A Post-Iyengar Reimagining of Alignment in Asana

For the last several years I’ve been pondering the derivation and evolution of the term “alignment” as it relates to yoga asana. My interest correlates directly to the increasing number of repetitive strain injuries my private clients, many of them long-term practitioners, have been presenting with. It is no longer a secret how many teachers have had to undergo hip repair and replacement surgery as a result of their asana practice.

Historically, the conversation about yoga alignment, at least in the United States, can be traced back to 1956 when  BKS Iyengar first visited Ann Arbor, Michigan to deliver several lecture-demonstrations. Ten years later, Iyengar released his perennial classic “Light on Yoga,” a work that was clearly influenced by his original teacher, T. Krishnamacharya’s “Yoga Makaranda,” which was published in 1934 . Ironically, by the mid-sixties Krishnamacharya himself was no longer hewing to the prescriptive rules he had laid out in the Makaranda. In fact, Krishnamacharya’s mature teaching methodology represented an almost complete reversal of his rigid alignment directives when he declared: “the very essence of yoga is that it must be adapted to the individual, not the other way around.”

For the past 62 years in America, one system of asana training – Iyengar’s – has held a virtual monopoly on the conversation about what constitutes correct alignment in asana. In my view, the time is ripe for questioning the assumption that Iyengar’s idealized, geometrical alignment directives are the ultimate goal in yoga asana. If there are no straight lines in the body, why are we always trying to “square our pelvis,” or  “place our feet in parallel?”

What is needed is an anatomically-informed definition of alignment from which healthy asana cueing language can be derived.  This is core of what I’ll be teaching Sunday May 20 when I return to Yoga Yoga in Austin, Texas for a full-day immersion called “Reimagining Alignment.”

The ultimate context for asana practice is the unique person who is practicing. It is only an individual’s singular body that can be in alignment – not the asana. To speak about yoga poses as if they had some intrinsically correct alignment is, in my opinion, an error. To sum this up as a principle: “Asanas don’t have alignment – people have alignment.”

6 thoughts on “A Post-Iyengar Reimagining of Alignment in Asana”

  1. Geeta Iyengar has constantly asked westerners why the think and teach to “square the hips”! She says “you can’t square the hips …. they are round.”
    Much of what is taught and understood as “coming from Iyengar” is narrow and intellectually derived musculoskeletal instructions that are poorly sourced from ‘secondhand teaching’.

  2. This is a very limited understanding of BKS Iyengar’s teachings, which like everyone’s evolved & changed over time. His alignment principles COUPLED with his use of props to deintensify & correct muscular actions has made a world of difference to my chronic low back & sciatica condition. His teaching, like everyone’s evolved & changed. He responded to hip displasia in his aging Western students particularly in the last several decades is his life. Also, how Iyengar’s principles of alignment, right actions, & prop usage in teaching was VASTLY different than how he wrote he was taught by Krisnamacharya.

  3. Re: Reimagining Alignment –
    Will you be recording this? I am currently in a YTT in the Bay Area with Richard Rosen and Mary Paffard and there are so many questions and alot of curiosity around alignment and creative alignment cues for teachers to help students with their own bodies and their own alignment – wish I was close to Austin.

  4. How interesting it is to read you, Leslie.
    I am Iyengar Teacher and I still can not understand if the hips in Virabhadrasa II should be symmetrically aligned to the front. In Iyengar’s books they are not, but it is true that in the West they are asked to be symmetrical. I feel a certain tension when I want to place them exactly front but I find no rational answer about it. I do not know if I have to lower the femur to less than 90 degrees, or change the line of the feet. Anyway, when you come to Argentina to give a Workshop!
    Infinite thanks

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