Slow It Down

Countless times, students have said to me that they “can’t believe” how much any particular pose hurts when you “do it right.” Indeed.

In this world of power and vinyasa yoga classes, alignment was dropped by the wayside and somewhat forgotten. To defend all teachers, how can you teach alignment when your students expect you to move so quickly through the practice? You can’t. So, if we want alignment to be a cornerstone of practice, we have to slow things down and many people don’t like the idea of moving slowly — myself included. It’s fun to flow through a fast-paced class and it can get the vrittis out. The downside: if this is all we do, we will very likely begin to suffer from repetitive stress injuries to the shoulders, low-back, hips or knees.

Anyone who has taken even one of my classes knows that my emphasis in class is always alignment first. Now many people may say that every tradition of yoga has it’s own alignment principles. While that is true, I think it is fair to say that the Iyengar system has a clear advantage in its alignment theory based simply on its longevity. Many of these other traditions haven’t existed for even half the time of Iyengar yoga. If you delve deeply into the reason for Iyengar’s alignment, it is all very anatomical. It has nothing to do with opening the heart or releasing the chakras. It is all based on the anatomy of the body and keeping it safe so that we can practice for the rest of our lives.

So moving slowly has its place. We are so used to flying through life that we can often get uncomfortable mentally just holding a pose and being still for more than five to eight breaths. Holding poses forces people to be in their own mind — without distractions — and, frankly, I don’t know anyone who looks forward to that experience. But it is in this stillness that we can learn to pay better attention and learn about ourselves in the process. This ability to pay attention, often called eka grata which means one-pointed focus, allows us to be fully absorbed in our practice. If we focus on the little actions or details within each pose, rather than just the gross movements, we can not only stay safe and receive more benefits in each pose, but we also have a better chance of finding pratyahara, sense withdrawal, instead of making a to-do list or thinking about what we will have for dinner.

I might add that aside from being mentally challenging holding poses is actually physically hard as well. If you’re not sure about that, try holding any standing pose for two minutes. You’ll build a completely different kind of strength than taking 50 vinyasas.

What often comes after the shock of how hard poses are when done correctly is the lament about the necessity of using props. I really don’t understand the aversion to props. I know sometimes they can be cumbersome and can disrupt the flow if you need to grab a strap or block. Still, if you want to make forward progress in your practice, you simply have to be aligned. Otherwise, all your efforts won’t move you forward. It’s like math. You cannot do calculus until you’ve mastered algebra. In order to open and strengthen the body most effectively, we have to be aligned. It’s harder. It takes more time. It’s not as fun. But it works.

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