The Pros and Cons of an Alignment-Focused Practice

December 19, 2016    BY Amber Burke

As I expect is the case for many readers of this article, my yoga practice and my teaching are very focused on alignment. This means that I prioritize moving in ways that are healthy and safe, and that I often explore a specific anatomical theme.

I wouldn’t have it any other way, as there are considerable advantages to this type of practice. Yet, I have noticed a few disadvantages which may or may not be familiar to others.

First, let’s look at the positive aspects of an alignment-focused practice.

1. Self-Empowerment
Before studying alignment, I thought injuries just happened—that one simply had a bum shoulder or was a hapless victim of unavoidable back pain. As I gained some understanding of the optimal shape of the spine and positioning of the joints, however, I began to see injuries and pain not as inevitable, but as the result of movement occurring outside of optimal physical alignment. When I feel something amiss in my own body, I now have a sense of its cause, and sometimes I even know how to fix it. When the left side of my neck starts hurting, I know my left shoulder has come too far forward and down. When my hamstrings bother me, I know to check on what my knees are doing, and how effectively I’m dropping my weight into the bones of my feet.

Our alignment-focused practices may provide us with some measure of control, while enabling us to move through our practices and our lives feeling good.  

2. Leading Safe, Helpful Classes
What is an alignment focus but a way of practicing ahimsa, or non-harming? If we teach classes with a focus on alignment, we may well find that our students suffer fewer injuries. When we see misalignments occurring in our students’ bodies, we might even be able to make suggestions that are genuinely helpful and that contribute to the longevity of their practices.

What we have learned about anatomy may also give us a feeling of reverence for the intricacies of the body, along with an understanding of the problems our yoga classes can and cannot address. This means that when we find ourselves to be out of our depth, we know to refer students to physical therapists and doctors.

3. Continual Fascination
So what if we exhaust our repertoire of poses? We can go infinitely deeper into each pose, concentrating on one aspect after another, and working our way up from the feet all the way to the crown of the head. This deep fascination is portable, so that if we’re waiting in line, we can amuse ourselves by planting every corner of both of our feet. (We can even invent more “corners” and experiment with planting those!) If we were marooned on a desert island, we would be endlessly entertained by our own toes. Thanks to our alignment-focused practices, we are never bored.

If we were marooned on a desert island, we would be endlessly entertained by our own toes.

4. Less Concern About Body Image
If alignment is our focus, what we view as “beautiful” then becomes what is anatomically functional. We might be brave enough to disregard images of attractiveness that rely on emaciation (No thank you: I want my muscles). And when we see photographs of models hunching or knocking their knees, our first thought may not be admiration, but rather, That looks like it hurts! Our aspiration becomes not to look a certain way, but to be able to move our bones along their intended lines.

5. Steadiness of Mind
In sutra 1.35, Patanjali identifies “concentration on subtle sense perceptions” as one of the many modes of meditation that lead to mental steadiness. A particular anatomical focus can serve as the stick we hand our elephants in order to stop them from breaking everything in the china shops of our minds. Those of us with alignment-focused practices may find that when we are doing a pose, we are in that pose, and nowhere else.

Along with these manifest virtues, there are also a few less positive aspects of an alignment-focused practice that I’ve noticed cropping up for myself. Here are a few.

1. Blaming Myself for My Injuries (And Even Blaming Others for Theirs!)
The flip side of seeing my well-being as my own responsibility is that any injury becomes a moral failing. If I get hurt, I beat myself up for having let my vigilance slip. (Another related drawback: All this vigilance! Will I ever throw caution to the wind and be daring again? Hmm...was I ever daring?)

Furthermore, I don’t think I’m as nice as I used to be. I used to be sympathetic when someone told me they had a knee injury or had herniated their lumbar disc. Now, my first thought is often that they “should have just done this or that”: they should have just practiced alignment-focused yoga—by which they would have learned where their knees go in relation to their toes, and how to curve in their lower backs.

2. Wanting to Fix Everyone
Even with a modest understanding of anatomy, it’s hard for me to leave the house and not feel beleaguered by all the heads jutting forward, all those spines so rounded, and all the people who are practically sitting on their lower backs! Everyone seems to be in the process of hurting themselves. Meeting someone for the first time, I often have the urge to say, “That way you’re holding your head is going to do a number on your neck,” or “What on earth are you doing with your knees?’’ I bite back the impulse, suspecting that such commentary would be unwelcome and highly annoying. But I don’t feel good about not saying anything—it’s as if I’ve just let a dog run out into the road without trying to stop it.

I think my alignment-focused practice may have destined me for a future in which I can no longer censor my behavior, and become the little old woman who is always pulling everyone’s shoulders up and back or prodding their spines with a ruler.

3. Solipsism
Sometimes I spend the better part of a day trying to get my left toes to spread. While it is true that I am never bored, I wonder if by looking down through my microscope as often as I do, I’m neglecting to look up at the moon. Certainly there are times when I’m not really hearing what you’re saying to me because I am so concerned with my toes. Furthermore, the victoriousness I feel upon at last spreading my second and third toes might leave me feeling productive—when in fact there was something else I meant to do today for the benefit of the wider world.

An alignment-focused practice can lead me so deep inside that it’s hard to get out.

4. Constant Awareness of Encroaching Decrepitude
The downside of prizing anatomical functionality is that I am acutely aware of the parts of my body that are not functioning as well as they once did. My left toes didn’t used to have such a terrible time spreading—that’s death right there, letting me know it’s coming. Those of us who have focused on the subtleties of alignment are well-positioned to register the subtlest symptoms of age, which might add to the stress we were doing yoga to alleviate.

5. Restlessness
When I attempt seated meditation, sometimes it’s as if I’m still in asana class. I adjust my shoulders, check and doublecheck my spine, make sure I’m drawing in my waist as I exhale, allowing it to expand on my inhale—and aren’t these the fluctuations of the mind I’m meditating to quell? I wonder if the ceaseless “doing” emphasized by an alignment-focused practice has made it harder for me to experience the greater stillness of “being.”

In the end, I am reasonably comfortable with an alignment-focused practice having positive and negative ramifications. Doesn’t our every action, after all? But this list of pros and cons is admittedly based on incomplete knowledge. “Some thoughts begin with pain but end leaving us at peace. Others appear to be pleasurable but bring pain,” writes Sri Swami Satchidananda in his commentary on Patanjali’s sutra 1.5, which recognizes that mental modifications might be either painful or painless.

I am reasonably comfortable with an alignment-focused practice having positive and negative ramifications. Doesn’t our every action, after all?

Who is to say that the “pros” of self-empowerment or helpfulness will not engender a harmful pride? That this “con” of a desire to fix those around me will not eventually be what guides me to discover a peaceful sense of allowing in which I actually let others be the way they are? Could that troubling focus on the onset of decrepitude end up being the thing that leads me up the road toward spiritual advancement by causing me to consider well my own mortality—the fact of which no amount of careful alignment will change?

Those of us with practices that have an anatomical focus can continue to grow those practices by aligning ourselves with the mind that holds our thoughts about how to “hold” ourselves. These thoughts serve as welcome certainties in the immense ocean of all we do not know and cannot predict.

Amber Burke
Amber Burke lives in Coyote, New Mexico, and teaches alignment-based and restorative yoga at Body in Santa Fe. In her classes, she aspires to a precision of language and detail that will not only create sustainable poses but also guide students inward, toward an ever-deepening self-awareness. She is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA Program, and two yoga teacher trainings through Yogaworks in Los Angeles, and has been registered with the Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour... Read more>>

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