In this series, YogaIowa will address the uncertainties that arise when one first steps onto a mat, from studio etiquette to finding the discipline that’s best for you.
Last winter, at a kinesiology and anatomy workshop lead by Amy Matthews, my brain trembled. Everything I thought I knew about yoga and as a yoga instructor was turned on its head.
“There is no such thing as alignment in yoga,” she said. My initial response was to think, “What does she mean ‘there is no such thing as alignment in yoga’? I am an ‘alignment-based’ instructor, for God’s sake!”
Over the months since her workshop, I have taken another training from Matthews about bones and read her book Yoga Anatomy. In these, I found a new sense of curiosity in my body, and the anatomical differences that make all of us fundamentally unique beings. When we are born, our bodies are all somewhat similar, but as we age we become an accumulation of all of our life experiences, traumas, habitual patterns of movements, work/hobby movement patterns and more.
Because of this, modern yoga can sometimes feel like we are stuffing our bodies into shapes that may not fit where we are in that moment of our life. So to think that each and every person needs or can maneuver into angular poses is a dramatic — and dangerous — assumption. The biggest question I get as an instructor is, “Am I doing this right?” and I know this question all too well. When I started yoga, I was in a place of complete rigidity and remember how frustrating it felt to need to know that answer.
If we decide to make our practice about the anxiety of twisting ourselves into a specific shape, what are we actually learning?
The shapes found in yoga books typically assume that we have lived a life never sitting in a chair, probably not working any job that requires your body to be stationary for hours at a time, and have hips and shoulders that open like the gates to heaven. But we are Americans doing what Americans do best: work. This contradiction is humorous, but it’s relevant when the constant drive in yoga is to make “perfect” shapes. We have unique bodies that call for attention when moving. If we decide to make our practice about the anxiety of twisting ourselves into a specific shape, what are we actually learning?
I’m going to burst some perfectionist bubbles here, but there is not a perfect shape in any asana. The idea of making perfect lines and angles with the body is kind of bizarre when you consider the actual shapes of our bones. Not a single bone in our body is flat, so why strive for straight lines?
My thought is that it relates to aesthetics. I’m not claiming that there isn’t a direction for poses to move toward, but when we aim directly for the end shape we may miss out on the experience. These are the moments of sensing our bodies and feeling the subtleties as we explore our soul case (body). When we are constantly striving to move more quickly, more deeply and more vigorously like what you find in modern Power and Flow Vinyasa classes, we can lose the silent stillness found in moving slowly, curiously and intentionally.
From Instagram yogis to professional yoga books to yoga teacher education, we’ve come to question what asana even is. Most recently, I listened to a Yogaland podcast about the yoga teacher Jill Miller receiving a hip replacement from her intense asana practice. This particular podcast discussed yoga-related injuries from the very people who have been trained on the ways our bodies move — the teacher. It is important to remember that the person leading you through a class is a guide, and ultimately you are your own teacher because you know your body and abilities.
What I’m offering to you isn’t a way to say the hell with trying to move into a shape. It is the opposite. We can still move our bodies safely and efficiently towards a pose, but in my opinion, the feeling should be emphasized over the physical shape. Ask yourself, “How does the pose feel?” If you feel the desire to go further, why? Can you relocate your body to experience this pose differently without pressing further into it?
Yoga is a beautiful practice with countless benefits, and when we focus our attention too much on shape and “stretch,” we can miss out on the meditative movements and ability to sense our bodies in space.
Alexander Hiffernan is a Council Bluffs-based yoga instructor. Off the mat, he finds fulfillment in creative and entrepreneurial projects, mastering different movement styles, studying anatomy and learning to question everything. Learn more at soulcasemovement.com. This article was originally published in YogaIowa’s Winter 2018 issue.