The "Right" Way to Practice
Marathons and Possibilities
Most of what gets taught as “correct alignment” in yoga classes is really about aesthetic appeal. About using the body to create shapes that are symmetrical, or that consist only of right angles, or that impress through pretzeling and strength demonstrated with clean lines.
The book in teacher trainings often touted as the Bible for cueing asana, Light on Yoga, was written by a man whose entire career was based on performance. That is to say, based on his ability to make shapes with his body that were pleasing to the gaze of others (or to that of the camera).
B.K.S. Iyengar also brought the use of props into the practice of yoga, making many poses much more accessible to many different bodies. But the classic alignment cues for Trikonasana, Triangle Pose, for example, are not about finding a Triangle that works well for your body today. They are about using your body to create a specific shape. About being able to recreate that exact same shape out of every body. Regardless of whether or not that specific shape is going to be good for your real body, today.
Here is the secret, my friends, that I wish every yoga teacher and every yoga practitioner knew: Every pose can be inhabited in an almost unlimited number of ways, according to three main factors: 1. The one specific body embodying the pose, 2. The intention of this particular yoga practice, and 3. The intention for the pose itself.
Learning to Befriend the Body
It happens at this time every year. (And around Columbus Day weekend. And the first Sunday in November. And the list goes on....) A little part of me can't help playing the What If Game.
In an oft-repeated phrase, the American actress Mariel Hemingway once said, “Yoga teaches you how to listen to your body.” This is exactly what yoga should do. But the irony of the way yoga tends to be practiced in our society—perhaps because we are so programmed to always be competing, whether with ourselves or with others—is that even if we begin our yoga practice by slowing down enough to listen to our bodies, by mid-way through a class we’ll hit a challenging pose or flow and turn away from what our bodies tell us. Or we’ll hear a yoga teacher offering modifications and variations of poses, and rather than staying in the variation that most suits our bodies in this moment (and not yesterday or ten years ago or the version of us we imagine we'll be in three months time!), we’ll feel like we have to try every single variation until we get to the ‘deepest’ or ‘most advanced’ version of the pose.
When I teach group classes, I can see the moment this begins to happen as I look around the room: breath being held as you try to hold your balance in tree pose; jaws clenching as you try to sink deeper into pigeon pose; brows furrowed as you lift into upward facing bow pose. [...]