“Alignment” seems to be a hot topic or at least a buzz word in yoga circles these days. For Iyengar Yogis though, it is old news, and for us it is not something externally forced, but an avenue for mental focus and internal balance.
You could look at “alignment” solely on the physical level, as a tool used to be more “safe” within a physical practice. But, as with the poses themselves, to look at alignment as strictly a physical manipulation is missing a grander depth. Though there might be some idea of what an “ideal skeletal or anatomical body” may look like, none of us come into this world as a “straight” and “balanced” physical being. We all carry twists and turns and the instructions we give in class are first and foremost to find ease in your joints and challenge your muscles for strength, flexibility, and stamina. But, ultimately yoga is for you to learn you, not to adhere to some “ideal”.
So why bother with this alignment then? Why not just “do what we can” or “stay within the ease of our own space”? Well, that is exactly what we do in regular life. Yoga is about transformation and adjustment and challenge to our normal boundaries and ideas of our Self and we have to start somewhere with that process. The physical is just the first layer and is merely a tool for the rest.
What BKS Iyengar found is that with focus on alignment and structure of the asanas in the beginning, we are able to be absolutely present in practice. If we are reluctant to challenge the boundary of our physical self, then to challenge the boundaries of the mind and consciousness will be impossible. To get our outer hip to come in and underneath a pose for support is one thing, but if we can’t take the time to control that one small piece of our Self, how do we expect to conquer the more subtle and harder to control aspects?
If you do yoga at all, you probably have attempted to sit quietly and concentrate the mind on one point or breath. For the average person, this goes well for maybe around 5-10 minutes and even then you might notice a lot of mental gymnastics going on in the process. Not to mention the hip and back pain that arise from not opening the hips or lifting the chest in the first place.
Yoga Sutra II.46 mentions that “Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence, and benevolence of spirit”. For me this is exactly what alignment means. Aligning our posture helps us find the ability to be firm in our body so the mind can become more steady and our consciousness feels more free of obstacle and restriction.
The true and ultimate “alignment” of yoga is the alignment of our inner being with our outer manifestation. We have to learn to manipulate and steer our outer Nature toward a more pure consciousness. This is not an easy task. It is definitely something that is helped with the guidance of a teacher. And, without external alignment we might just find ourselves doing a lot of contortions that land us right back where we started.