In a recent article on Yoga Journal’s website, Leslie Kaminoff made a seemingly bold statement. He claimed that yoga asanas do not have alignment. The idea is that people have alignment, not poses. And as a result yoga teachers should be cautious when throwing around phrases like “never do x” or “always do y.” It is an idea I explored in a 2011 piece for Elephant Journal called “Alignment Matters.”
In that essay I argued that yoga asanas have no independent existence outside the body of the practitioner. Not only does downward dog not have alignment, it actually does not exist. The pose only comes into existence when a practitioner chooses to take on that particular shape.
It may seem like a semantic issue, but I think there are some implications in terms of how yoga is taught. If the postures are dependent on the practitioner, then the posture takes a backseat to the student. If we accept that there is no posture without the practitioner, then every asana and every sequence should be modified to meet the needs of the student.
This essentially shatters the notion of particular sequences (Bikram, the primary series of Ashtanga, and Sivananda) being sacred, special, or worth repeating every day for the rest of your life. It is not possible for one sequence to meet the constantly changing context that it our body-mind-life.
But before we start burning our copies of Light on Yoga and dancing on the graves of the 20th Century masters of yoga, maybe we should give this a little more thought.
Just because it is true that the rules don’t apply to all people in all contexts does not mean that you should not follow the rules. There are exceptional people who can do exceptional things, and more often than not it is because they have trained themselves to do those things.
For example, there is a Dutch daredevil named Wim Hof who ran a full marathon in the polar circle in Finland wearing nothing but shorts. He also sat in an ice bath for almost 2 hours. He is able to control his nervous system through meditation in way that prevents hypothermia and death.
So while we might be tempted to say “NEVER practice outdoor naked yoga when it is -20 celsius,” that would be incorrect because Wim Hof can do it. Would we be disrespecting Wim Hof with that instruction? Would we be saddling students with unnecessary dogma? Or would we actually just be teaching responsibly and preventing frostbitten privates?
Human beings are amazing. I believe all things are possible. But just because some people can do exceptional things, does not mean that we should attempt to do the same. You should not hold your breath and dive to 100 meters in the ocean. Ever. Seriously you should not do that because you will probably die. But that doesn’t mean it is not possible.
We are all beautiful and unique snowflakes. But all snowflakes melt if it gets warm enough. Many factors go into melting snowflakes: the size of the flake, the relative humidity, and the speed with which it falls to the ground. But turn up the heat enough and you have rain. Every time.
Like snowflakes, our bodies are all beautiful and possessed of an impressive diversity of size, shape, density, and malleability. But they all break down. Knee cartilage can only take so much repetitive strain before it breaks. Lumbar discs are the same way. Like a plug-in that gets repeatedly ripped out of the electrical outlet by the cord, it will eventually break. You might yank the cord from the wall hundreds of times without any noticeable damage, but that doesn’t mean it is safe.
Of course it is true that all of the rules and dogma in yoga asana are not absolute. The world is far too complex for that. But relatively speaking, the rules are there for a reason. That doesn’t mean accept them without question. It means be open minded, but not so open minded that your brain (or the nucleus pulposus of a lumbar disc) falls out.