“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”, said the Cheshire Cat.
How we go in yoga has, as the Cheshire Cat said, a lot to do with where we want to get to.
We might just say that we want to create the conditions that make it more likely to have the experience of Yoga.
If asana is our tool to create those conditions, then how might we best use it? How will we know when it’s “Yoga” asana and not gymnastics or calisthenics or any other movement practice? What makes it Yoga?
While there certainly isn’t just one answer to that question, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2:46 says this: sthira sukham asanam. Literally (as translated by B.K.S. Iyengar): “Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.” I might translate this more loosely to say that asana is Yoga when there is a balance between effort and ease. I think we get closer to the experience of Yoga when our asana practice moves the needle closer to balance between “doing” and “being”.
The culture we live in emphasizes and rewards “doing” or “efforting”. If we’re “doing” without awareness though, where are we going? If we’re “doing” without paying attention to what we’re “feeling”, then we might just be running very fast to stay in the same place.
What does this have to do with the idea of yoga alignment? It’s about intention. When a posture is not yet happening fully, it can be easy to get caught up in “doing”. We might try to push, force, or try to think our way through an asana.
A common question that I hear from students is, “What should I be doing here?” The answer may in fact be, “nothing” or more specifically, “breathing and noticing how you feel in space without trying to change anything”.
Certified Ashtanga teacher, John Scott, says the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice is a form follows function practice.
What does this mean?
Our emphasis in the Ashtanga practice is on the function first. The form follows as a result of the function. You could say, in the Ashtanga practice, our method is to work from the inside out.
Consistent effort on developing the components we each need as individuals to express the functions of a pose will, in time, also create the form in the way that it is expressed by each individual.
What does this mean in practice?
The form should support the function. What is our function? Healthy movement, increased awareness, and increased concentration are some good places to start.
If we are taking the 8 limbs of yoga as our guide, then our intention is to move in the direction of not be driven around by our senses, increasing our concentration, and setting the context that will increase the likelihood of the experience of meditation – Yoga.
Common questions that I hear from students are about the specific details of yoga alignment, for example, “Should I line this foot up with that foot?”, or “Where should this arm be?”
While form, or yoga alignment can be important for supporting function, what is equally important is asking the question, WHY? What function in your individual practice are you trying to support by changing the form?
In my mind “good” yoga alignment is not arbitrary and it is relevant to each individual. “Good” yoga alignment is in support of increased function. I say this from my own bias where I understand some of the intentions of the Ashtanga practice to be about increased functional movement, increased ease of breathing, and cultivating steady attention.
I’m pretty sure my teacher has two favorite answers to every practice/technique-related question. The first one is: “Why?” and the second one is “What do you think?”
His point, with these questions, is that we can often find the answers to our own questions with a little bit of exploring in our practice.
An interesting place to go in practice is to ask yourself some questions when you have an idea that you should be changing the form in some way.
- What function am I supporting with this change?
- Am I able to move through a greater range of motion?
- Does this change increase the stability of the posture?
- Does this change increase the feeling of length or spaciousness in the posture?
- Does this change increase my ability to breathe in the posture?
- Am I directing the experience of my nervous system in some way?
- Does this change alleviate pain or reduce my risk of injury in some way?
- Am I just looking for something to “do” in this posture?
What am paying attention to? Am I avoiding holding my attention on sensations in the body and breath by getting up in my head and thinking?
If there is a function you would like to address in a posture, try experimenting by changing the questions you ask. Instead of yoga alignment questions specifically, trying working from a visceral, feeling place.
- How could I do this posture with greater ease?
- How could I do this posture with greater stability?
- How could I do this posture with a smoother, fuller breath?
- How could I do this posture with more focused attention?
This shift has been an interesting exploration in my own practice. I notice that it is easy for me to fall into a mental habit of looking for something to “do”, to “fix”, or to “improve” in yoga asana practice. Much more challenging for me is moving into a posture and then just being in the posture with awareness for five breaths.
If you find yourself often in “doing” mode, then have an exploration in a future practice with ‘being mode”. Choose a point of concentration: breath, driste (gazing point), the feeling of contacting the ground, etc. Just choose one thing and gently follow it through practice. See what you notice as you just hold awareness there. See where that takes you.
…and remember the Cheshire Cat. How you go in yoga practice depends on where you want to get to!