Saturday, January 11, 2014

Does Concern Over Alignment "Muddy the Message" About Yoga?

 In the most recent issue of The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal ("Ann Arbor's Holistic Magazine") there's a short article written by another local yoga teacher.  It's a nice article, and I like most of what she has to say. (See p. 112,  Spring 2014 issue of the CW Journal.)

But partway through she writes:

"... I try not to hide the basic premise of what yoga is under a lot of technical pose alignments or the use of Sanskrit words.  I believe that muddies the message: yoga is not an esoteric practice that an ordinary person can't do.  Anyone can do it, even with mobility limitations."  

Of course I had to laugh, because she's referring to how Iyengar Yoga is taught.  And of course as an Iyengar Yoga teacher,  I completely disagree with this viewpoint.

A cornerstone of the Iyengar Yoga method is that we learn and practice good alignment in the poses.   On a very practical level, this focus on alignment helps us to do the poses safely while building up the body in a healthy way.    Distortions in alignment can lead to injuries.

Also this focus on alignment trains the mind to be attentive, to focus, to concentrate, to be present within the moment.  The second sutra (verse) of the ancient yoga text,  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, says, "Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind".    The practice of yoga helps us to quiet ourselves, so we can start to see what is really important in our lives.   Focusing intently on the alignment of the body is one way to bring the mind to quietness.  It becomes a meditative practice as well as being a physical practice.  So "technical pose alignments" would help, not hinder, our understanding of "the basic premise of what yoga is" which is to quiet the mind.

Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher, John Schumacher, from the Washington D.C. area, says,

"As with all methods of yoga [the practice of Iyengar Yoga] builds strength and flexibility in the poses.  But because we pay exquisite attention to alignment and precision in the details of the asanas, the poses are for us a meditation in action.  We learn to focus, concentrate, and refine the quality of our awareness as we practice the poses."  (on YouTube video, John Schumacher teaches Virabhadrasana I)

So does this technical practice of alignment "muddy the message" of yoga, making it an esoteric practice that the average person can't do?   Of course not!  Learning better alignment is a very practical way to make the practice of yoga poses accessible to all.   Not paying attention to alignment can be especially injurious to people who are older, or who have health or mobility issues.  

Is Iyengar Yoga, with it's focus on learning good alignment in the poses, for everyone?   I certainly think it can be beneficial for everyone, but of course not everyone is interested in practicing this way.  Different temperaments are drawn to different ways of moving.  But I have seen how powerful this method is within my own practice, and in the practice of my yoga students at all levels, from those who need to move more slowly and gently,  to those who are stronger and fitter and want to be challenged by more difficult asanas.  

People with experience in other methods of yoga are sometimes puzzled or bored by the "technical jargon" that Iyengar Yoga teachers use.   But if they can stick with it, they also start to experience how powerful this method can be.    It can be used to enhance the practice that they're more familiar with.

As for using Sanskrit to name the poses or to quote a few philosophical ideas -- it's a part of the ancient tradition of yoga.   Is it completely necessary?  No, but it does pay honor to the roots of this tradition.   People get used to it very quickly and it is another way to keep the mind fresh and open to learning new things.  Where is the problem in that?

Look at the marvelous extension, vibrancy and vitality in this Utthita trikonasana (Triangle pose) by B.K.S. Iyengar when he was 85 years old.

This can't be done without "exquisite" attention to the alignment of his body, and the years of practice that went into training his body and  mind to be able to do the pose so beautifully and precisely.    It is a work of art.

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