“Final pose is achieved when all the parts of the body are positioned correctly, with full awareness and intelligence.”
The Path to Holistic Health – BKS Iyengar
Looking at alignment in the context of the structure of poses – it’s when the bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, skin and organs all work in unison to be positioned correctly in a pose. This is thought to be the ultimate goal of any asana (pose), but alignment of the body alone is not the goal, the elements of thought and consciousness need to be integrated to the pose too. However, for most of us, finding the “perfection” in every pose, or even one pose is a far-off dream. Even though it may not be possible to find this perfection in alignment, we still strive for it, no matter how impossible it may seem – and so we should. This article looks at what elements are involved with alignment on the mat and how this translates to the world off the mat. Alignment is a huge subject and I don’t intend to cover everything in this article but rather to draw on the similarities of finding alignment within our practice and within our lives.
Asana trains and disciplines the mind. We learn to align thought with action. We learn to align action with intention. We use the senses of perception and our organs of action to unify the mind, intellect and body towards the soul. In performing asanas the goal is to bring all the bodies together, the anatomical body (the limbs and the actual parts of the body), the physical body (the bones, muscles, skin and tissue), the physiological body (the organs) and finally the psychological body (the nerves, brain and intellect). Spreading awareness to all parts of the body, brings a deep insight and meditative quality to practicing asanas, therefore asanas should not be performed mechanically.
Throughout our lives, we naturally align with or befriend people that we share similar interests with. We play sports or join clubs where we can show off or grow our skills, interests or beliefs. We generally migrate towards people and activities with whom we share a common vision. This gives us a sense of shared purpose. When there is this sort of connection, we feel enriched, encouraged and empowered. Our intentions and actions are aligned.
In contrast to this, when we make decisions and pursue relationships or ventures that are not aligned with our deepest intentions – success and peace elude us. We are often left with a sense of being unfulfilled, frustration and possibly depression and anger. Somehow the body knows this but more often than not, the mind takes a while to make this connection. I’ve been in situations before where I was working in an environment that I didn’t enjoy and it didn’ t make me happy. Or rather, I couldn’t find contentment within the situation – even when I tried hard to change my attitude, I was never able to really make a significant shift in attitude. So how do I know that this situation wasn’t the one I should have been in? I got sick, really often. My immune system was very weak and often I felt hopeless, frustrated and trapped. Of course it’s easy to see in hindsight these obvious messages, but at the time, when you are in the situation, often the truth is too much handle. It was too overwhelming to comprehend, to intimidating and daunting to change and I took the stance of “rather the devil I know…..”. Change takes courage and energy – and often, when we most need these resources, we don’t seem to have access to them.
We can see this mirrored on the mat. When we encounter a challenging pose that we think we are not strong enough to perform, not flexible enough to do, we become frustrated and hopeless, even angry. We think to ourselves “I’m NEVER going to be able to do this, I’m wasting my time.” or “What’s wrong with me that I can’t do this?”
It’s just too hard or too intimidating. So, sometimes, we give up – often the moment when we are about to give up, is usually the moment we can make a break through.
The secret of alignment is that it requires a process. A process involving intention, consistent effort and clarity but most of all, patience. Small steps, with awareness. Sometimes alignment comes easy and it flows but we also have to be open to the possibility that sometimes, in order to achieve alignment, there will be obstacles in our path. This doesn’t mean the path is wrong. It’s important to be able to discern when the difficulties you encounter are because you are on the wrong path or whether the obstacles are there as you break through thoughts that hold you back from your dreams – from your true alignment, your final pose.
“In asana you must align and harmonize the physical body and all the layers, or sheaths, of the subtle emotional, mental, and spiritual body. This is integration. But how does one align these layers and experience integration? How does one find such profound transformation in what from the outside may look simply like stretching or twisting the body into unusual positions? It begins with awareness.”
Light on Life – BKS Iyengar
TAKING THE LEAP OF FAITH
When I finally mustered up the courage to make the change and leave my job (granted it was my wonderfully supportive husband who encouraged this as I was so miserable I was paralysed), I was terrified. I was also disillusioned and burnt out. It took months for me to recover from it, I went through a process of questioning everything. I doubted my ability to make decisions which would be in my best interest. Finally, after some months and a change in city, environment and returning to yoga – I was able to heal and move forward with confidence again.
Often the idea of change, the anticipation of the “pain” of the change, the fear – is worse than the reality. After all, what could actually be worse than being in a situation that is making you terribly unhappy, ill or even broke? In these cases, it’s important to find a way to return to “the source”, to your inner wisdom, your gut feel about what you should do – not the nagging voices of fear and doubt. This requires the process of change and a shift in alignment.
Changing ideas, re-evaluating ideals and seeing things from a new perspective can challenge us and make us question everything, whether this scary change is right for us, even when deep inside, we know it is. I don’t want to be judgmental or advocate to any right or wrong lifestyle, but one example that come to mind here is quitting something addictive like smoking. It’s indisputable that smoking is unhealthy and bad for us but the addiction and the craving when stopping can initially make the process feel all wrong. The obstacles of the withdrawal of nicotine from the body and the psychological cravings, can feel too much to overcome and the challenge too big to bear.
Another example of where change would feel like an enormous obstacle, is an abusive or a co-dependent relationship. When you are with someone who is not aligned with your life’s goals or you are unsupported and held back from pursuing what you want. These relationships can become too “convenient” or “ comfortable”, where it seems easier to bear the discomfort and carry on, rather than go through the trauma and effort of a break up to free oneself from the pain.
SO THE QUESTION IS, WHAT DOES ALIGNMENT TEACH US?
If we relate this back to asana, we tend to perform asanas relying on our stronger, more flexible areas – under utilising our weaker areas. This causes pain in the weaker and can strain the overused areas. This not only perpetuates an imbalance in the body, but the mind too. Calmness and equanimity eludes us as we agitate our nervous system by pushing through the pain and not listening to our bodies. So too will peace elude us if we remain in situations that aren’t helping us grow and only cause suffering. We live life less fully.
In asana, correct alignment brings about a healing process in the body. When the frame of the body, it’s muscles and joints are all in harmony, it brings about a calmness in the nervous system and allows the mind to become quiet. This helps us become closer to Samadhi (enlightenment, the 8th limb of Ashtanga yoga – as prescribed by Patanjali, (Patanjali is an Indian sage who is said to have given us the knowledge of yoga in a collection of verses called the Sutras of Patanjali).
Iyengar yoga is one of the styles of yoga that focuses on proper alignment, in order to awaken and strengthen weaker areas which will bring harmony and balance to our bodies as well as our minds. By practicing poses with a focus and awareness on correct anatomical alignment, aches, pains and illness can be healed. Less effort is required, less strain on the body and it’s various systems which allows more ease of movement and increased peace of mind and calmness. Attention to alignment invites more self awareness and a deeper inward reflection.
Finding alignment in your life, be it with your body on the mat or socially with hobbies or relationships, will absolutely lead you towards a more fulfilling and peaceful life. But first, as with most journeys, you need to know a little about yourself.
The next article will focus on Going deeper – how yoga facilitates the journey within to our internal universe.