What is “Alignment-Based Yoga?”
Frankly, I have no idea. I’m not sure when I noticed the term starting to pop up, or its variants, but it always puzzled me.
Saying “alignment based yoga” is like saying “tuning based music.”Let’s explore what this means.
My training for the last 30 years of yoga has been most deeply in the Iyengar method of practicing asana (postures). I recall people, students, other teachers, who had not been to my classes but thought I was an “Iyengar yoga teacher” would say “Oh you teach alignment…” I wasn’t quite sure what was meant nor how to respond.
In my experience, the Iyengar method teaches conscious presence in asana, how to become conscious of what is mechanical, and thus what is unconscious and reactive, becomes action and intention, less mechanical, less unconscious. From reaction to action, every breath of every asana imbued with conscious intentional action and observation and iterative refinement.
Note the word alignment is not in the above paragraph.
I’m sure many systems and practices share the same intention, though the method may look different (that I was trained largely by Iyengar method teachers is nor particularly relevant to the topic, it is just my experience. I also worked with Shandor Remete (Shadow Yoga), kung fu classes, classes with Vinyasa teachers, the Pathabi Jois Asana Series and many more.
Clearly skeletal alignment principles (the universe is already aligned) are among the many things an instructor calls attention to and teaches for all the above to be true. And alignment will vary person to person, and in one person at different times. A good teacher and sharp student are always conscious of alignment as breath and action are explored; just as a musician is always conscious of being in or out of tune while also conscious of posture, technique, pathos, mood, timing, dynamics and more. Conscious presence and intention.
Everything in creation, in nature, in the manifest universe(s), operates within order, laws of nature, laws of cause and effect. This body, idam sariram, being a part of that creation is also subject to the same laws, the same order… So much order given to us: Kidney order, lungs order, heart order, physiological, anatomical, psychological, behavioral, chemical, developmental, and genetic order all all play in mind/body/sense complex that is this body and person. Knowing this order is Isvara Pranidhana, or seeing oneself within the order of what is, is one of the pillars of yoga.
The skeletal structure of the human form is subject to mechanical order, kinetic order and so much more; and has a natural alignment, even a symmetry, prescribed by that order in Nature. This is Isvara in this body, a daily experience of the order of nature, the five elements, the 5 koshas (aspects of being), the organs, breath and so on.
That some forces and postures of the body are harmonious with the multiplicity of order within, and some are not, is seeing what is; and reduces our subjectivity to see what is more and more clearly and to move within that harmonious stream of what is; to be in tune with creation and Isvara.
Every practice that uses this body must take it’s order into account; and also how that order within this body interfaces with the order outside this body. Whether playing baseball, playing guitar, refining your golf swing, playing tennis, dance, karate, aikido, slack-lining, rock-climbing or walking down the sidewalk the alignment and mechanical, structural laws are at play in this body; whether we are conscious of it or now. Ann all these practices give great care and attention to how to hold the body in the practice to optimize harmonious interplay within the body and with the forces without: gravity, wind, action and reaction and so forth. To be in tune, with nature, with Isvara, with me.
We don’t leave a concert and say “Wow, that was really good tuning!” and yet if the instruments are out of tune, the experience is different whether we are conscious of it or not.
The term “tuning-based music” would only be necessary if all of a sudden people started to use the term music to include that which is out of tune; and in that case would become a previously unnecessary distinction, a useful term in this new context.
If, in yoga, I am not making an effort to be taught and learn how to drop my subjectivity and see what is (“If you think your leg is straight, stop thinking… and straighten your leg!”), to be more present in what the body needs for harmonious function with internal and external forces, then what am I doing.
I don’t teach “alignment based” yoga. I never have, nor have I practiced it.
I have been taught, and then taught, conscious intention in action.
I have learned, (and teach) that results of action, reactions in nature and in this mind/body/senses, are not of my making or choice, but are subject to laws; that this is Isvara.
I have learned (and teach) to evaluate subjective perceptions.
I have learned (and teach) to be sharp with intention to be present when the unconscious, mechanical reactions surface, thereby reducing unconscious mechanical behaviors and actions in the body.
I have learned to be attuned to laws not of my making at play in this body, and outside of this body.
Along the way I learned the optimal foot placement for all this to be true; I had to be aware of articulation of arms and legs, and the effects of unconscious action.
Abiding in our true, essential nature: Svarupe Avasthanam:
The Self is not an altered state.
When we learn to reduce our subjectivity in the body, and the laws within and without, the mind becomes more prepared to see the errors in the cognition of my own essential nature. This understanding of what is meant when we say “me” is the end and promise of yoga, and is the one teaching in all the Upaniśad and the Bhagavad Gita. The tools of seeing what is in asana prepare the mind for Śravana, hearing the teachings and contemplating upon the nature of what I call “me” and all the superimpositions and projections the mind attaches to “I.”
“Tadah drastuḥ svarupe avasthanam”
“(Once the thought modifications of the mind are in hand, seen for what they are) then the self abides in its essential, true nature; the seer sees oneself as one truly is.”
- Yoga Sutras, 1:3
Asana is an experiential practice, meaning it involves the 5 senses, occurs in space and time. An experience begins and ends.
Seeing the errors in cognition of my essential nature is a problem not of any experience, but of understanding the nature of all experiences, understanding, re-cognizing the one present in all experiences: me. Svarupe Avasthanam is cognitive, not experiential.
All experiences are objects of sensory or witness perception. I am the subject of all experiences. No object is the subject, nothing else I will call me. All experiences are objects of perception and thus contain no essential attributes of me, cannot reveal my essential nature. Experiences come and go, I remain the conscious presence in all experience: the Sat- Cit in all experiences.
This verse sets up the important prakriya, or teaching methodology, on the distinction of Subject and Object, the Seer-Seen discrimination or DrgDrśya Viveka; a teaching that shows up over and over again the Upaniśad and Bhagavad Gita. This has to be unfolded over time, with contemplation, questioning, nidhidhyasana (meditations on svarupe avasthanam, my essential nature, which cannot be defined nor contained in any experience, as all experiences go. We do this in weekly ongoing discussion.
If I can have “an experience of the self, of svarupe avasthanam, then where did I go when the experience ends? Clay is the essential nature of a clay pot, it’s svarupa, essential nature, it’s adisthana, or sub-strata; that without which the pot has no existence.
So what does the pot have to do have a clay experience? Which asana will reveal the clay?
The self is not an altered state.
Learn to see what is in this body, to attune your mind to laws and elements you move within, and the mind is better able to distinguish the pot from the clay, and not confuse one for the other.