The number one reason why people don’t go to public yoga classes is because they are afraid they aren’t doing a yoga posture right. That’s not scientific and I have no data to actually back that up, but it’s a best guess and a common fear I hear from first-time students.
According to the most recent Yoga in America study conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, 28% of Americans have practiced yoga in a class setting, while almost 33% of Americans have practiced yoga on their own at home.
Besides the fact that class schedules may be inconvenient, there aren’t studios nearby where you live, or classes are just too expensive for your budget, all yoga teachers will most likely agree that there are far too many students who are afraid they aren’t doing a yoga posture right. This includes yoga practitioners who have been practicing for months or even years. As a society, we’re much too concerned with how things look on the outside to the extent that we’ve forgotten it’s what we’re feeling on the inside that really counts.
What does alignment really mean?
There is an interesting debate in the yoga world about alignment. There are some styles of yoga that focus entirely on the importance of alignment. There are other styles of yoga that could care less about alignment and argue that a practitioner should be able to find his or her own alignment based on what feels right. I fall somewhere in the middle.
There are certain alignment cues that are important for keeping your body safe and healthy for the long-term. Beyond that, the skill of learning how to deeply listen to your body and figure out where it is in space (the scientific term is proprioception) is an important one to develop and is how we develop the ability to move gracefully and with control.
The general alignment principle to always remember is joint-stacking. Make sure your joints stack one on top of the other and you don’t have to worry about compromising or stressing vulnerable joints. Other then that, it’s up to you to find where you need to be.
This means that it doesn’t really matter where you look in a posture. I always say look wherever is most comfortable for your neck. If it feels great to look up, look up. If your neck is sore today, look down. Does that mean you might not look like the picture of the nearly naked dude in the picture from the book that you got teaching you how to do each posture? Yep. Who said the naked dude got to choose how that posture looks for you anyway?
Alignment is dynamic
The thing is, your body changes every day so your postures will have to change every day to match the ever-changing needs of your body. Putting yourself into the same position over and over again doesn’t help you grow because it forces you to ignore where your physical body is at any given moment. Forcing your body to fit into a rigidly prescribed system of postures will surely have you quitting yoga altogether eventually because your body will no longer be able to keep up or you’ll injure yourself and be unable to continue even if you want to. And that is not beneficial to anyone.
The beauty of beginner classes is that they offer you the freedom to explore your own body with full permission to “mess up” and no one is going to care. Truthfully, no one will care if you mess up no matter what class you go to (as long as you have a good, honest yoga instructor).
In reality, ALL yoga classes, no matter the title, theoretically offer you the opportunity to explore your body in all of it’s nuances each and every day. This exploration is the essence of yoga. Alignment is not static just like balance is not static. These are dynamic concepts that give the illusion of stillness and perfection. I think we can all agree by now as a community that there is no such thing as perfect. Be wary of the instructor that ABSOLUTELY INSISTS you must do a particular posture in a very specific way.
Your alignment will change
There is certainly no such thing as perfect yoga because YOGA IS ALWAYS CHANGING. If you asked me to choose one word to define what yoga is, I might choose the word change. Yoga is the ability to understand and participate in change — changing bodies, changing thoughts, changing practices, changing breaths, changing postures.
And in order to adapt to change we must be open to exploration, to all possibilities, to new and different ways of looking at things. That includes alignment.
If you’re feeling, you’re doing it right
So please do me a favor and never NOT practice yoga because you’re afraid you’re doing it wrong.
And please get out of the habit of asking your teachers if you’re “doing it right.” Because I’m just going to ask you how it feels for you so that you can find the answer for yourself.
The beauty of the yoga practice is that it empowers you as the individual to take control of your own life. That means I can’t tell you what to do. I can suggest and guide as a teacher but you’re going to have to feel Warrior II for yourself.
What you feel is probably different then what I feel and probably way different then what the person next to you feels. So it doesn’t matter if you look like me or the person next to you. What matters is that you’re engaging in a relationship with your own feelings and sensations. It is those feelings and sensations that will lead you to further understand who YOU are and give you a more general feeling of well-being and peace. Trying to copy someone so that your body looks exactly like their body will only lead to suffering.
Are you posing?
I take back what I said earlier. If you ask me if you’re “doing it right” and it becomes evident to me that all you care about is how the posture looks, then yes, I’ll tell you you are doing it wrong. Because you’re not opening up to how you feel. Without that, you’re not practicing yoga. You’re just posing.