When Ashtanga found its way to Australia, practitioners of other methods of Yoga often claimed that ‘Ashtangis’ didn’t have a good understanding of proper alignment in asanas, and in that regard, they ‘weren’t sure what they were doing’ :)

The latter might have been correct for some of us who were previously educated in other approaches, and continued to use instructions which were perfect for the old method, but didn’t exactly apply to Ashtanga Vinyasa. We had ‘converted’ to Ashtanga (for us back then, a new method), because it felt so good; consequently, our body also kind of made the decision for us. Once the transition was arrived at, there was no going back.

But did we yet fully understand this complex system of the pre-defined sequence of postures; and the reasoning behind – for some postures – the quite different shapes the body took? I doubt it.

I guess that the cultural difference between our Indian teachers and us Westerners initially didn’t help. We have been brought up to learn by listening to instructions, analyzing and reading up on subject matter. Whereas in the East, mindful and attentive observation and focusing very closely again and again, are a more common means of getting to know a craft very well. Back in the early days, books about Ashtanga Yoga didn’t exist, and only very few of us spoke the native South-Indian tongue.

In Yoga, paying full attention to how a posture feels and making your own explorations, lead you to a deeper and more correct understanding of the practice, though these experiences will always remain a subjective insight into how alignment needs to be mastered. This is where – especially when learning how to teach – we need the advice of an experienced practitioner/teacher. After all, everyone’s body is different. Even when practicing the same posture, considerably different instructions might be required for two different body types to arrive at the same place.

It is often said that practicing a posture can be both harmful and healing, depending on how it is aligned. I very much agree with this, having experienced the powerful healing properties of asanas myself, and also having had injuries due to incorrect practice before.

To dissect the alignment of different postures in detail would most likely open up a can of worms. There are many different approaches and ways of understanding the execution of asanas, probably as many as there are practitioners. Nevertheless there are many approaches leading to the same goal. What we are really after is the curbing of the unruly mind, leading us to a state of serenity and freedom, which we won’t master by just practicing asanas alone. But at the same time asanas are certainly an integral part of the process – and they are so much fun! To encourage ongoing enthusiasm for the daily task of getting onto the mat, we want to feel comfortable in our bodies. Therefore proper alignment of the postures is of utmost importance, especially if we intend to make yoga a life-long journey.

First and foremost we need to closely listen to and accept our bodies’ innate wisdom. To respect and act on our body’s signals. If you are not sure whether you are feeling ‘good pain’ or ‘bad pain’, assume that it is ‘bad pain’. Apply the skill you have attained in your regular yoga practice of looking inward closely and ‘feeling’ your body. When uncomfortable or in pain we tend to bypass the area of concern or the respective movement, not wanting to linger. Unfortunately it is exactly the lingering – after having backed off from the intensity of the posture – which gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore. Let your mind’s eye look inward at the problematic area – it might be your shoulder, back, knee etc – and try to soften that part of the body; then attempt to ‘breath out’ the discomfort. Do this for some time until you can locate the true origin of the problem, just by investigating the modes of ‘feeling’. If this doesn’t work, ‘tweak’ your alignment; ask your teacher for help, too. But learn to become more self-reliant. Often it is helpful to read up on the anatomy of the respective body part.

The beautifully flowing, ‘organic’ movement through the sequence of postures, stresses the focus on the continuous flow of the breath, discouraging us from becoming obsessed with the perfection of a posture. Once a certain body shape is assumed, be content with the depth of the experience. Don’t try to intensify the pose, as it is already working its magic. The five deep breaths spent in each posture teaches us to immediately ‘arrive’ in the final position, and to perfect our ability to be in the present moment.

In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga it is essential to gain insight into the structure of the series of postures you are practicing. Understand what we are trying to achieve with certain postures, the particular sequencing, and the place the posture has in the sequence. E.g. in many methods of Yoga ‘downward facing dogpose’ is practiced by flattening the back and lengthening the spine, sometimes arching/backbending the lower back slightly. Whereas in Ashtanga we seek to round the back as in a forward bend – therefore the gaze or dristi is to the navel – because its function is of being a counterpose to the previously practiced ‘upward facing dog-pose’, which is a backbend.

Another example is ‘Utthita Trikonasana’, the triangle pose. For us the stance is shorter in this posture than e.g. in the Iyengar method, where the feet are further apart from each other. The hip positioning is quite different, too. From my understanding we experience less of a stretch in the waist and groin, but more broadness and space in the sacrum, and an easier twist of the thoracic towards the ceiling. Other practitioners might experience this differently.

In the early days some of us would look at photos of the old masters practicing asanas, making the assumption that the posture photographed should be practiced quite differently nowadays; e.g. as in Janu Sirsasana A – the head to knee posture. But I was always baffled by the translation of the name of this posture. Wouldn’t it suggest a rounded back as shown on the old photos, which initially I was taught would be incorrect practice? With the spine stretched far forward the back should be ‘flatter’, or so I learned. As always there is no right or wrong, approaches are always different. In Ashtanga a rounded back provides us with a good flexion/forward bend of the spine, and spaciousness in the sacral area. Broadness in the sacrum soothes the sacroiliac joints beautifully.

Over time with increased focus during a concentrated practice, true understanding of the correct alignment comes from within. In the Ashtanga system the use of the bandhas is an additional extremely helpful tool to fine-tune the alignment of a posture, and together with the linking of movement to breath, we can come closer to the desired ‘ability to direct our mind’s focus exclusively towards an object of our choice, and to sustain this direction with no distraction’ (Sutra I.2).

Next time you are practicing, focus on understanding why the practice is structured the way it is. Feel the different directions your spine is taking during the sequence of postures, and how it makes sense. Keep questioning and learn how to discern. It is your body, align it well, and delight in regular and fun asana practice for many more years to come.

OM Shanti,
Angelika