by Cyndi Lee
Yoga provides an opportunity for us to practice whatever it is we want to develop in the other parts of our life when we are not “doing” yoga. Perhaps our aspiration is to cultivate more patience, curiosity, strength, flexibility, generosity, compassion or … a flat tummy and a firm butt. The truth is that these are ongoing, long-term “projects.” In fact, rather than a learning situation in which one masters a particular body of work, yoga is actually a “process of familiarization,” offering a series of methods that, over time, help us to connect deeply with ourselves and to truly feel comfortable with who we are.
Yet at the same time that what we do on the mat can be considered practice for when we are off the mat, we are also living the practice right then and there. It’s not the same as if we were knitting a sweater that we will wear later or making a cake that we will eat later. In yoga we are wearing the sweater at the same time that we are knitting it, and yes, we are actually making our cake and eating it, too.
In OM Yoga, we describe our practice as a non-linear braid consisting of 1) vinyasa-style movement, 2) precise alignment, and 3) the Buddhist meditation traditions of mindfulness and compassion. Parts one and three have a magnetic quality that keeps people coming back to class. Part one, the vinyasa aspect, invites us to stay awake in each transition as well as each pose. Combined with mindfulness, moving with the breath naturally cultivates an appreciation for every part of our life, both peak and non-peak moments.
Part three, the Buddhist practices of mindfulness and compassion, expand our options for how we might relate to ourselves and others. We train in observing thoughts as they arise and pass, and practice resting in the gap. From that opening in space and time, we practice making choices based on the skillful means of compassion and our own natural wisdom.
But somehow I often feel that part two, the middle child of alignment, gets overlooked. It’s not that alignment is not emphasized. It is, with the intention that proper alignment prevents injury and allows us to get the most benefit from our physical practice. But let’s face it, vinyasa is fun and juicy, and the grounding practice of Buddhist meditation has tradition on its side. Alignment is rather technical and just not as sexy.
So I was inspired when Edward, a participant in an OM Yoga teacher-training class, raised his hand and asked, “Can we talk more about alignment? I know it’s important to place my knee just so over my foot, but I have a feeling that something bigger than that is happening, too.”
If we follow Edward’s lead and take a closer look at alignment, I think we will discover that it truly contains the essence of yoga itself. The word “yoga,” from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to yoke or bind, is often translated as union. This notion of yoga as union is defined in many ways, such as the union of mind and body, body and soul, or individual mind and cosmic consciousness. In other words, yoga is all about relationship.
Relationship is inherent in alignment. When any thing, any one, or any place is in or out of alignment it necessarily means that at least two things are involved. This is clearly stated in my three favorite dictionary definitions of the word “alignment”: the proper adjustment of the components of an electronic circuit, machine, etc., for coordinated performance; the proper logical or expected relation of one thing to another; a ground plan. That sounds like asana practice to me!
The skeletal alignment principles of yoga, such as internal and external rotation of the arms and legs or the balance of weight on the four corners of the foot, make up the yogic map for how we organize the mandala of our body. We begin by learning to set up the architecture of our skin, muscles, and bones in a manner that allows for unobstructed flow of energy through our system. Visualize the pipes under your sink. If your pipes are appropriately lined up, water flows through, materials you don’t need flush out, and nothing comes up that should go down. But if the joining of two pipes is off even slightly, you get an unhealthy backup. You see this same phenomenon on freeways in California, Tokyo, Moscow, and London, and on the perpetually congested Long Island Expressway. You see it in the relationship between incoming and outgoing funds in your bank account. In fact, it shows up in ALL relationships!
I think this is what Edward was really getting at. When we are organizing the physical placement of our bodies in a yoga posture, it is really just the first step toward a bigger sense of alignment. Don’t you feel different after a yoga class? When our skin, muscles, and bones get lined up, it allows our energy to flow with ease, improving our whole mood and overall sense of well-being. Our outlook on life seems brighter and our perspective expands to include more options. We could say that we feel in alignment with our world.
According to my Buddhist teacher, Gehlek Rimpoche, we’ve all had natural moments of enlightenment when we’ve felt in alignment with all that is. Yet there is a significant difference between one moment of enlightenment and being able to stabilize that experience. Most of us do not know how to do that on our own, which is why we are drawn to yoga, meditation, and master teachers. With good guidance and personal commitment, over time our practice helps us create the conditions for the natural arising of this awareness to occur and our ability to stabilize it.
This is a major reason why alignment is so valuable in yoga practice. When we apply precision and mindfulness to our asana alignment, we can experience a sense of physical equanimity that supports the arising of equanimity of the heart and mind. For example, we may be tempted to power our breath through our body, but using that kind of air pressure just creates tension and is ultimately a practice of aggression. Letting go of other temptations or habits, such as muscling into a pose, is part of the process of developing a mature, intelligent, and inquisitive yoga practice. Pushing, pulling, wishing, and hoping will not create the conditions for balance, equanimity, fluidity, spontaneity, and confidence to arise. The invitation of yoga is to get organized with precision, be gentle in the process, and then relax, watch, and wait.
We then get up from our mats and go back to the rest of our lives, where we hope that the compassion, patience, strength, and flexibility that we worked on in class will be there when we need it. And, naturally, as time passes, the sense of harmony, balance, and connection that we had at the end of our last yoga class fades. Life kicks in again, and as soon as you wake up you feel like you got up on the wrong side of the bed. You try on everything in your closet and nothing fits. You and your husband are just not in synch, once again your political party is in the minority, and it just feels like nobody “gets” you. Time to get realigned!
A regular and committed practice is called a sadhana, from the Sanskrit word saddha, which means faith. In Healing with Form, Energy and Light, Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche writes, “The practices of the spiritual path, if done with correct understanding and application, bring results. Results develop faith. When faith is strong and based on certainty, it furthers practice. Faith and practice together lead to wisdom and happiness.” This kind of faith is not a blind faith in something outside of us, but is faith in process.
So we return to our mat and our cushion, we place our mind on the breath, and we watch and wait. And we notice that alignment, like everything else, is fluid. Just as it is natural for the sun to shine and the rain to fall, for hemlines to go up and down, for lovers to kiss and quarrel, life’s pendulum constantly swings between the chafing quality of edges and the embracing roundness of feeling centered. The invitation of practice is always to relax and connect to the full repertoire of experience. Triangle pose feels harsh today but is followed by a soothing seated forward bend. Somehow it’s all good. And we start to think that perhaps riding the waves of this rich and ever-unfolding process of opening is the true meaning of alignment, rather than any one isolated, impermanent moment of satisfaction.
And we complete our practice by chanting “om,” a reminder that everything everywhere moves in waves. Our inspiration to practice is renewed, and for that moment, we truly feel aligned and connected to all that is.
Join Cyndi at Kripalu.
Cyndi Lee is the creator of OM Yoga, a flowing vinyasa style that blends yoga and Buddhism. In this article, she reflects on the invitation, through the practice of yoga postures, to bring ourselves into alignment with the fluid nature of life.