Asana, alignment and breath.

Now and then I encounter a lack of understanding within the yoga teacher community. I have decided to try to shed a little light on a pivotal point today. The misunderstanding related to why we yoga teachers need to have a deep understanding of the workings of the physical body. And why, what often is called form or alignment, is crucial to a posture practice, as well as a pranayama (breathing) and seated meditation practice.


My role at the teacher training program at Ramapo College is to teach the big “how”. Other faculty members teach the students about the yoga philosophy, its history, energy centers, pranayama and more. And then it comes down to how we actually practice. And this is when I sometimes get confronted with the misunderstanding that if there is any focus on how to actually use the physical body, it equals it’s all about the body. Not about the breath. And this couldn’t be further from the truth.


I will go so far to say that if we practice yoga (which is not the same as taking exercise classes based on yoga postures), that the practice will be breath centered. I can’t see how yoga could be taught any other way actually. But, this is the thing, that doesn’t mean that all you talk about when you teach is the breath. Especially not the first few years. To ask a beginner to breathe deeply and freely is like asking a toddler to run before they can walk. I wish it was that easy, that we could simply give the instruction to breathe easily, and then it would happen. But it rarely does. Free breath relies on space and relaxation. There simply has to be space for the breath to enter the body. And the body has to relax so to move with the breath. When we are on the mat, we slowly and gradually get to observe and understand where we have lost space.┬áThen it’s up to us to reclaim it through the asana practice.


Asana practice has an inherent therapeutic quality. We are given the opportunity to retrain our nervous system, it’s called neuromuscular reeducation, by choosing how to carry and use the body. We teach ourselves how to bend the knee or how to carry weight on the arms, so to move out of old habits that are creating pain, tension and/or depression, often due to collapse that leads to a lack of space.


There are more than one reason we do this. One is very basic, this practice is supposed to be therapeutic, so let’s not wear out our hip joints, or shoulder joints to feel emotionally better. Secondly, when parts of our body hold tightness and tension, or an area is collapsed, the life energy cannot move freely. Stagnant energy leads to discomfort, pain and disease. Literally, a lack of ease. And last, but far from least, without the re-creation of an internal spacious architecture, we cannot breath neither deeply or freely.


In other words, we build the architecture for breath to be possible. And how do we do that? We create space where space is lost, we support that space, and then we invite the breath. Step by step, little by little, we relearn how to take a full free breath. Which for most of us is not as an easy task as it might sound. Especially not if you are more then 5 years old! Both physical and emotional trauma leaves imprints on our physical and energetic bodies. Most of them we are unaware of, until we consciously turn towards ourselves to see. This is our choice when we get on the mat, to observe and start to see where we grip, hold and protect ourselves. Where we breathe and where we do not breathe.


The practice of Hatha and Ashtanga yoga, which include a physical practice, is multi faceted. It offers so much on our journey towards waking up. We get to see ourselves beyond our mind’s limited, and so often, wrong view. We come to see the rest of the world for what it truly is. Breath is at the center of it all. But forcing breath will not benefit us, if anything it will stress the nervous system. So we need to be willing to slowly, intelligently and patiently open up.


As Iyengar said:


“Breath is the King of Mind.”


So, if Yoga is all about learning how to control the mind, then yoga is all about breath. And if yoga is all about breath, then yoga is all about the physical body. In other words, we can’t separate the three, they are one.