciousness of self and a willingness to let go of habits with which I have long identified. But if we can all commit to getting to know ourselves, the rest --the alignment of our bones and the energy that flows through them-- will take care of itself. That's the intelligence of evolution and the universe at work for you!
hari om tat sat!
When I first started studying the Alexander Technique, I overdid everything. AT helps students discover unconscious postural habits and then gradually and through a teacher's help, "undo" those habits by not doing them. AT students don't learn to "do" some new thing to correct their habits and they aren't taught how to "fix" their habits, but instead guided to an awareness of said habits as unnecessary actions in the body that they can "simply" stop doing.
If I were to spend part of every day schlumping in a chair, it's likely my back and abdominal muscles would get used to the shape that would result and remember the shape as "normal," returning to it by default even when not sitting in a chair. Imagine this schlumped posture becomes part of my standing posture and my walking gait, and eventually results in back pain. Let's look at two ways to address my condition:
Scenario A - I go to a physical therapist
Using the tools of her profession, the PT would assess the range of mobility in my joints and the strength of my muscles. Likely, she'd discover that my abdominal muscles were short/tight and weak (from disuse and chronic shortening) and my back and outer hip muscles were long/tight and weak (from disuse and chronic lengthening). She'd assign some manner of core strengthening (abdominal + back muscles) and manual release or stretching for the tight spots. She would assign the opposite activity that the muscles were currently experiencing to bring everything back to being able to fully support the spine.
Scenario B - I go to an Alexander Technique teacher
Using the tools of her profession, the Alexander teacher would work through some observations of my posture and movement and response to hands-on guidance. She would point out my habit of pulling my pelvis forward and under and use hands-on to guide my pelvis and spine to as neutral an alignment as would be possible on the first day. She'd likely instruct me not to get attached to the feeling of the new posture (because it will feel weird, not like normal), and help me understand what I'm doing (pulling pelvis under) that I can begin to undo. That would be my homework. As often as possible, observe myself in my habit and then cease doing it. Gradually over time, this undoing would result in a change in my muscles (greater balance in the useable length and strength of all the core/back muscles) and neutral would to come feel normal and be manageable as a conscious choice for long periods of standing, walking, and sitting
But I was born a doer. An introverted do-it-all-by-myself kinda doer, but nonetheless someone who wants to control the change I seek. Needless to say, the "undoing" of AT was a frustrating challenge for me. I struggled with it for months: I could observe my habits, but not "undo" them - instead, I wanted to do what I thought created the "fix" in order to create "correct" posture. This fixing established new patterns of mind-imposed ideas of right and wrong in my body, where AT proposes that ease of moving and being is the "natural" state we return to if unconscious and limiting patterns are removed. To help me learn and embody this lesson of removing patterns through undoing, my teacher suggested that I think of allowing. Rather than doing the undoing (which I had turned into just one more kind of "doing"), allow the undoing to happen. This was pivotal for me. Everything began to fall into place after that, and allowing has been key to my evolution towards self understanding.
Sankalpa is an intention you allow into your living.
Allowing your most essential self/nature to emerge and lead you through life takes a fair amount (ok, a lot a lot) of conscious effort. It's not easy to undo the programming that we acquire growing up, being part of society, and figuring out how to live.
Allowing does not mean just do whatever you feel like doing. Very often urges come out of the trappings of patterns which, though they may be serving us well, may also not be. The trick is that when our behavior stems from habits, they are almost by definition unconscious and it is difficult to tell where they originate from and what they're doing to us.
Allowing means doing the hard work of learning to recognize your patterns. Build awareness and establish practices that undo those unconscious habits to make room for deeper, fuller knowledge of your self --make room for the gradual building of new patterns that fuel rather than confuse your life lived in harmony with this self.
Sankalpa, literally an intention from deep within, uses a somewhat involved meditation to put this clearing out, discovering, and setting yourself on a clear "path" of living (joy)fully into a step by step process that anyone can do. Each new year, Alan and Sarah Finger offer a sankalpa workshop to guide the ISHTA community through this meditation. It's an incredible two hour process that, very much like working through the Alexander Technique, uses movement and kriya to first clear blockages from your energetic system, then employs a deep internal attention to allow a sankalpa (intention) to come up (it doesn't necessarily always do so on one go, sometimes it takes several days of repeating the process for a sankalpa to become clear), and then uses meditation and samyama to plant that sankalpa into your deepest unconscious, so that you can move through the year ahead, living out this intention from a place of allowing rather than doing or forcing.
