Saturday, December 4, 2010

what's up with alignment?

Ashtanga occasionally gets a bad rap for not paying attention to alignment.  It moves really fast, only five breaths per posture, so there isn't a ton of time for adjustments and detailed description.  You are literally supposed to enter and leave the posture on one breath.  The Primary Series also contains many challenging postures that require open hips and shoulder.  When practiced without awareness to alignment, the knees, wrists and shoulders take a beating.  Then there are also the folks who let their egos get the best of them and push too far in order to reach what they believe is the ideal posture.  They ignore their whining knees and shoulders and eventually get really hurt.

Then there's the different approaches to alignment.  The senior teachers will teach a posture with attention to one thing.  Then Mysore changed the approach to the posture and their successors teach with attention to something else.  Confused students receive contradictory instructions from different teachers.  That's not even to speak of the people who approach Ashtanga informed by other styles of yoga - Iyengar, Forrest, etc.

In my personal practice, I enjoy exploring alignment especially when I learn something new from a teacher I hadn't practiced with before.  Doing this has made me stronger. For instance in Urdva Dhanurasana I could easily take my heels with assistance from the second month I was doing Mysore practice.  However, when a teacher demonstrated to me that I was doing that by allowing my feet to go way out to the sides duck style and that my legs and core were actually quite weak in the pose, I began to explore ways to strengthen those areas, keep the feet parallel, and build a better posture.

When teaching, I give basic alignment cues - which direction should the toes point, where should your hands go, how much should the knees bend, etc.  But my philosophy is that the student should be comfortable and challenged and moving energy.  If they look like they might hurt themselves, I'll give alignment corrections.  If an alignment correction can help the student become more aware, I'll also give it.  After all, this is a practice based on the connection of movement and breath.  That's where I prefer to focus my attention.

When asked about which way was the "right" way to perform a certain posture, one of my teachers said, "well what do you want to feel?"  If you perform the posture with attention to one thing - for example, catching your toe in uttita triconasana, you receive the benefit of the bind, but you might not receive the opening in the hip.  So be aware of the difference and even practice the pose differently on different days depending on what you want to receive from the posture.

Teachers teach from their own experience.  I've been very fortunate to only get injured once by the practice.  I slipped a rib when I was first learning supta kurmasana.  As I was healing, I began to pay particular attention to the bandhas during my vinyasas.  I discovered that when I was aware of them and actively using them the pain in my ribs would subside. I continued to practice in this way and have remained injury free.  I use this information in my teaching.  In the end, I think that this is the same way that most teachers choose the points they focus on in class.

I guess what I'm getting to is that yes, alignment is important.  But not everyone will agree on it.  It can be a great tool to inform your practice and prevent injury. But it is not the only tool to use nor is it the most important one.

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