Alignment Maligned: The Baby and the Bathwater

There’s been an article circulating around yogi social media circles today that’s ruffled a few (normally) well-aligned feathers: “Six Reasons You Should Stop Obsessing Over Alignment in Yoga Class” by Maya Devi Georg.  I came across it on Facebook this morning, actually through Matthew Remski’s comments on the article. It touches several nerves connected to current debates on how to make yoga safer, how we relate to our physical bodies, and what is the true significance of this practice.

The quotables from Georg’s article include:

“Obsessing on alignment keeps all the emphasis on the asana and the body. It also emphasizes a level of detail that will neither prevent injury nor make the pose more visually appealing.”

And somehow also this: “When a teacher over-talks, giving far too many details about the alignment of a pose, it takes the student out of their body and into their mind.”  (Wait, where are we stuck? Body or mind?)

And, my favorite: “If you must wait to master one pose before you can begin working on another, you will wait, sometimes for years, while your body loses flexibility and strength. Besides, how long do you want to work on tadasana?”  (Tadasana is Mountain Pose, for those who’ve forgotten your Sanskrit.)

Clearly, the article was meant to be a bit provocative (it includes a little profanity and a lot of attitude), and I admit my first reaction to it was a bit snarky. Here’s my comment on Matthew Remski’s Facebook thread: “I don’t get the sense that she’d be interested in this (see comment “How long do you want to work on Tadasana…”), but if she wants to forget about alignment and just meditate, it sounds like she should just sit down on a zafu and get to it!”

Ok, maybe that was a little harsh, because I don’t know her, and maybe she is serious about meditation. But since the article brought up Patanjali, I think it’s fair to guess that the asanas he had in the back of his mind when writing “the pose should be steady and easeful” looked more like this:

meditatingmodel-on-red-cushion1

than this:

crazy_yogapose

That’s an educated guess, because Patanjali actually did not describe any physical postures in the Yoga Sutras (c. 150 CE), and the related commentary text Yoga-Bhashya, written by Vyasa in the 5th Century, details 11 asanas, all of which seem to be seated meditation postures.

Putting that aside, I actually agree with some of Georg’s points, but not the conclusions she draws from them. Even though it is challenging to teach alignment in a well-integrated way, that does not mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater.

It really IS challenging to teach alignment without being overly technical and cerebral, inadvertently encouraging students to remain stuck “in their heads.”  But this doesn’t mean alignment instruction has to be a distraction. Ideally, there is a huge sensory aspect to learning alignment. Students shouldn’t be looking around saying “Am I doing this right?” but rather feeling into the pose to discover how any particular alignment principle applies to them.

And, there definitely ARE lots of anatomical variations – ranging from actual skeletal differences that no amount of yoga will change, to injuries or muscular imbalances that may prevent the full realization of a particular alignment principle on any given day. But that’s OK, because alignment is not really supposed to be about aesthetics. Yoga teachers are not sculptors!  And alignment is not about making each person meet some universal standard – in order to truly be safe, it must make allowances for students’ actual bodies and meet them where they are.

In my experience, students (myself included) do not always know when they are misaligned in a pose. It may or may not feel “off.” Sometimes we don’t understand right away what a pose is about, what parts of the body it is targeting, and what alignment would mean in that pose unless someone teaches us how to envision and FEEL it.  And, when all the body weight is dumping into the arms in Downward Facing Dog, and a teacher helps you with that, it is an act of compassion. When a teacher makes you work on Dolphin Pose for a long, long time before teaching you Headstand, that is also compassion.  And smart. And safer for your neck, which is no small thing.

Alright…this rant is almost finished, but here are a few of my thoughts about alignment, which I hope will be the quotables from this article:

Alignment in yoga is key to safety, but it has power beyond that. Taught well, it can awaken unconscious, dormant, underused parts of the body (and mind).

Proper alignment can sometimes feel foreign, even uncomfortable, at first. “Familiar” is not the same as “aligned” because yoga is supposed to expose our habits.  This is one way in which yoga is more about undoing than doing.

Focusing in on a subtle point of alignment can be an excellent way to develop concentration, rather than a distraction. Alignment should help to bring the body and mind together, or in other words, heal the “body/mind split” most of us are living with.

I respect that there are other approaches and perspectives, and especially Georg’s intention to make the asana practice more of a meditation.

But, how long do I want to work on Tadasana?  For the rest of my life! It will be useful as long as standing upright is part of my daily repertoire…and standing still is actually a great way to meditate.

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8 responses to “Alignment Maligned: The Baby and the Bathwater

  1. The problem is that we are teaching something that was meant to be one on one to bigger and bigger groups(me included). If we taught one person at a time or small groups, you could give individualized alignment cues, but in a big group you go general. What is happening is that teachers are trying to get to specific in these huge groups. In a big group, unfortunately, the teacher only has the ability to get people as close to the pose as possible in a general way and the students have to learn how to connect to their own bodies and feel what is right.

    • Hi Shanna, thanks for the comment! I agree that oversized classes are part of the problem. That’s why it’s so important to give those general alignment cues, then check in on individual students and help them make the alignment their own. There needs to be a little one-on-one attention, even in the group class – teachers have to get off their own mats and walk around.

  2. Hey Addie,

    Just saw this in my news feed today.
    Love your quotable “Yoga is supposed to expose our habits..[and] heal the ‘body/mind split’ most of us are living with.”

    I totally agree! Rejecting the body because it’s not “spiritual” or “internal” widens the chasm rather than helping integrate the different pieces of “us.” Awareness can flow through whatever lens we choose to focus it.

    PS .. I wrote this response to the same article-
    http://yoganonymous.com/6-reasons-alignment-yoga-class-matters-think/

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I am still working on Tadasana too. It’s really challenging for me.

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