I've done the workshop three times in the past four years --and the year that I missed, I was still riding the wave of the intention from the year prior-- and there's nothing magical about it. That is, the meditation is completely magical, but not in false or unbelievable way. I have walked away each time moved, humbled, and in awe of the honest simplicity of my sankalpa. Throughout the years past, I have watched my sankalpa unfold into my life, again, not as if by magic, but through my attention to it, an attention that is spontaneous and genuine. And because it comes from a deep desire (not one I've taken on because of magazine ads or peer pressure or family expectations), I can say I've lived out my new year's intentions with great success... by allowing them in.
I hope you discover deep and true intentions flooding into your life this year!
hari om tat sat!
Today, one of my students seemed surprised to learn that I, like she, am working through knee and back pain.
Yes, even yoga teachers walk around with aches and pains. We are pretty darn human 😉
Why is it that being human causes us physical pain? Why are we sooo susceptible to habits that hurt us? And I'm not even talking about the obvious stuff like drugs, alcohol, and mindless eating. I'm talking about how by sitting too low in my chair, my wrists are strained as I type this and even though I'm in pain, I still haven't gotten up to get something to make myself sit higher.....
Ok, I got a cushion, and yes, being propped up higher in relationship to the keyboard is better for my wrists. I really hated getting up, though. Why is that? I knew the solution was five feet away (half the battle) and yet I wanted to plow through the pain and then have it magically disappear without my having to do anything. Really it's a little bit more complicated than that (ain't it always?): adding the cushion to my seat means my feet don't comfortably reach the floor, so then I prop my feet up on my chair legs, which creates tension in my hip flexors and strain in my feet. Arrrrgh! All we're talking about here is me sitting at my desk writing this blog, and it's full of whining and butting and nothing being perfect.
No wonder I have back pain, knee pain, and wrist pain.
So, what can I do to address these oh-so-large problems of mine?
Yes and no. Here's what I need to do all that stuff above:
This isn't the first time I've touted the benefits of the Alexander Technique (AT), an approach that is suspiciously difficult to describe generically, but here's a nutshell for my purposes: AT teaches you to let your body move with the greatest efficiency possible (or not move, in the case of maintaining a position).
AT is not a quick fix, it is not, for most, easy to learn, and it is a lifelong practice. I've been studying it for over three years and I feel like I've only just started to "get" it. Maybe. But the grand thing is that in that "maybe," there have been enormous changes in my body and how I walk, sit, and move in general. Many of my chronic pains are now manageable -- meaning not that I can handle the pain, but that I can manage how I use my body to prevent or reduce pain, or, at the very least, ease muscle + joint pain away with movement and rest once it creeps back in. AT isn't solely responsible for this --yoga tools are a big part of it, too. But more often than not, what I learn from AT informs my practice of yoga, rather than the other way around (unless it is to notice overlapping intentions and effects).
That's what I told my student today. It's in the lifelong, daily maintenance practices from AT knowledge and yoga tools that I keep my pain-inducing habits at bay and no longer walk around frustrated by my back pain. I know what to do now, whether or not I get up off my lazy bum to do it. Awareness is the first step. Knowledge is the second. Action must always accompany it or nothing will change. (But please allow for change to also happen slowly over time as needed! Demanding too much of oneself is a fast track to overwhelm.)
I would love for you to take action now by 1). noticing how you're sitting or standing as you read this (can you feel anything holding or tightening that doesn't need to be?), and 2). letting me know what questions you have about the Alexander Technique and yoga in the comments below.
And if you want those questions answered through your own experiences, you should check out the workshop that my AT teacher (Amira Glaser) and I have put together on applying the Alexander Technique to your yoga practice. It's gonna be one pretty fabulous September afternoon (Saturday the 8th) of learning, experiencing, and discussing said learning + experiencing. You'll walk away with a whole new take on asana!
Until then, hari om tat sat, my friends!
I'm a little obsessive in nature. If something captures my interest (and it doesn't hurt if it's something that can be followed via a course of study), I will pour nearly all of my energy and attention into it. I've never had hobbies, just life-consuming obsessions that I try to parlay into full-time studentry and/or jobs. Hence my love of the Alexander Technique.
