If you encounter a yoga teacher who states that alignment doesn't matter, roll up your sticky mat and walk to the nearest exit! The mis-alignment of the body causes all sorts of obstacles on the path to reveal your true Self; your muscles may grip, your energy may be stuck, you may feel pain or discomfort, or your breath may be limited. You may be unaware of these conditions because they have been part of your "normal" state for so long.
Here are just a few reasons why alignment matters:
- Your bones serve as attachment sites for your muscles (via tendons) and affect the function of those muscles. Muscles function best at a certain optimal length. When your body's bones are mis-aligned, this may distort the length of the muscle interfering with its ability to "fire" efficiently. This may cause either a lack of effective movement and/or a secondary muscle may kick in and do the job that the primary muscle should have been doing. The secondary muscle, not being intended for the work it is being asked to do, becomes strained, setting in motion a whole chain of imbalances. Areas of the body may grip, become dull or restricted and the circulatory, lymphatic and nervous systems can not flow freely. Aligning your body helps you function better!
- Your joints work best when the bones are centered in the joint. For example, most of us have conditoned our bodies to thrust the femur forward in the hip socket. In yoga, we will shift the femur back into the center of the hip socket. To feel why this is beneficial, recline on your back, bend your kness and place your feet on the floor. We call this easy resting pose. Take a moment to notice how your back feels and the state of your breath. Now, use the heel of your hand just below the pelvis to press the top of your thigh away from you. You have just centered the head of your femur in your hip socket. Notice how this creates a sense of ease in your low back and frees the breath.
- When you focus on alignment you bring your attention inward, spreading your consciousness throughout the body. Contrary to what you may have heard, you do want to "think" sometimes when you practice yoga. Depending upon what you need at the moment, you decide how to move to create more space or to create more stability. As your intelligence becomes more and more refined, you can focus on the more subtle aspects of your Self. If you are familar with yoga's description of the koshas, the intellectual sheath moves beyond the senses and is the sheath closest to the sheath of joy, bliss and contentment. As you sharpen your intelligence, you see your Self with more clarity, and can make healthy decisons in your life.
Now alignment requires alot of mental concentration and that can be quite challenging for some students. It is not the only thing that matters in yoga. Integration of what you have learned matters- you need to allow time for absorption and digestion. You need time to explore new movement patterns. You need time to notice, reflect and feel the changes you have created, including how the new alignment affects your breath. The list of other important aspects of your yoga practice could go on and on. I often say "A good teacher is a good editor" and that means knowing when enough is enough and not overwhelming your students with alignment cue after alignment cue. In my own classes, I often pick just one or two key alignment concepts to focus on per class. We explore those principles in a number of asanas. I also give students time to move, feel the sensations that are arising, notice the breath, rest, and integrate what they are learning.