A common question I encounter in classes is some variation of, “Am I doing this right?”
A great deal of yoga instruction centers around which body part goes where: you know, “step your left foot to the front of your mat”, “square your hips”, “reach your arms up”, to the point where it can sound like “put your left foot in, put your left foot out, put your left foot in and you shake it all about”. Given this emphasis, it’s not surprising that we wonder if we’re doing it right.
I spent yesterday afternoon at a great yoga workshop. What better way to spend a snowy day? Anyhow, most of the afternoon focused on physical alignment in yoga postures. I learned about the rotation of the legs in various standing poses and another way to look at headstand. I’ve always enjoyed learning about anatomy and physiology, so this was a great chance for me to geek out. But my biggest take-away from the afternoon was this: Usually, the answer to the question “Should this pose look like x or like y?” is “Both!”
Physical alignment is important, but of course that’s not all there is to the practice of yoga. And even within the study of physical alignment, there are as many opinions as there are yoga teachers. We’re so accustomed to seeing asana (postures) in terms of right or wrong, this way or that way, good or bad. Entire lineages or schools of yoga have split off due to disagreement about the position of the feet in triangle pose. I’m not even joking! However, taking a “one-size-fits-all” approach to asana ignores the diversity of human body sizes, shapes and movement patterns.
Instead of looking for the one “right” way of doing a posture, try asking these questions:
1. What am I trying to do in this posture? e.g., stretch my hamstrings? stabilize my core? twist my spine? How can I modify the posture to attain this objective in my body?
2. What natural or habitual tendencies do I have in my body? e.g., am I hyper-flexible? stiff? do I have pre-existing injuries or muscle imbalances? How can I modify this pose to bring my body into balance rather than exacerbating these tendencies?
3. Most importantly: What quality of sensation do I feel when I’m in the pose? e.g., pain, lethargy, strain, or bliss? How can I modify this pose to find more steadiness and ease? Forget about the external shape or appearance of the pose and focus on the internal sensation. In this way, we each become our best teacher. No one else can tell you what you’re feeling inside your own body.
Enjoy your practice!