For many years, I was taught “Suck your belly in. Squeeze your bum. Shoulders down. Chin up. Get your leg higher. Pointe your toes.” To get more flexible you should stretch more!
I did my schoolwork in the splits, and I worked as hard as I could to open the hips, but they just got worse and worse. My knees ached. My hamstring got pulled a few times. My hips got tighter and tighter. Then I fell and tore ligaments in my foot. I was 17.
That was ballet class, and many of us yogis remember that first paradigm for loving moving all too well. When I started yoga it was like “Reach up. Fold forward. Breathe.” And that was a huge relief for my little aching body (and spirit!)
But as I got more into yoga it changed into “Tuck your tailbone. Release your buttock muscles. Squeeze your inner thighs. Wrap your shoulders. Chin down. Chest up. Lift up pelvic floor. Activate your feet. And don’t forget to breathe!” I sat at the dinner table in lotus, watched TV in the squats. I stood like a soldier. And dutifully, I touched my toes to my forehead from behind, and wrapped my leg behind my head.
But eventually ended up with the same outcome. I got injured. Injuries that snaked around the body to avoid the prodding fingers of Physios, that slipped around the acupuncturists needles, that jumped from thigh to hamstring to hip to lower back, to hamstring, to knee but never went away. I’d correct one with a new set of instructions, “Draw the belly back. Connect sitting bones to heels. Roll up.” Then the injury would move to hip flexor. “Outward spiral the thigh. Inward spiral the calf. Squeeze the block between your legs.” One manifestation would go away, only for another to return in its wake.
I don’t think we are meant to work that way. When we reach up to take a glass off the shelf, the whole body moves. The shoulder does whatever it needs to so that we can reach that tiny bit higher. The waist lengthens and twists a little bit. The hips shift to allow the motion. Try getting an object off of the top shelf while drawing your shoulders down and tucking the chin in. You won’t get nearly as much reach. You won’t be able to get the cup off the top shelf. AND you are overriding the body’s natural intelligence.
It seems all of the sudden that reach up is not good enough. Or how the arms naturally move is all wrong. Even more than that, it seems we have decided that we are not good enough. The yoga industry is just joining with the beauty industry. We tuck, squeeze, minimize, exaggerate, supplement, criticise, perfect, train, study, analyse ourselves so much, and because we want to be fitter, prettier, stronger, happier, better, more productive, more successful, more flexible, more, more, more.
But we already know how to stretch to get the cup off the shelf. We know how to bend down and pick up something on the floor. The body works as a whole, and in so doing works incredibly efficiently. If we cut ourselves up into parts, we do a great disservice to the body’s natural intelligence. In trying to perfect, we actually override. We think we know better. We think our nature is something that has to be changed. I don’t know about everybody, but for me it didn’t work.
So I’ve changed the tune a bit, and have now two main goals for giving people “alignment” cues in yoga (or any other training for that matter).
- To find an efficient movement pattern.
- To have an enjoyable experience. To uplift the spirit.
It is true that many of our habitual movement patterns, are inefficient, or possibly dangerous to our structural health, especially if we start doing repetitive, weight bearing movements, or add force to the movement. And so of course, if we can find the alignment to make those movements more efficient, and aligned to our geometry and the physics of forces on the body, we will prevent injuries. We need to find these movement patterns in our own bodies based on the structure of the body as it is, and with love. As it is now. Loving it now. (Maybe leaving out the repetitive weight bearing movements, at least until we have patterning that is healthy, is another way to prevent injuries).
And then to find an enjoyable experience. Yoga takes us more into the energy body when we relax in the physical body. It takes us closer to realisation when we are not holding the body into perfect alignment with a fictitious ideal. The goal of our spiritual lives is acceptance of who we are, deeply. It is about curiosity and love for our physical nature, not dominance over it. I imagine in our most transcendent blissful moments, we are connected to something huge, bright, ecstatic and uplifting. We can use the efficiency of the body to take our consciousness beyond.
We don’t have to teach alignment. We have to remind ourselves of our true nature, and bring the body into efficient, enjoyable movement.
Let’s investigate the way we can move in healthy ways, for the long term. Let’s explore this divine body as something to celebrate in yoga, rather than fix, fix, fix. Let’s breathe, deeply and fully and start our practice there.