When turning up to a yoga class, you have probably heard instructions such as: “Bring your front knee directly above your ankle, turn your back foot in, gently draw your navel in and up and reach through your fingers to send some energy in your arms while keeping your shoulders down.” Phew, quite a mission and this is just for Warrior I! And not to freak you out or anything but a lot more could be said on this one pose. Just pop to an Iyengar class if you need to be convinced!
So are your instructors totally OCD? Well, that is a possibility but the detailed information provided are for our own good. Improper alignment can put strain on disks, muscles, tendons and ligaments while correct alignment will bring strength and promote flexibility in a more harmonious body.
Instructions on alignment are therefore essential for a safe and beneficial practice on a physiological level and also to get to what we could call the core of a pose. Once you have gained a good understanding of a pose through guidance and experience, a sense of ease starts to sink in. An obvious example would be slumping when in a seated position (possibly the result of tightness in the back and/or hips), shoulders hunched, caving in the chest. When seated in such a way, the lumbar disks are put under strain, the organs get compressed as well as the lungs which makes it more difficult to breathe. The moment we can sit up with our spine erect and relax the shoulders, we are creating more space for our breath to expand, allowing prana or life force to be more evenly distributed; a sense of stillness settles in.
Instructions on alignment tend to become more detailed as you progress into your practice and become more tuned in with your body. For beginners though, I believe that instructions should be kept simple for fear of putting them off by creating a brain overload and/or confusion. It is also important to give practitioners encouragement especially for first-timers who might get a bit of a shock when they realise their limited range of motion or strength. Being present everywhere and simultaneously into every cell of our body is a challenge and does not come easily. You might focus so much on the alignment of your front knee in Warrior I for instance that you forget about pressing the back foot flat onto your mat. Typically, we tend to neglect what we cannot see: “Out of sight, out of mind” as the saying goes.
But don’t let any setbacks unsettle you. Our practice is a lifelong journey and we are not travelling alone. Your teachers will keep helping you along the way and more and more often, you will come across these wonderful moments where everything makes sense. All the hours spent on the mat end up refining the intelligence of the body. You will “think” less with your mind and more with your body, allowing spaciousness, intuition, well-being, contentment and a sense of union to permeate your entire being which yoga has been designed to bring to humanity as a whole.