What is Alignment?

What is alignment? What do we mean when we use this word in our yoga practice, or in other aspects of our lives? 

This term is used so frequently in yoga. It is prevalent in descriptions of Iyengar yoga as well as many other styles. But what do we really mean when we use this word? I think we might often mean very different things, and a clarity with regards to our working definition could be really helpful—or at least an attempt at clarifying what we mean when we use the term in any given context, since the context might influence our definition. 

I like to keep asking the question: "what do I mean when I say alignment, and how might it differ in any given context?" I like to come up with working definitions not only for this term, but also for other terms that I use when teaching that can cause confusion because we might not share the same definition. I like to write them down and then reflect on them over time. I like to see how well these definitions are working when applied in a variety of contexts or situations. Do they function well and provide clarity? Do they work when I am communicating with people from other styles of yoga, or with medical professionals or with people who do not practice yoga at all?

Since there are so many ways the word can be used, let's start with how it is often used in asana or postural yoga practice. Sometimes one hears the phrase, "that is not the correct alignment in utthita trikonasana" or "this is the correct alignment in Salamaba Sarvangasana." Then the question becomes, "according to whom?" And why? 

Can we explain our opinion from an anatomical or biomechanical perspective? Is it an aesthetic preference, or an intuitive hunch? What, specifically, is our working definition? Do we have a shared definition with our students? Is it dependent on context or does it transcend context—that is, is it universal?

Sometimes the answer might be something like, "alignment is how the pose appears in Light on Yoga." Or: "It should look like this…" I do not find these to be very satisfying definitions as their application is too limited.

I think surely there are aesthetic considerations, for example a well-aligned standing position for a ballerina in first position might be very different from a well-aligned standing position for a modern dancer, a yogi in tadasana, a weightlifter preparing to lift, or a martial artist in a stance of readiness. These are also functional differences, as form and functionality are inter-related in the disciplines mentioned.

But let's step away from those aesthetic considerations for a moment, because something that looks outwardly beautiful may, or may not be, sustainable or good for you in the long term.

One of the definitions I have been working with, especially with regards to the body in yoga asana but also in functional movement, is that alignment deals with the question of how well something works. And more importantly how well it works over time. Is this relationship sustainable? Is it healthy? Is it nourishing? 

We can also examine how we use the term in other non-human contexts, like the context of our car wheels, for example. We might say something like the wheel, or steering, is out of alignment and the car doesn't drive well or that certain parts will wear out too soon if we continue to drive the car in its current condition. Yes, it might look okay—but it doesn't work well, doesn't feel well or drive smoothly, and it might not work well at all over time. 

So I am exploring this term in this way: Alignment refers to how well, smoothly, efficiently, harmoniously, something works over a sustained period of time—over the long haul of an organism's life. How well are my parts relating to each other? Am I considering the whole of my organism? Is this a sustainable relationship of parts? Is this a sustainable relationship of a whole?

It is not that I am disregarding the question of how something looks; it is just that there is so much more to it than that. Outward appearances and conceptual models can cloud our perception of the inner relationships, the inner harmonies, or the lack thereof. Looks can indeed be deceiving. And someone's subjective opinion with regards to aesthetics is just that—an opinion. It is not a real reflection of what might indeed be an embodied expression of a long term, sustainable, harmonious functionality. 

And then there is the question of what is being expressed by one's alignment. What is the intention of the person, or how well is this body expressing itself, or its intention? Are we more concerned with form, or functionally? How do they relate to each other? And are we considering and including all the aspects of our complex human organism? We are, after all, dealing with much more than muscles, bones, organs, or fascia. We are dealing with the mystery of breath, a complex nervous system, and the inter-relationship of all of these seemingly differentiated aspects of our embodied existence. We are also dealing with the inner sense each of us has of ourselves, and our sense of ease and belonging.

Something this complex, fluid, and dynamic deserves our utmost affectionate attention, appreciation, and curiosity. Alignment seems to me to be less about symmetry and more about awareness. It seems to be a vibrant and dynamic process. It seems to be about the process of integration. And it seems to be much, much more than some person declaring or dictating a specific form or fixed position that is to be replicated by all bodies regardless of difference, or context.   

In the ever-changing process of living in our body environment and the environment in general, do we have to have the capacity to change, to adapt, and to flow with the current of life? In other words, is the idea of alignment ever separate from context? Are we aligning ourselves within these various contexts (and within ourselves) in a functional, healthy, and sustainable manner? Since context (like our own body) is dynamic and always changing, we too must find our own dynamic alignment within this flux and change. We too must be adaptable and malleable in order to be aligned with and tuned into both the inner and outer contexts in which we find ourselves.

The dynamic alignment of our body, heart, mind, and breath into a harmonious whole in any given moment, or in any given yoga pose, will be a unique manifestation of this dynamic inner harmony. When we are aligned in this way might experience something like a sense of embodied music, or embodied poetry, or an inner dance. Our embodied expression (like a good metaphor) holds so much more than words can ever convey. 

Which brings us to the question of aesthetics, which is addressed in some ways in the previous paragraph: If one views the asanas as prayers, as BKS Iyengar did so eloquently, then who is to say that someone else's prayer is incorrect, ugly, stupid or wrong? Yes—believe it or not, I have heard these very words directed toward yoga students in the classroom. Is this an effective way of addressing the complex question of alignment? Do these words bring the student into a more harmonious relationship with their body and the bodies of those around them?

I think it is possible to help someone move toward what we might see as greater harmony and functionality, and call attention to their "alignment" in yoga asana or pranayama practice without denigrating, criticizing, and assuming we know what is going on in their heart (or even inside their knee joint, for that matter).  I do think there are ways to communicate a point of view (because it is, after all, probably only a point of view we are expressing) without causing harm or needlessly judging this being’s physicality or embodiment. In fact, their expression or embodiment of the pose might very well be their way of praying, their unique way of communicating with the divine or the great mystery. It might very well be an expression or embodiment of love. So as teachers, may we help students, but may we at times tread more softly. Because, as Y.B. Yeats wrote in his wistful poem, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” we are treading on much more than we know: "tread softly, because you tread on my dreams."

It is a complicated thing to consider what we mean by alignment and to remember that it can mean many things, and mean different things to different people. Of course we can still address the issue as teachers of yoga. But let us ask the question again and again—what do we mean by alignment? It seems like a question worth living, worth breathing, and even worth changing (depending upon the context in which it is used) if need be. I suggest writing down a list of working definitions that you might explore, examine, play with, and return to again and again. Return for reflection and revision. Let the question of alignment be a much bigger question. May we live the question. Let's see where the question takes us.