A good use and healthy alignment is the natural state of the body. Connecting to this innate state unravels habitual patterns and untangles energy, enhancing well-being, vitality and effortlessness. The means is to practice with a simple yet profound kinesthetic awareness and understanding of the architectural structure of your individual body.
In this article I would like to attempt to motivate a broader interest in the art of alignment, explaining its essential nature on the yoga path for the beginner and the advanced practice alike.
Alignment is natural efficiency
Balance, core strength, effortlessness, flow and lightness rests on an efficient use of the body. When you use your body well you release power that is otherwise tied up in inefficient patterns. When you release muscle tension you free physical and mental energy for other actions of your choice. How do you free that? A good use of the body, or healthy alignment, as it is often called, is the key.
Alignment is anatomy in motion
Consider this: When mindful intention is lined up with an efficient physical execution our practice becomes a concrete unification between body and mind. What it means is, that, to move better, healthier and more efficiently, it is essential to work with a dedicated focus on how to move. It is essential to move from a conscious state rather than a place where what feels normal is considered natural and therefore healthy and efficient. Because sensation of right and wrong is often simply based on habitual patterns from the past. If we are used to tilt to one side that will feel normal, and when we are placed back in balance it will ironicly feel tilted! But with the help of an experienced teacher a listening practice state we can find the right anatomical initiation for moving successfully. Yet, before we can do that we need to understand our body’s basic architectural structure; its anatomy. We need to know something about how it operates. you might ask, ‘is that really necessary’? For normal everyday living, not so much. For Ashtanga yoga’s specialized movement language – absolutely.
FFF & how the body is built from and for motion
Actually, you’ve heard it before – in your school physics class: FFF – Form Follows Function. it applies to your body too and you need to understand and get a sense of it to talk your body’s language. As the body is constructed of physical matter, the key to working with the body successfully is to acknowledge this basic law of matter: Form Follows Function. We are created from this formular. Our body is a direct manifestation of this, built and assembled to carefully match the natural energies that it is modeled upon. Energy is a moving entity and therefore the body is a construction for motion.
Let me give you an example*: The bone of the upper arm, the Humerus, has a slightly spiraling form (see illustration). A spiral is a geometric form, built on and for motion (in opposition to eg. a circle which is built for self-contained strength, like an egg or your skull). The Humerus is built to perfectly match the energetic pattern that it comes from, is governed by and the physical action it has evolved to master. It has been created in exactly the same way as our school physics experiment with magnetic fields, using tiny metal flakes on a piece of paper with a magnet underneath (..remember? the metal flakes taking form according to the magnetic field/patterns that the underlying magnet dictates).
All our bones are built exactly this way and so is the rest of our body and everything else in nature – particles compounded around fields of energy. Form Follows Function and our humerus is built for spiraling the arm outwards in a natural reach towards the world (and returning back again) and every single muscle has been developed to further support this motion and to take it into action. In this way the humerus becomes an innate spiraling motion and when we work with this spiraling motion it is our way to speak the bodys language, of following the given nature of our arm. It is our way of unifying our body with all these innate, underlying structures of movements.
Now, let’s take it into asana practice**. Let’s take eg. Virabradasana B, Warrior II (forget the legs for a moment and focus on the arms): Arms extended forwards and backwards. By rotating the palms to face down, simultaneously rotating the shoulders out- and backwards and emphasizing a soft sense of reaching, we unify our movement with the natural form of the humerus spiral. And hence the carrying of the arms in Virabhadrasana A has become a natural motion of a spiraling extension between the fingertips and the top of the Humerus (and continuing down through the shoulder blades and on) and all we do is unify our movements with this built-in feature. Try it out, I am certain you can feel it!
Resistance or flow
We can work with these natural motions in our body or against them. It’s simple – if you go with them, you flow, if you go against them, you create either resistance or you dam them up. Resistance is muscle power, flow is prana. Effortlessness and grace lives within the paradigm of energy. So, by understanding how to read the body you learn how to communicate with the body. By listening to and following your body, your body unfolds. Alignment is the general term for ‘speaking the body’s language’. A good use of the body means to work well aligned and connected to your inherent form, your physical intelligence. In this way alignment becomes more than just another external dogma in your yoga practice. It becomes a dynamic, moving unification with the architecture below your skin.
It is our job to find these patterns in the body, find these patterns in our asana practice and apply them consciously. Your teacher tell you ‘what’ to do and your job is to find out ‘how’ to do it from inside your body. The pay off is a successful use of your body in all asanas, most likely less injuries and certainly a less strenuous approach. To find them we must start listening. This is the birth of awareness. With the help of our tuning-in, a knowledgeable teacher and perhaps a thorough anatomy book, we can slowly start to understand the architectural structure underneath our skin. My advice is to focus on a kinesthetic, functional, 3-dimensional experience, because you’ve got to feel it to really know it. Which approaches the body from its moving nature and not as a still and flat image. Tuning deeply into your sensations is the key.
The body is a tool
The body is a tool, made to give us the possibility to take action. Without it we would not be able to carry out any idea conceived in our minds, whether it is taking the trash out, winning the olympics or practising yoga asana. But, with the handy device called ‘the body’ we can act and move on our intentions. get to know your body well, invest in the communication between you, make your body your friend. Together you can do whatever you both want.
enjoy your practise, tim
* I have focussed on the spirals as an example of form-follows-function. There are other patterns in the body, yet the spirals are very central to our most basic skeletal and muscular construction.
** In this system of ‘materialized motion’ any asana is in itself a construction of one or more motions that combined becomes one motion – usually a motion that reaches upwards along the spine, as this is where we ultimately are intending to move our energy, our prana, our kundalini.