How I understand the Alexander Technique is as a tool for creating balance in the body, but not one that you exercise for an hour every day and then leave be. Well, maybe in the beginning you do, you certainly can, but really it's meant to be in practice all the time, so that you can undo "unnatural" or harmful patterns of how you use your own body to move or carry yourself (sitting, standing, etc) throughout the day, making way for your body to move at its most efficient, with an awareness of the whole system. I don't want to get in to it too deeply, but just offer it as an example of a manner of learning and living that is in practice, in play, at all times, that seems to come through "just" the physical body.
I think this is particularly challenging for many people, especially those not entirely obsessed with their own moving body, because it seems like one manner of doing and not an array of approaches that is applicable to the many areas of one's life. Being a body person (major geek), I love spending all day paying attention to what my body is doing, and I do believe the physical body (which has as part of it the energetic and mental bodies, too!) and one's use of it is applicable to ANY area of life. That said, I get that it can help to parse out physical, energetic, and mental as separate if connected bodies. Which means you might want different ways to work with each of them. And this is where I really begin to appreciate the study and practice of yoga.
Yoga is oneness.
Now, I'll bet you're asking yourself, what does that even mean?
I'm still defining it as a ya-know-it-when-you-feel-it kinda thing, because I don't have the proper words for it. But the yogis way back when were a bit more systematic than I am. They got obsessed and then they went and built a system of tools that ANYONE can put to use to find that oneness (even if we don't all describe it or experience it in the same way).
Lucky for us, the collection of tools addresses practicing yoga with all of our bodies (all of our one body), offering physical postures (asana, most of these being perhaps quite a bit more recently developed, but equally relevant), breathing practices (pranayama), meditation techniques, and rules/guides/suggestions (the yamas/niyamas, among others found in yoga philosophy) for living peacefully and gracefully with others and within any environment. Et voila, you can practice your yoga via physical, energetic, mental, and social bodies!
By covering all angles (is that all of them? you tell me), more of us will find it more accessible to make this yoga practice infuse every moment of your living. (This is not to make every moment about work, but rather a balance of effort, ease, and joy.)
Of course, yoga just as a lifelong practice, it is also a lifelong study, meaning it does and should take some time to learn these tools (and there is no such thing as perfecting them, only practice). No one should dive in to the whole kit and caboodle at once -- start where you are most comfortable. For some that means asana, for others contemplation and inward reflection, for others new codes by which to carry out daily actions.
But remember that if you're stuck in one body, you might try getting un-stuck through a different one. If you can't solve a problem in your head, get on your mat. If your body can't take another sun salutation, think it through rather than doing it. If your emotions are running wild, breathe slowly and pause without thinking (for just a brief moment or sit in meditation for longer).
Whatever you're doing, however you approach it, remember to breathe and practice moving towards balance, in everything.
Speaking of which, I've been sitting at this computer a while and need to get moving again!
Till next time, om shanti, om tat sat.
I never imagined identifying beauty would be on the bill of an Ayurvedaworkshop I attended recently, but ever so casually, the endearing Vasant Lad, yogi and Ayurvedic teacher extraordinnaire, slipped it in there. Very simply, the moment of awareness of beauty is an experience "of yoga, of stilling clarity beyond the individual self."
This makes perfect sense to me because, as Lad explained, it's a moment without definition. Knowing it (defining it, creating it, going to war over it, and so on) through perception is something we do with our identity, the self that moves through life relating and connecting to others. In Sanskrit + yoga, that identity is ahamkara, and it is the perspective from which an individual moves through life.
It is tempting to take this information and run in all kinds of mushy, touchy-feely directions drawing connections between identity and heart, self and love, etc etc, or one could simply acknowledge that the connection exists and is a powerful one. I'm not one to tend to share my innermost thoughts or feelings, but I have in the past year been struck by a rather intense awareness of my sternum (i.e. at the front gate of the heart center) and a radiating energy that emanates from underneath it.
My tendency (postural habit) is to let my sternum bone (manubrium! #anatomygeek) fall in towards my center body. When I pay attention to it, when I'm indulging in the action, I should say, it can feel like I'm squishing my heart. If I do as yoga advises to open the heart center and go in the opposite direction (into a backbend), my back muscles contract to pull my (thoracic) spine into extension (arch back), and it feels like my heart is being pushed up against my sternum, also in a manner of reducing the space around it. Either action feels good to me because it offers a strong sensation of extremity, of reaching into myself and beyond myself.
