“Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet - thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing - consistently.” - Lane Secretan, Inspirational Teacher and Leader
I’ve been taking a group boxing class and I love it. Sometimes you need to sweat and have a place to let your rage out. Yes, I have rage sometimes y’all. Some triggers are Trump’s America, dogfighting rings, old trauma, senseless fires raging across Mama Earth. And it has to get out so that the sadness underneath can then come up, and the yoga mat works to a point but not all the way. Sometimes, ya gotta hit a bag or a pillow or scream at the top of your lungs or headbang to Metallica- whatever works, ya know?
But I digress. At my second class, the instructor came over because my arms were flailing a bit on contact with the bag, and he said, “Get your stance down first”, as he demo’d for me, gloves up, arms locked in, legs in a lunge, knees bent. “Organize yourself, get your balance, stand solid and then your swings are gonna feel so much sturdier and strong.” This of course sounded super familiar: alignment anyone?
I would say that for half the years I've been practicing yoga, I wasn't very interested in working on alignment. It felt like way too much instruction and thinking, which I was trying to get away from as I did a lot of it already, and it took away from my main reason for going to class which was to breathe and get to that heavenly savasana part at the end. And so I really do relate to students who aren’t into it. And there are lifetime practitioners who are reaping amazing benefits and joy from this way of practicing yoga. That’s the beauty of yoga, there is something for everyone. And so it isn’t about right way or wrong way, just your way, and mine was more chill for a very long time.
I was also naturally flexible so I felt like I was rocking it anyway, not realizing there is a strength component to practice as well, which I developed once I started becoming more interested in alignment.
The first time I considered the benefits of alignment in yoga asana was in an Anusara class at Sal Anthony’s Movement Salon. I started to connect patterns in the way I was moving on my mat — what interested me and what didn’t, my resistance to move into more intermediate or advanced postures in my practice -- to patterns in my life. It was the first time I started to realize that yoga could be, beyond a place to decompress from a hectic life in the city, a very important tool for self reflection and growth.
Through my exploration, I have found that for me, alignment feels like an awareness of sensation, a sense of clarity, of organization and of integration. Misalignment feels to me like a sense of disconnect, uncertainty and confusion, and disorder.
Obviously when you do yoga teacher training, there is a huge focus on alignment. Understandably, that is a great foundation for practice and teaching. As I often say to students though, there is universal alignment that is helpful for all of us in bodies aspiring to make these shapes, and then there is our own work of exploring alignment within our individual physicality. For example, I have carrier angle arms which make many asanas (Downward Dog, Handstand to name a few), incredibly challenging or at times completely inaccessible (I was confused about down dog for 10 years, and I'm just now, 20 years into practice, starting to feel Handstand is a possibility), but help me in poses like wheel, bow, even chaturunga.
This is where alignment gets interesting, in its exploration aspect. So there are poses that we align in very easily (for me anything backbend-y) and other poses we work harder at aligning in and as we do, they become more accessible, and then there are poses that are really tough, and maybe even inaccessible depending on our anatomical challenges around them (long or short arms, long or short torso, long or short legs, injuries, carrier arms) not to mention perhaps mental or emotional blockages around them (fear, overwhelming sensation/emotion).
I think of relationships, jobs, situations that flow easily. It usually feels like right places, right time, right opportunities, connections and a healthy dose of Grace. Those are obviously the best, and what we crave all the time. Then there are the ones that require more effort through adjusting perspectives, compromising, accepting and learning from difficulty, and where there’s work needed to find more alignment. Honestly, these are my favorites in both yoga practice and in life because they are the opportunities to grow, to test our mettle so to speak, and they cultivate qualities that enrich our lives like patience, faith, compassion, and integrity. They feel like they move us forward. And then there are the situations that are just extremely challenging to align with, if not impossible: the round peg in a square hole ones that leave you feeling out of sorts, fragmented and literally and figuratively bent out of shape. These are clear indicators that we are out of alignment, and have moved away from our authenticity and there is power in being able to identify and recognize that, because from this place we can re-align.
As we enter this new decade, at a time that feels fraught with an increasing sense of mis-alignment in the environment, in our governments and legislation; one in which we are more connected to technology than ever, and at times even more than with our own surroundings, one in which we are grappling with heartache and fear about the evidence of climate change, one that, in the US where I am, can feel politically worrisome to say the least and terrifying to say the worst, full of growing Nationalism disguised as Patriotism, I want to believe that as far as misalignment goes, we fall somewhere between the testing our mettle stage and the bent out of shape stage. And I am hopeful that through continued exploration towards finding common ground we can all align behind, we can steer this ship back on course.
I do believe that no matter what comes our way, we can always re-align, both individually and collectively.
I’m simplifying and there is much gray area you could find, and of course as my alignment teacher, Christina Sell, often reminds us, as soon as you get one thing aligned, something else shifts and needs to be looked at, but I think this is generally the gist of it. We strive towards it, not for the perfection, but for --as she would also say-- the wholeness and authenticity. So I have come to define alignment as an organizing, and sometimes, especially when things are in major transition or totally chaotic and uncertain, a re-organizing of our bodies, minds and hearts into the truth of the present moment, that supports us in moving forward with more clarity, integrity and compassion.
And I think that’s where I would say, if the place you find yourself now is similar to the one I found myself in at the start of my yoga journey, the benefits of exploring alignment in asana are important in how they build intelligent awareness, and could be supportive to your practice and your life and even beyond. And if exploring this on your mat remains uninteresting to you forever, that is totally fine too. The principle of alignment practice does not belong to yoga. You might consider examining it via the lens of other vehicles like therapy, dance or running, the arts, activism, or any other forms of self exploration.
Ironically, I now teach alignment focused yoga. I love it and feel passionate about it because I have seen how it has created new awareness in me both on and off the mat, and because in my teaching, when I observe students connect with the tools of being in this process, it is deeply rewarding and gives me hope for our world- that if enough of us can come into this awareness, can check in and ask, “ is this in alignment with this time and place in my life? With this time and place in my community? In my country? In the world? Am I flowing, am I growing, or am I forcing? How do I organize myself from this place, wherever it might be, to proceed mindfully and lovingly?”, then we will continue the work of moving forward with a world that is evolving towards the greater good, and not away from it.
As we enter this new year and new decade, to me, it is the intention that will keep on giving.