Am I doing this right? Musings on Alignment

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!

Why teaching yoga is the best job in the world

Before I started teaching yoga, I didn’t believe there was such as thing as a “calling” or a purpose in life. I thought that those who professed otherwise were just deluding themselves. At best, maybe it existed for others, but it didn’t seem to exist for me. All that changed the first time I stood in front of a roomful of people and used my voice to guide them through a simple sequence of yoga postures.

It was 2009 and I was in my first week of yoga teacher training. We were just beginning to learn about anatomy, alignment, yoga philosophy, and how to instruct a class, and my classmates and I were taking turns leading each other through a few basic poses. When it was my turn to stand at the front of the room, I was excited and a little terrified. Would I freeze up and completely forget what I had wanted to say? Would I get tongue-tied or out of breath? I was no stranger to public speaking but this was a whole new realm for me. And then just a few moments later, it was over and I went back to my own mat as the next teacher-in-training stepped up.

I don’t remember which poses I taught or what words I used, but I will never forget the way I felt afterwards. It was as though a switch had been flipped inside me. I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, so THIS is what people mean when they say they’ve found their calling!” Never before had I felt such joy, effortless flow and present-moment awareness as I had when I stepped into the role of a teacher. And five years later, I still feel the same.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly why teaching yoga resonates so deeply with me but I’ll do my best. Here are just a few of the many reasons:

  • It allows me to share what I’m truly passionate about: the teachings of yoga that have been passed down to me by my teachers, the empowerment of taking an active role in one’s own wellness, and the beauty of a practice that always meets you where you are.
  • The light and energy I see reflected back in the faces of my students.
  • The privilege and honour of witnessing the transformation – not just physical, but emotional and even spiritual – that occurs each time someone steps onto their mat.
  • The joy of guiding others inward to (re)discover their own innate truth, ability, beauty and authenticity.
  • It inspires me to practice, read, discuss, write and think. The more I learn about the art and science of yoga, the more it becomes apparent that there’s so much more I need to learn. Teaching leads me back to my own mat, again and again.
  • (Honourable mention: Teaching yoga gives me a reason to use Sanskrit words in public.)

For all of these reasons and many more, I always make a point of thanking my students after each class. Without their presence, I wouldn’t be able to experience having the best job in the world.

Ayurvedic Tips for Winter Skincare

Is your skin feeling parched and prickly these days? Harsh prairie winters and dry indoor air can wreak havoc on our skin and sometimes even slathering on moisturizer after showering just doesn’t seem to do enough. So why not try something different and exfoliate and moisturize before you shower?

Dry skin brushing followed by oil massage is a great way to revitalize dry skin, increase blood flow and aid lymphatic drainage. These practices form part of the traditional Ayurvedic morning self-care and cleansing routine known as dinicharya. (Ayurveda is a system of traditional medicine that is known as the “sister science” of yoga.)

Here’s how you do it:

1. Before bathing or showering, brush your skin with a natural-bristled bodycare brush, a dry loofah, or even a dry washcloth. Start at the extremities and work towards the heart. avoiding tender and sensitive areas like the breasts and face.

2. Massage your skin with unroasted sesame oil, coconut oil or sunflower oil. (Note: If you’re using sesame oil, make sure it’s unroasted and not the dark oil used for seasoning – unless you want to smell like dipping sauce!) Pay particular attention to dry/rough patches of skin, and to any muscles or joints that are sore. This is a great way to show yourself some love.

3. Shower as usual. If you can wait 5-10 minutes before showering to let the oil soak in, your skin will thank you for it, but no worries if you don’t have the time. If you’ve applied oil to your feet, be careful not to slip in the shower!

4. After you shower, notice how your skin has absorbed the perfect amount of moisture. Your skin should be neither dry nor oily but the perfect in-between.

5. Repeat every day.

Hope you find this helpful! For more information about ayurveda, click here or here.