The word alignment comes up a lot in relationship to Ashtanga yoga and yoga in general. So, is alignment in Ashtanga yoga important? And if it is, when is it important and why? In this article we’ll take a closer look at the concept of alignment in yoga and how it applies to Ashtanga. But before we can talk about if or when alignment is important, we need to know what it is. So, let’s start with some definitions.
A fundamental definition of alignment
You might have an idea from the word that it has something to do with lining things up. And it does. But how and why are we lining things up? And what things are we lining up? Alignment in the world of yoga refers to arranging parts of our body relative to one another in the field of gravity. It is these parts of our body that we move or change in order to create a particular shape or line in yoga asana. It’s the field of gravity that we are moving in as we arrange ourselves into yoga asana shapes. Gravity is the reason why you tend to fall over when you put that heavy part of the body at the end of the lever and try to hold it there, like we do in a standing balance pose, for example.
Form versus function
One perspective through which we can view the Ashtanga practice is as a practice where form follows function. I first heard the concept that in Ashtanga we focus on function first and allow the form to evolve, from my teacher John Scott. Over the years I’ve validated that idea in my own practice and teaching.
This concept is from the Bauhaus movement of architecture that focused on simple, rational, and functional design. When you apply it to the practice of asana you are saying that in order to take the “ideal” form, you need to have the functional aspect established. Another way of saying this is: open the tissues and joints first, so that you can express the ideal version of the form. Without the openness in the tissues and joints, we are prevented from creating the “ideal” form.
For instance, if you want to do triangle with your hips perfectly stacked and reach the floor with your hand, your hip joints need to be open enough to allow you to do this. Without the function, the form is not achievable. You could argue that by taking the closest approximation to your desired form, you will create function. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. What happens more often is that the form becomes a limitation to function.
Where does the idea of alignment in Ashtanga yoga come from?
When we think of alignment as it relates to yoga we have to remember that someone before us decided what the alignment “should” be for a particular yoga asana. Those ideas about what alignment should be have converged from a number of sources. Many postures are inspired by animals, sages, or descriptions of what is literally happening (headstand, for example). The names have some influence over how we interpret embodying the pose. There is also the history of people who have experienced doing the asana. They processed and interpreted that experience, and then taught.
The influence of anatomy
In addition, there has been an influence of more objective information from anatomy to health and fitness activities, including the practice of asana. Early adopters of more Western ideas about anatomy likely applied basic anatomical principles to asana practice. That includes things such as joints should be at a ninety degree angle or one should never do X with joint Y. Through time, these principles, for better or worse, have been embedded into the ethos of asana practice.
When we look at images of great and influential practitioners we perceive from the outside how their body looks in a posture. Because they are exceptional in their practice of asana, we assume they must be doing it right. Since we’re humans, we like to do things the right way rather than the wrong way. They probably are doing it right. But it’s important that we remember that we are seeing them at the end of their process of developing a posture. It’s unlikely that their posture looked like that in their first year of practice or even in their third year of practice. But, we still tend to take the images of others doing postures into account when we imagine how a posture “should” be done.
Benefits of alignment in Ashtanga yoga
What are the benefits of aligning ourselves with gravity? There are a number of positive benefits of utilizing some form of alignment in Ashtanga yoga including:
- Efficiency of movement
- Better balance
- Safety at joints
- Easier to stay in a posture
- Supporting ease of breath
- Better circulation of blood
- Better circulation of energy
Should we focus on alignment in Ashtanga yoga?
This is where things get a little tricky. It’s easy, especially early on in our yoga practice, to want to do things “right”, rather than to allow ourselves and our body time and space to evolve through a process. While postures may have an “ideal”, that ideal may not be right for us at a particular time in our practice. This means that “right”, and “right alignment” in Ashtanga yoga more specifically, is always relative to our individual body and where we are in our exploration of yoga practice.
It’s important to remember that practice evolves over time. Over the years, both our body and our relationship to practice will change. So, what’s right for us in year one of our practice will likely be different than what’s right for us in year ten.
Mechanical versus biological system
Another tricky part about alignment in the body and in Ashtanga yoga is putting an idea of a mechanical system on top of a biological system. Our body can in some ways be related to a system of pulleys and levers that receive and move force from the ground or other physical surfaces we interact with. But it is also much much more than that.
We are not put together at right angles, but rather in a series of curves and even spirals. These actually make our body much stronger and more adaptable than if all of our parts were perfectly straight. We also have a nervous system which can provide us with felt sense information about how things feel. Our sensations may tell a different story about what’s happening in our poses than simply how they appear visually if we are using an overly mechanistic idea of lining things up in the body.
These two ideas, of the mechanical and the nervous system felt sense, point to the difference between form and function. If we have the perspective that our intention in yoga is to work with our nervous system to feel calmer, maintain more equanimity, or feel more energized, then we are saying that function is also important, not just form.
So, when do we use alignment in Ashtanga and why?
I have the perspective that we evolve most efficiently in our Ashtanga practice when we strike a balance between our emphasis on function and our emphasis on form. Sometimes backing out of a pose may actually be the fastest way to see it change. In order to decide when and why to line things up, back out of a pose, or in contrast, lean in and allow things to be a bit messy, we need to bring in our critical thinking.
We can start by asking ourselves: what are the intentions for this pose? What is it that the pose does in the body and how is it related to other poses? And, what is happening with this pose in my body specifically? Answering those questions can help us determine how to approach a posture. Do we need more alignment? Or, do we need to let the alignment go for some reason?
In some situations, alignment in Ashtanga yoga may be incredibly important, such as for someone who has an injury. Or, we may need to pay attention to alignment to make sure our attempt at function isn’t putting us at risk for creating an injury. There are also times that we may abandon alignment in order to understand a principle or concept that will help us in the long-term development of our practice. My point is that there is not a simple answer to the question of when we should focus more on alignment or more on function.
An example using seated forward bend
One example of what this process looks like comes up in a simple seated forward bend. If we arbitrarily emphasize function, we might think that the most important part of this pose is just getting our head to our shins no matter what. If we arbitrarily emphasize form, we might think all that matters is keeping our legs and spine very straight. This is where the critical thinking piece comes in. The answer to how to approach this posture is related to what we understand its intentions to be and how our individual body is expressing those intentions.
What is our intention?
We could take the perspective that lengthening our hamstrings to ultimately allow our pelvis to move is one intention for seated forward bend. So then we have to ask, what’s the most effective way to address that intention in our body? If we have very open hamstrings already, then we might go straight to completing that proprioceptive connection and touching our forehead to our shins.
When to take a look at the form
But, what if our hamstrings are on the tight side? This might be a situation for creating a little more form to support our function. If we went straight to touching our forehead to our shins with short, tight hamstrings, our body would likely have to make some compensations. If our hamstrings are very short and tight, then we might have to over-engage our abdomen to just sit up, let alone fold forward. We’d probably also have to deeply round our spine to get our head anywhere near our legs.
And with all of these compensations, would we have addressed our intention to lengthen the hamstrings and increase the mobility of the pelvis? Probably not. So in this case, giving some attention to our form, maybe by sitting up on a block, or by not folding as far in the seated forward bend, actually supports our function.
I think what’s important here is that we make these adjustments to our form on a person by person basis. If we make changes to our form based on how that will support an individual’s practice, then we are ultimately supporting functionality for that student. What I’m not a fan of is those commonly used alignment cues that are often said as if they apply to everyone in all situations. Those are phrases like: you should always do “x” with your elbow in upward dog, or you should never do “y” with your pelvis in backbending.