Monday, March 21, 2011

Day 27: alignment vs flow

Today marks the midpoint of my 54 day moon salutation project. It's definitely a lot more relaxed than last year's 108 sun salutations for 108 days. Obviously, this 54 lunar flow practice is a lot shorter than the 108 surya namaskar practice and the fact that I'm not blogging everyday about the practice makes the whole thing seem a lot less intense. I'm certainly not analyzing the process as much. Well, at least not outwardly.

But this practice still has it's challenges. It can be very difficult to find motivation to roll out the mat and do a personal practice, especially after teaching and demonstrating asana all day. However, that is honestly the best time for me to practice. Often when I'm tired, sore and don't feel like practicing, I end up surrendering my calculating mind to the flow of postures and let postures unfold organically. I stop trying to do things "properly" and I just let go. Sure, my alignment gets a little sloppy, but I've decided that too much alignment blah, blah can be tedious and sometimes even counterproductive.  Western yogis (myself included) have become super alignment obsessed, and although I agree, it's important to make sure the joints are in the right place to avoid injury, I also believe that if we focus too much on that stuff, we can missed the point of the practice. We can over think the pose and under experience the moment.

This weekend, I taught a 16 hour workshop called "Essentials of Modern Ashtanga Yoga." The course was about how to adapt the traditional ashtanga primary and second series to modern urban lifestyles. Now, I'm an ashtangi by yogic birth-- my first teacher at age 14 was the then very strict Mark Darby, the first officially certified ashtanga teacher in Canada-- but I've since dabbled in various other yoga styles and even did a teacher training with a senior Iyengar instructor. So suffice it to say, I feel fairly confident in my alignment techniques and I usually inflict these principles on unsuspecting type-A, ashtanga students, who often prefer to plow through the sequence then listen to instructions about sustainable postures and foundational stability.

Nevertheless, I had an 'ah ha' moment this weekend. I elected to play Sharath's led primary series on CD for the students to practice. (Sharath is the grandson of Asthanga guru Pattabhi Jois.) Sharath's teaching pace is much faster than mine because he offers no instructional details. He just says the name of the pose and then counts the breaths. There are no alignment cues whatsoever. Normally, this would concern me, but I was right there to adjust when needed and I knew it was important to give the students the chance to just move with the postures and breath. Although their postures weren't super calibrated, the energy in the practice room was a bit different. It was concentrated, excited and simultaneously, peaceful and quiet.

Is that not what we ultimately search for?

Perhaps alignment techniques are those things that train us to focus at first. They help us learn about ourselves, but after a while, it's time to let go of all that instruction (inward and outward) and allow the yoga to happen to us, one beautifully messy posture at a time.

After all, yoga isn't all about making perfectly aligned asanas of ourselves. There are seven other equally important branches of the eight-limbed Ashtanga yoga tree. (More on that later.) Above is an artwork by Bruce Chase-Dunn, my teacher trainee, of the eight limbs of the ashtanga (meaning 'eight limbs') yoga system. Note that there is no hierarchy to the limbs. Everything can be experienced all at the same time.

Here's a link to an interesting interview with Sharath: Click here

I like what Sharath said when asked what consititutes a good yoga student:
"Students who understand yoga, that is very important. Their body might be very flexible, they can perform all the asanas but they are not able to understand what is yoga. The student who understands what it is, who understands what is parampara, the lineage, that is very important. Lineage, and who are able to understand what is yamas and niyamas and try to perform them in their daily life - I think that is a good student. Many people they don’t understand what is yama, niyama, ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha. Not all yoga practitioners, asana practitioners I should say, are able to perform these or to understand what these are."


  1. Yas,
    you are so right.... when the workshop started, I wanted so much to do well... have perfect alignment, understand and remember everything... but by Sunday, my body and my mind were so exhausted that I could not even try to be perfect or close to.... I just had to let the yoga happened to me.... and at the end of the day, I had a nice awakening.. I was able to do backbends.... me who always have such a hard time doing them... I was so tired by then that I ended up just letting do and it was a wonderfull experiment... I was able to flow into Dhanurasana, an impossible posture for me to do up untill then...thanks!!! nath

  2. i agree that thinking too much about the poses can be distracting to the overall practice. as a someone who is new to yoga, i find my practice is different in a class where someone is directing what to do next. when i'm at home practicing on my own if feel more distractced because i have to concentrate so darn hard. it makes me appreciate you teachers!

  3. Practicing at home is good for you. Keep it up. :) Nath, glad to hear your feedback. xx

  4. You put incredible amounts of energy into your work and your writing... Keep it up Yasmin