CONVERSATIONS AT THE SANCTUARY: Why Does Alignment Matter In Yoga?
Good alignment allows us to practice safely and harness the full benefits of each asana. But no two bodies are exactly alike, so how can we reconcile the need for ideal alignment and the tendency to strive for “picture perfect” poses? Iyengar Yoga teacher, Su Unn, explains
We sometimes get obsessed about how a yoga pose should look, and inevitably try to force our body into a specific shape. However, the reality is that we all have different body types and body parts with varying proportions. In other words, no two people doing the same asana will necessarily be doing it in the exact same way.
Iyengar Yoga is often referred to as the yoga of precision, what then is its approach to the physical challenges faced by different body types? Does the heavy use of props in Iyengar yoga assist practitioners to get into “perfect alignment”?
“Founded by the late B.K.S. Iyengar, Iyengar Yoga focuses on alignment, sequencing, and the timing of asanas, such that practitioners can benefit from the asanas regardless of his/her body’s capabilities. The Iyengar system also teaches practitioners to develop skills to deal with ever-changing conditions,” Su Unn, who teaches at The Yoga School, shares.
“The use of props came from Mr Iyengar’s deep understanding of the practice. His keen observations, coupled with his sense of practicality, led him to find items in his environment and experiment with them in his own practice. He then started using those items as tools to teach his students,” she adds, “Because of the use of props in Iyengar Yoga, poses may be held slightly longer (than without props) before tension and fatigue set in. They also become more accessible and precise.”
Q: WHAT DOES ALIGNMENT MEAN IN IYENGAR YOGA, AND WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT?
SU UNN: When things are in alignment, they are said to be in a perfect position in relation to each other. It can also be said to be the same in yoga.
However in yoga, being in alignment is not merely holding a static position. It is a process of balancing and rebalancing our actions such that they are in a dynamic relationship with each other. This creates an energetic structure that is buoyant and structurally supported.
However, to be in alignment is akin to holding a mirror in front of us – it shows us not just what we can do but more significantly, what we cannot. Mr Iyengar once said, “It is through the alignment of the body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence.”
To choose to stand in the place where we face our own inadequacies, cultivates a certain attitude and mindset. It takes courage and sincerity to be honest with ourselves. To be aligned, demands that we stand in that place over and over again, and choose to be honest and sincere each time. This process thus develops a certain attitude and culture in the practitioner, allowing him/her to mature and develop over time.
Q: WHY DOES IYENGAR YOGA EMPHASISE THE PRECISE EXECUTION OF POSTURAL ALIGNMENT?
SU UNN: Commonly interpreted as a physical positioning, alignment is an energetic balance, a relationship between an action and the load that’s coming on to it.
Think of alignment as an exercise in sensation that has to be “felt”… one which demands the participation of the practitioner, rather than merely as a positioning exercise which requires using just our sense of sight. Alignment requires the engagement of mental and sensory faculties, the process of which, has an effect on the mental culture of the practitioner.
There are asanas for each body part. Done correctly, they support the functions of various physiological systems to their greatest potential. The practice of alignment also gives rise to sensitivity and perceptual skills, which leads us to sequencing and timing, two other main aspects of Iyengar Yoga.
Q: HOW DOES ALIGNMENT AFFECT THE ENERGY FLOW IN OUR BODY?
SU UNN: My teacher, Peter Thomson, a founding member of the Iyengar Yoga Association in Australia (and one of the region’s senior teacher-trainers), said this, “True power can only come from functional relationship.” This understanding really impacted my learning process.
To be strong doesn’t mean that we have to go to the gym and bench press 150kg, but when we are able to understand our body, we can then utilise it in the most efficient manner and harness the power.
This drew me directly out of the strength paradigm and into a process that is so confronting and yet, so forgiving at the same time. Peter talks a lot about the rhythm and efficiency of the movements of the practitioner, and also the smoothness and evenness of the muscle/tissue of a practitioner. This is the result of practicing for functional relationship.
Q: SOCIAL MEDIA IS FLOODED WITH IMAGES OF YOGIS DOING “PICTURE PERFECT” POSES. MY POSES DON’T ALWAYS SEEM TO ACHIEVE THE SAME LOOK, DOES THAT MEAN I’M DOING IT WRONG?
SU UNN: I think people are generally fixated with “look” and “appearance” (just look at the popularity of Instagram)!
In the beginning, a visual reference is helpful for learning how to get into a pose, but to penetrate deeper into the pose, we can’t just rely on our sight – looking will only bring us so far, but we need to involve all the other senses for the rest of the way.
In the case of Iyengar Yoga, the method/process that practitioners put themselves through again and again, develops an understanding which allows the practitioner to become, first of all, aware of the presenting circumstances/conditions. This is followed by the application of the appropriate technique to achieve a certain desired outcome.
So when we apply the one method to different people with different conditions, the “look” may be different but the underlying principle is still the same. If you know the one, you can know the many. This understanding in turns forms the basis of how an Iyengar practitioner would use a particular prop in a particular situation to address a particular condition.
Q: HOW WOULD YOU ADVISE A PRACTITIONER WHO CAN’T GET INTO “PERFECT ALIGNMENT” OR DO A POSE “THE RIGHT WAY” EVEN WITH THE USE OF PROPS?
SU UNN: Many people associate Iyengar Yoga with doing yoga with props, and emphasise on the props rather than the yoga. I have also heard of people who won’t practice the Iyengar method because of its heavy use of props. I think the over-reliance on props is counter-productive, but I also think it’s silly to not use props just because it’s troublesome.
The props are there to teach us certain actions that we may not be able to access under our normal conditions. It is used as a training aid and not just something that we reach out to when we can’t achieve a look that we think we need to.
EDITOR’S NOTE: IF YOU’RE NEW TO IYENGAR YOGA, IT IS STRONGLY RECOMMENDED THAT YOU EXPLORE IT WITH THE GUIDANCE OF A QUALIFIED TEACHER, SO THAT YOU LEARN HOW TO PRACTICE CORRECTLY AND SAFELY, BEFORE DOING IT ON YOUR OWN AT HOME.
About Su Unn:
Su Unn began her yoga journey in 2007, but it wasn’t till 2008 that her practice really took off after she went under the tutelage of Senior Iyengar Teacher, Peter Thompson, a student of the Iyengar family since 1981. “It was his generosity in spirit and compassion that convinced me that I had found my teacher,” she shares. As Su Unn deepened her yoga practice, her asana work on the mat took on a higher purpose and evolved into something that nourished her entire being. Su Unn was certified in the Iyengar tradition in 2011, and continues to develop her practice under Peter’s guidance. Find out more about her weekly Iyengar Yoga classes here.
Keen to explore the basic principles of alignment in yoga and learn to construct asanas that are structurally supported and energetically balanced? Join Su Unn in a two-hour workshop on 11 January 2020, Saturday, from 9am to 11am. Click here to reserve your mat!