Why "Alignment" In Yoga Is Overrated

Written by Sam Berlind

I’ve been thinking about the concept of alignment lately, how it’s understood and used in teaching and practicing yoga. Some examples of how people think:

‘In the context of yoga the main focus of touch is on bodily alignment and improvement.’

‘Teachers touch students to help them align better. We all know that. What many practitioners don’t realize is that sometimes they’re so out of alignment that they might actually hurt themselves.‘

‘Posture alignment refers to how your muscles are integrated and bones are aligned to support your body for optimal movement during exercise. The aim of good posture alignment is to establish a solid foundation with your body so you can support your limbs, back, and head while you exercise. You want your body to be safe, secure, and able to expand more fully and freely during each exercise.’

And from the other end of the yoga theory spectrum:

‘Instead of postural forms (static asanas, immobile seating positions) taking preeminence in the bodily worship, it is the individual animating spirit . . energy-based, spontaneous yoga is also vividly apparent in the developmental movements and perpetual stretchings of infants. That is action of the body in which reason takes no part and which does not originate as an idea springing in the mind. To speak simply, yogis perform actions with their bodies, like the movements of children. . .’

What do we imply when we ‘correct’ the alignment or posture of a yoga student through touch or word?

- that there are universal principles of yogic alignment that we ‘know’ and that we can and should be teaching others.

- that the goal of yoga practice is to gain or regain some kind of perfect symmetry or balance, that there exists a perfect pose waiting for us to master.

Sounds kind of extreme when we put it this way. Think of how we first learn how to move as babies and children, not through the instructions of others but by spontaneously experimenting, playing with similar movements again and again until we find the way that works for us, to reach for our mothers, to crawl, to walk. A healthy kid doesn’t want to be corrected, she wants to do it and figure it out for herself. We teach ourselves yoga the same way. (For some students the biggest challenge in a yoga class is how to ignore the teacher.)

Can your yoga teacher possibly know as much as you do about how you feel and function or about how, exactly, you should rotate a shoulder or tilt your pelvis or place your foot to move more easily and comfortably? As a yoga teacher consider that you are in a relationship with the student whose posture you may have the urge to correct and ask yourself: have I succeeded in changing someone else in my (non-yoga) life through my intentions and 'superior knowledge'? Touch is wonderful when it isn't manipulative.

Considering this from a different perspective (of someone teaching and practicing shiatsu for 27 years:

In classes with my advanced shiatsu students we invite guests to be models for sessions. They choose to lie down in some position (supine, prone, side, head and limbs turned or angled as they wish) and, invariably, students attempt to ‘correct’ the positions their models choose even before starting the ‘treatment’. I point out that we are perfectly self-expressive through our bodies, both consciously and unconsciously, and that their ‘clients’ have just diagnosed themselves spontaneously through their postural choices. In sleep we heal ourselves unconsciously – imagine telling someone what position they should attempt to sleep in. 'Don't tell your clients what to do', I tell them, 'Take care of yourselves and be an example of health and balance.'

In my practice clients sometimes come with some idea of how they should look, feel, or function and are seeking some kind of ‘correction’, fixing, healing, or realignment. My responsibility is to remember and communicate that they have the knowledge, power and ability to change themselves, to make the small or large adjustments necessary to find the right balance between mobility and stability in their lives . . . exactly what we do in our yoga practice.

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