Ashtanga is not about catching your wrist in marichyasana or touching the forehead to the shin in janu sirsasana. It’s about applying the pose correctly to your individual body type, says Claire Saunders.
There are many reasons why asana alignment is important:
- To receive the full benefit of the posture.
- To heal injuries.
- To be able to achieve more advanced postures. Asanas build on each other, so it is important to first be able to do easier postures correctly before attempting (or succeeding) to perform more complex poses.
- To prevent hurting yourself as incorrect alignment can cause injuries.
On a more profound level, when we balance our bodies, we balance our emotions. When we balance our emotions, we balance our minds and when we balance our minds, who and what we attract into our lives becomes more balanced.
We can carry imbalance and injury all our lives — it may even be an inherited imbalance that has been passed down to us via our families through generations. Perhaps also, the imbalance may come from the culture we have grown up in, or the religion we were raised with or by conditions we have learned from being male or female.
It is by the grace of yoga practice that we can transcend all that does not support us and give us balance. However, students need to make an effort and learn from a teacher who can guide them correctly and who knows details of the practice such as correct alignment. Otherwise, all their efforts will be without reward or worse, cause greater imbalance.
“While looking at visual displays of other practitioners might very well be inspirational, it might not actually help you to achieve the same posture.”
So what exactly is good alignment? Students can fall into traps by looking at what other students are doing and thinking that what other people are doing is correct alignment, and therefore that’s what they also need to be doing. This is an assumption. It might be that that other students’ alignment is different because of their different body proportions or that the other student has more experience and is doing a more advanced version. So, while looking at visual displays of other practitioners might very well be inspirational, it might not actually help you to achieve the same posture.
We all have different body shapes and proportions. Skinny hips, wide hips, broad shoulders, narrow shoulders. Some of us have short arms and legs while others have long limbs. There are people with curvy hips and busts contrasted with those who have more androgynous features. The wonderful news is that anyone, regardless of their body shape, is capable of practising yoga asanas. It does mean though, that some postures will come easier for different people with certain body types but that for others, the same postures will be more challenging and will need more time and quite possibly, more technique. For example, a student with long legs will find it easier to place their legs behind their head whereas a student with short legs will need to have more open hips to achieve the same result.
Alignment is also different for everyone according to their particular body shape and proportion. For example, I have proportionally short arms and a long back so in pārśvakonāsana A, while I’m physically capable of placing my hand flat on the floor next to my foot, I have better alignment if I raise my hand and rest on my fingers (see image below). In this way, my spine is straighter and my back gets a better stretch than if I were to have my palm flat on the ground with the result being a more rounded and less elongated back. The alignment of this posture is still essential, but the focus is on the straight line created by the placement of the foot, the hip and the tips of the fingers.
Another example of how body shape affects alignment is the different placement of feet according to the shape of a student’s hips in Utthita Trikonasana B. In this posture, students with wider hips will need to have their feet slightly further apart than with students who have narrower hips. For students with curvier hips, if they have their feet too close, there will be no room to stretch and open the lower back or hips (which is really the whole point of the pose — at least from a physical perspective). In terms of alignment, this posture is particularly interesting because the placement of the feet is relative to the width of the hips. The exact position of the feet is not something that we really look at, but rather, we feel. First, we focus on the correct alignment of our hips and then we feel for where our feet should be. This is an important step in the process of yoga. We begin to turn our attention inwards and listen to ourselves and stop focusing on the outside or what is happening around us. This is just one way that the ashtanga method becomes a form of moving meditation and not just a physical workout. It is yoga, and not only a form of exercise.
In another example, in prasārita pādottānāsana, how far apart the feet are placed is important and this will depend on many things. If a student has proportionately shorter legs and a longer back, then the feet will be closer together than if a student has a shorter back and longer legs. Also, the longer a student has been practicing and the more open their back is, the closer together the feet will be. What is important in this posture is that the spine has enough space to stretch and this in turn, will affect the distance between the feet. So, marking where your feet should be positioned on your yoga mat will not benefit you. Again, you need to feel the posture and go within.
There are many steps to perfecting a yoga pose. For example, to achieve Shirshasana, a beginner will first try preparation exercises, then proceed to going up with one leg, then with both legs bent and finally we go up with both legs straight at the same time. However, if a student who has never tried to do headstand before sees a more experienced practitioner going up with straight legs and tries the same, it can cause back pain (if they are able to even attempt this posture).
Practicing the ashtanga yoga primary series when one is used to practicing the intermediate or advanced sequences doesn’t necessarily mean the primary series becomes easy. It just means you have more awareness of what you need to be doing in the primary series. However, the approach of an experienced student will be very different to that of a beginner. This is also part of the beauty of yoga. It keeps your mind occupied and you never get bored. Your mind stays focused. It is mind control yoga – raj yoga. In this sense, no one ever perfects or conquers an asana because you can always go deeper.
“Practicing the Ashtanga yoga primary series when one is used to practicing the intermediate or advanced sequences doesn’t necessarily mean the primary series becomes easy. It just means you have more awareness of what you need to be doing in the primary series.”
There are many different types of yoga. Some are active while others employ more passive techniques. The ashtanga method is not a passive practice. Students need to be active in all the postures. That is, we need to make an effort to stretch. When a student’s body becomes open after long-term practice or for certain students who have particularly long limbs, it might be possible to catch or bind or touch in particular postures without making much effort. However, when a student does this, they have very little benefit. The benefit comes from the effort that they make. It is this stretching that opens the body. It is the effort that keeps the mind engaged and focused on the present, and takes the practice from just the physical level to that of a moving meditation.
When we shift our awareness to thinking that it is about the effort we are making, it also makes the physical aspect much more accessible to students with limited physical abilities. It makes yoga much more accessible to everyone, not just those with open, flexible and strong bodies. Unfortunately, many beginners fall into the trap of thinking that the end result of the posture is the aim of yoga (catching the wrist in marichyasana or touching the forehead to the knees or shin in janu sirsasana).
To conclude, it is important for every practitioner to practise according to their body type and practise the asana so that it benefits them. It’s not about conquering the pose, it’s about applying the pose to your body and your practice so it can benefit you. We don’t need to compare ourselves to anyone else. Who we are is enough and knowing and accepting this is where real perfection can be found.
Claire Saunders is a Level 2 Authorised Ashtanga Teacher based in Aix-en-Provence. For her teaching schedules visit, Ashtanga Yoga Shala Provence.