Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Alignment and the Mind

It has been about 16 years since I last crossed paths with BKS Iyengar. So much has changed since then – what would it be like to see my old teacher?

The opportunity arose at the twenty-second meeting of the Mind and Life Institute in New Delhi, India. I had the great fortune of receiving an invitation (a big bow of gratitude to my friend, RD) and I eagerly added another week to my already-planned trip to India.

"Building a scientific understanding of the mind to reduce suffering and promote well-being." Quite a mission, isn’t it?! The Mind and Life Institute is a marvelous organization that brings masters of the contemplative traditions and scientists together to share their experiences and findings. With His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the catalyst, these meetings demonstrate how the techniques of various contemplative traditions can change lives for the better. In the here and now, and in means compatible with our secular cultures, there are techniques that have been proven to literally change the mind for the healthier.

This particular meeting of the Mind and Life Institute was auspicious, as it was the first time some of the contemplative traditions of India had been included. Masters of Yoga, Advaita Vedanta and Jainism came together to share their commonalities and examine their differences with the contemplative practices of Buddhism.

The official meeting was set to start on a Saturday evening, and Mr. Iyengar’s session kicked things off earlier in the day.

My heart was beating at a faster clip as I waited outside the India Habitat Center for the doors to open. It was serendipitous that I was even at this Mind and Life meeting, and there were no assurances I’d gain admission to this meeting with His Holiness and Mr. Iyengar. Providence smiled, however, and at the 11th hour I was graced with a ticket to this event, and gratefully took my seat besides my Madison friends Marc and Astrid.

Mr. Iyengar took the stage first, and described how through Hatha Yoga practices the practitioner (sadhaka) moves the intelligence from the outer body to the inner body, and how this wisdom then flows back outward to the skin and beyond. Mr. Iyengar then brought two of his brave students onstage to demonstrate Utthita Trikonasana.

Mr. Iyengar asked them to prepare for the pose (arms outstretched), then described how the alignment of this pose gave insight into their inner states, and correspondingly how changing the outer form of the pose would rewrite their inner state. Mr. Iyengar’s students had been working in the preparatory pose intently for more than five minutes when Astrid leaned over and asked me if their arms may be tired. Yes, I replied, they most likely are rethinking their decision to appear onstage with Mr. Iyengar!

Thankfully, each demonstrator was allowed to shift into the full expression of Utthita Trikonasana, whereupon Mr. Iyengar observed various alignment points and how they related to inner states such as fear, apprehension, etc. At this point I began to revisit the doubts that first began to visit in the early 90’s – does the minutiae of alignment really feed the healthy mind, or simply reinforce extant patterns of control? The demonstrators on-stage looked like deer in the headlights, and compared to HH the Dalai Lama a few steps away, it was evident their mindstates were apples and oranges.

This is a question I’ve been wrestling for almost 20 years. Certainly alignment in the poses has its place; we tend to move from our strengths to avoid our weaknesses, and correspondingly move from our existing flexibility to avoid the stiff places. Healthy alignment in the yoga poses helps create a more balanced body by moving not only from the places that are easy and familiar, but more importantly, from the shadow places that we tend to avoid.

Alignment also helps focus the mind. Maintaining awareness throughout the body in a yoga pose keeps the mind from wandering, which supports the yogic technique of Dharana, or focused attention.

But does realigning the body make us more attentive, focused, loving, forgiving and compassionate? Or is a sitting meditation practice a necessary part of the equation?

I’d really like to hear from this blog's readers. What are your experiences, thoughts and impressions with regards to Hatha Yoga and the mind?
From India with Love,


Nancy Giguere said...

One of my first yoga teachers, who was influenced by Iyengar, used to say, "Align the body, align the mind." I tend to agree, but I also think it's critical to define what is meant by "alignment."

Is alignment defined by "minutiae" or is alignment more about the overall experience of the pose?

In my own experience, I find that emphasis on the minutiae of alignment tends to increase the level of disconnection between body and mind. It also makes me feel anxious and annoyed, not more loving and compassionate.

But an emphasis on the overall awareness, or "global experience," of the pose is very meditative and often does make me feel more focused and compassionate.

I began studying yoga so I could sit comfortably in meditation. I fell in love with asana and stopped meditating. Then a few years later, I began doing a brief (10-15 minutes) seated meditation at the beginning of my practice.

Since I tend to live more in my head than my body, the physical aspect of yoga is huge. Yet I now find that my practice feels incomplete if it does not include meditation. I suspect, however, that meditation without asana would feel equally incomplete.

G said...

Yoga Body, NonViolent Speech and Buddha Mind... I see these practices as complementary and supporting each other: they help us cultivate qualities of focused attention (while aligned with gravity), unconditional love and compassionate presence.

Online Yoga Certification said...

Well for me alignment means the overall experience of the posture. Thanks for the share!!!

jeffwright72@gmail.com said...

Iyengar's teachings make me think of a rock rising out of the sea. For the yogi mariner it is a fortunate landmark, a placemarker and standard in the sea of practice. We must be warned however that we will likely founder, the vessel of our spirits torn asunder, if venture too close.

Sarah Blake said...

How do we approach yoga? Do we use our ego and mind, or do we use our heart of hearts? I have very little investment in being a perfect student and practitioner because I am still quite new to yoga. I know that in a room full of students I may be the least qualified or experienced around. This gives me license to fail, but also to explode the boundaries I have in every other thing I do. My newness completely takes my ego out of the yoga equation. I feel vulnerable almost everywhere, but I don't on the mat. If everyone could feel so safe and nurtured in their yoga practice, striving toward perfect alignment would be a good thing. I don't know if that's the case. I would probably be really self-conscious if I had to demo triangle for the His Holiness...

The best thing about not striving toward perfection in yoga is that sometimes you get almost there. Sometimes I feel something so sublime in the poses that I think I must have got it. Sometimes I cannot do seated meditation because the burden of memory is too overwhelming. I know for a fact that working in the poses has directly lead to healing and cultivating greater compassion for me, but I'm not every student. Maybe we can give students the confidence to fail. For me that is what has been essential to progress.

eryn said...

I too have struggle with these concepts. I brought my body out of pain WITH Iyengar yoga, after practicing vinyasa without any real alignment guidance at all. HOWEVER, I discovered an overwhelming sense of rigidity and narcissism within this population. The spiritual component was abandoned entirely for a dogmatic clinging to "this way being the only way" to practice yoga asana. I focus on alignment in my own practice and certainly in my teaching, but I do so without dogma and with guidance .... inviting students to eventually find their own way. Please stop by and participate in my blog as well!

drnath said...

have you hear about
Astanga, or sometimes spelled ashtanga Yoga is actually taught today by a man named Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, in Mysore, India. He has brought astanga yoga to the west about 25 years ago and still teaches today at 91 years of age. Astanga yoga began with the rediscovery of the ancient manuscript Yoga Korunta. It describes a unique system of Hatha yoga as practiced and created by the ancient sage Vamana Rishi. It is believed to be the original asana practiced intended by Patanjali.
this is some good site for yoga info
and as well please check
and also my blog on yoga