When I instead practice allowing my sternum to float and my back to widen (and my neck to lengthen so that my head can be easily supported on top of my spine... these are all Alexander Technique terms here, and my study of it (with the lovely Amira Glaser) has become essential to my understanding of human anatomy and movement and is infused in my approach to directing my yoga students to find their best alignment), I make space in my chest and torso - for breath, for the movements of the heart, for the movements of the internal organs, for movement to reach into the rest of the body.
The sensation is terrifying.
All that room for little ol' me to be me.
That's beauty, too.
And it's also the extent of my mushy for the week. Take it as you need it and go find some space - literally! - for your own jiva atman to shine.
Then come back and tell me about it in the comments! I would love to hear your stories of back bends, forward bends, and finding your heart center.
hari om, om tat sat.
Core. Center. Kanda. Dantien. Pelvic Bowl.
When we move, we are best served by moving from our power source. It has many names, but its location seems to be widely agreed upon, with so many systems landing in the same place through years of observation and exploration of the human body in motion. Our power center (as I like to call it, though I hardly think I came up with this term) is located at our center of gravity, in the pelvic bowl region, at about 55% of one's height (from ground up; statistic found in Hackney, 121).
In various Eastern systems of movement + wholeness (Chinese medicine, martial arts, Thai massage, yoga etc), the importance of this center is not in the physical body, the muscles and bones, but rather in the subtle body, as it is the location of the lower body energy center, known as dantien in many martial arts (I was introduced to it through Thai massage) and kanda in yoga. (Kanda can be translated as bulbous root and is said to be the source of the nadis, the energy lines that run throughout the body. It is specified in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as being about 9 inches high, 3 inches wide. Fun!)
In my dance studies, influenced by Bartenieff Fundamentals, I was taught to move from the core, connecting all movement through this lower center. It is the site of crossover between lower and upper body via the very powerful psoas muscle (and others, of course).
Pilates, about which I admittedly don't know that much (other than what I've observed from doing the exercises with a teacher), seems to operate on the principle that one should keep this lower abdominal area, and all connections from the body to it, strong, in order to move fluidly (i.e., with strength and suppleness).
I have even found in my studies of the Alexander Technique, which teaches us to lead movement in our spines with the head, an author who subscribes to the idea of the pelvis or ˜centre' in generating movement power, acknowledging the difference between leading movement and moving from: This area is the wellspring of life and the centre to our vital energy. To liberate and apply its full power, however, we must first free our necks. ¦ In other words, the pelvis is centraland the head-neck is primary (Gelb, 155). (More on the Alexander Technique in its relationship to movement to come in future posts.)
This past week, I having been working on awakening some awareness of this lovely power center (both in my and my students' practices), and it is rather easy to see why Irmgard Bartenieff referred to this area as The Dead Seven Inches (Hackney, 120) (in looking at Americans at any rate). Our cultural habits of posture and activity (or lack thereof) focus heavily on the limbs and leave the center spilling out or shrinking in. And once you've lost touch with your power center from years and years of habit, it is difficult to find it again. It takes practice to start moving differently, to move with awareness and from a place of connection throughout the body. But we all need to do that. Our movement will be more fluid and strong, our bodies more balanced, our minds at greater peace, all by letting the body operate as its structure dictates most efficient, and this includes letting the reach of your arm be supported by connection through your lower center all the way to your foot. In fact, try it!
The next time you reach for something, let your fingers lead your arm and at the same time imagine a line of energy (or, if it is easier, of muscles + connective tissue) that crosses your torso to your lower abdomen, and then spirals down your leg for a connection with the ground (or whatever you're sitting/standing on). You may or may not feel anything, you might end up feeling awkward or that you're thinking more than moving, or you might awaken a little bit of your self awareness.
Start where you are, the practice is only as valuable as it is present. (Your future self is no one. You are only yourself in this moment.) But please do start! Start noticing, start observing, start finding connections to your physical body that inform your energetic body, your mental body, your whole self.
And let me know what you uncover.
Om shanti, om tat sat.
Some sources that contributed to this post (confirming, inspiring, educating my words)!