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What Is Alignment?

On Thursday, September 24, YogaCity NYC hosted its ninth Deeper Learning Series discussion. The teachers who gathered to discuss this sticky issue were Abby Galvin, Amy Matthews, Brooke Myers, Jillian Pransky, and David Regelin. The program was moderated by publisher Brette Popper.

Popper started right off by asking the evening’s big question—What is alignment?—to Myers, an Iyengar teacher, who replied with a quote from the master himself: “'Alignment is enlightenment.'

"And Mr. Iyengar would then talk about the physical alignment of your feet, legs, chest,” Myers continued, reminiscing about her time studying with him. “But what it all really was an alignment of the body, mind, and breath.”

Iyengar’s detailed physical alignment directives were used to inspire yoga’s larger, more metaphysical picture, so to speak.

“What is alignment? Relationship,” answered Matthews, who is heavily influenced by her work with Mind Body Centering. She added that alignment can, at times, become too focused on “the shape.” And “I think that making ‘the shape’ by itself is not alignment without an internal coherence, or relatedness, between the elements of the shape, or whatever relationship.”

Galvin, a senior teacher at Katonah Yoga, brought her psychoanalytic background to the table. Slightly shifting the evening’s vocabulary, she found alignment to be more akin to “attunement,” noting how a “tune up” is more spherical and less linear in nature. “Because alignment is about a line,” she said. “So, to ride the line for too long is just not good enough. After a while, what you want to do is to be spherical.”

Agreeing, Pransky added that this attunement “is not static or finite, but a dynamic, changing relationship. It’s the way the body and mind attune to the greatest capacity they can in that moment.”

Popper asked: “With so many different students in the room, how do you teach alignment? And how do you look at so many different bodies and different psychological characteristics in the room?

Regelin said that he looks at the details of the students movements from the minute they enter the room, as people’s off-mat habits influence their physical practices.

He also looks to see if “one person has their mat aligned perfectly with the floorboards, and another person has their mat angled totally different from everybody else. And her ponytail is on one side, but not the other. Do you know what I mean?” he asked. “I know that that’s gonna show up in their postures in a more dynamic way.”

Pransky, whose said her understanding of alignment has changed drastically over the past 24 years, prefers to paint with bigger brushstrokes, not fine alignment points. “There are fun fine alignment points that I like to offer to the general public, but they are much less about exactly whose pelvis should be where and whose femur bones should be rotated in which way, as much as, ‘Where do you feel the ground?’ and ‘What can you push down into?’ and ‘Where can you create space and come up from?’” she said. “My instruction is much more broad, much more metaphorical. And five years from now this conversation could be different for me.”

“All you have to do is see all these people with their personal visions of a pose. Our job is to make the pose archetypal,” Galvin added. But, at the same time, “we’re not archetypes. We’re curvaceous. Were not straight. Everybody is damaged by life. But everybody is healthy in the same way.”

In addition to the concept of “relationship,” Matthews values observation and clarity.

She finds vague comments such as “This pose will do this in the liver,” and “If I get my knee at a right angle, it will be ‘right’” to be problematic. She’s more interested in asking “Can the form be interesting to explore for the sake of exploration, not for the sake of getting it right? The pose doesn’t exist without what I bring to it,” she said.

Myers noted that Iyengar’s universal alignment principals are based on the body’s midline. “So we’re all really at the same place,” she said. “Don’t teach the idea proposed, but more what is there in front of you. I feel there’s a lot of misconceptions about all our different yogas.”

Popper wondered why that was.

Myers thought it had to do with students bouncing around too many different styles and teachers. “Even if people are saying similar instructions, they’re gonna hear too many different languages. As a result, I think that people are also hurting themselves because they are not quite sure what they’re supposed to be doing. Then they’re doing half one thing, and half another thing.”

Her recommendation: Stick with one thing for a while.

“Stay a little bit longer, unless you hate it,” she said. “I don't mean you should stay with us for the rest of your life, but I think you should stay long enough to understand, and then to move onto a second level.”

But Galvin took a different stance.

“If you only do one kind of yoga, it’s like saying ‘I only listen to jazz,’” she said, adding that there are many different ways to play music. “There are so many different kinds of beautiful yoga out there. Sometimes you want a vinyasa class, and sometimes you really want to be taught instead of just going through a flow.”

Regelin thought that “a lot of instructions are actually not alignment. We’re calling style, we’re calling ‘technique,’ alignment,” and things evolve from decade to decade. What was happening in the ‘70s or the ‘90s differs from what is being taught today, “so I see these polarities in the understanding of alignment. It makes me want to scream sometimes. It’s both ways. Why are we choosing sides?”

“The moral of the story is: I don't know anymore,” Pransky said. “I don't know anything, and I really truly believe that this conversation will change yet again for all of us in the another five years. The best we can do is keep open to the moment as it's happening, and keep adapting to the change while we're in it.”

—Michael Laskaris

Come to YogaCity NYC’s next Deeper Learning Series panel discussion.

When: Thursday, November 19. 6:30pm-8pm

Where: The Breathing Project, 15 W. 26th St., 10th Fl., Manhattan

To be placed on the list and get a seat, email Katie Jehenson:

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