Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Underside of Alignment

Worrying too much about alignment can fan the flames of anxiety.
(circa 1985, laundry product anxiety)
“When my hips are open, my back will feel strong."

“Opening my chest will open my heart.”

“My psoas is pulling my shoulders forward.”

As the developer of Alignment Yoga, I may give the impression that I'm all about alignment, all the time. To some extent I do employ alignment as a compass to guide our work with body and mind but I’ve also seen firsthand how alignment can fan the flames of anxiety, lead to more discomfort in the body, and debilitate a healthy sense of self.

Many of us come to the table with the view that our body is a “fixer-upper” project. If only my shoulders were balanced, my hips were open, and my shoulders pulled back… then I could be happy.
The quotes at the beginning of this posting are common refrains in the yoga world. While there may be some truth within their proclamations, embedded within them is a view that the body is something that the mind must fix, remedy, or rescue. This view often sets up an adversarial relationship with the body, and viewing the body as an adversary is a reliable predictor of misery.

Sometimes what we perceive as misalignment is the brilliance of an individual body finding its optimal relationship to gravity. For example, I’ve worked with many students who are trying to fix their scoliosis, only to experience more pain in the process. It’s not uncommon that the best path for working with scoliosis is to stretch and strengthen, though without the goal of fixing the body by straightening the spine.

Trying to fix the body through alignment can also be a hiding place for anxiety. I’ve worked with many well-intentioned students who live with a generalized apprehension that the other shoe is about to drop. Anxiety can be an unpleasant bedfellow, and is remarkably creative in taking forms that make it more difficult to recognize the anxiety as anxiety.

Anxiety often takes expression through an over-application of a technique that can have utility. Opening tight places and stabilizing unstable places in the body can be beneficial. But placing undue concern into the alignment of the body can also be an expression of anxiety that further fans its flames.

Perfect alignment is not necessarily related to optimal health and well-being. Most trees lean one way or another, and similarly, healthy shoulders are rarely perfectly level.

The internal organs in the body are not perfectly symmetric, and asking the hips to be perfectly level isn’t necessarily their natural alignment. Fretting about aligning the hips can often fan the flames of anxiety. While misaligned hips may be problematic, frequently worrying about misaligned hips causes more tension and pain than the misalignment, itself!

When exploring alignment, the first step is relaxing. Find your foundation (ground), relax your body and mind (relax the palate as a shorthand for this process), and surrender to impermanence (as represented by the exhale). When there’s an easy approach to alignment, there can be benefits for body and mind. When the approach to alignment is of the fix-it mindset, anxiety may be lurking!


Atulya said...

Thanks for the great insights. I was inspired to start practicing yoga by someone who had made incredible improvements in his comfort of living with scoliosis.

Susan Frikken said...

Thank you for this. It is something I try to live and to share and mull over with my clients!