Alignment — Iyengar vs Ashtanga

Allow me to preface by saying that the importance of “aligning yoga postures correctly” cannot be overstated, and I’m not trying to imply that one approach is preferable to another, just that there are differences in philosophy and I want to discuss those differences. Let’s begin with Iyengar, as alignment is the central focus of this asana system. To say that BKS Iyengar is a yoga luminary is a massive understatement. Not only was he a fantastic posture practitioner and teacher, but one could say that he is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing geometric precision to yoga asana in the modern world. A vast majority of practitioners and teachers have been influenced by his ideas surrounding postural positioning, which are nothing short of brilliant. My understanding of his approach is that the focus on precision alignment is where the meditative aspect of posture practice originates. I like to think of this as “micro-alignment,” as in the practitioner is micromanaging all aspects of body positioning in each asana, and from this intense focus on several different things simultaneously, eventually, a meditative or trance-like state arises and some of the higher or more esoteric goals of yoga can be achieved. Precision alignment is also a safe, therapeutic method of practice that is very supportive of body and mind. Practitioners who prefer a more cautious, conservative approach to body movement will appreciate this style with it’s heavy reliance on props, and the minimization of number and difficulty level of postures practiced in each session. Now this isn’t to say that advanced asana isn’t practiced in the Iyengar style, just that precision and exact positioning seem to be more highly valued, and there aren’t many people who can achieve even moderately advanced postures with these restrictions. Mr Iyengar’s original book – “Light on Yoga” – presents an interesting enigma in that it’s filled with extremely advanced asana and has very little of the type of alignment cues and focus that one would experience if they dropped in on a modern Iyengar style class, and has not one mention of a prop of any kind. I attended an Iyengar class recently and the instructor actually advised against practicing bound headstand under any circumstances in fear of potential cervical compression and possible resulting problems from that. Shoulderstand was only practiced under the strictest, heavily propped conditions in hopes of preventing “military neck,” which is straightening of the natural cervical curve due to repeated practice with an improper or over-tight shoulder girdle positioning. In contrast, Mr Iyengar refers to headstand as the “king” and shoulderstand as the “queen” of asanas in his book, recommends their practice for “nervous debility,” and is rumored to have spent very long periods in each pose “unpropped.” It seems as if different rules apply to Mr Iyengar and the students of his teaching. A bizarre conundrum that defies explanation as there are many people born with similar genetic potential for practicing posture. In fact, it’s well known that Mr Iyengar used his posture practice to overcome the many physical ailments he experienced in childhood. Maybe the difference is that he learned the poses in India in the old days, before the modern world had intervened ? With that said, Iyengar practice is a fantastic way of learning geometric posture precision and is highly recommended for any serious student of yoga. It is well known that practitioners from other yoga styles tend to dip into the Iyengar well from time to time in order to freshen up and refine their posture practices.
Alignment in Ashtanga yoga is so completely different from Iyengar as to form opposite ends of the yoga spectrum. That’s not to say Ashtanga practitioners don’t incorporate Iyengar ideas into their posture flow, just that the focal point and intention is quite different. Ashtanga masters such as Richard Freeman and Maty Ezraty are well known proponents of Iyengar-style alignment, which is quite clear in the geometric beauty of their asanas. On that note, I once took a weekend workshop from David Swenson, who, when questioned about alignment from a participant, openly stated to us that “alignment is overrated.” Now if you watch David practice or look through his book on Ashtanga yoga, you will notice amazing lines and angles that you would swear were created from an Iyengar mindset. David recently stated, in an honoring of BKS Iyengar’s contributions to yoga shortly after his death, that although he “was not directly a student of his,” he was very conscious of how “his teachings and magnanimous presence have left an indelible mark on the world of yoga.” So it becomes clear that geometric precision in asana can be attained through other means as well, notably Ashtanga alignment techniques. Ashtanga alignment is achieved through a focus on 3 distinct processes — ujjayi breath, bandha control, and drishti — that when blended together, can create a profound meditative focus. We find that a consistent practice incorporating these concepts begins to awaken an innate intelligence within the body itself to align the poses correctly, and that it’s not necessary to micro-manage each asana to achieve geometric precision. Control of mula bandha tends to awaken the body from the navel down to the feet, control of uddiyana bandha and ujjayi breathing seems to pull that awakening up the spine to the crown of the head, and drishti, or gaze point, works to align the head and shoulder girdle with great accuracy. Also, focusing on these 3 concepts during posture practice promotes a “lightness,” agility, and deep connection to the body’s “core” which creates wonderfully fluid movement that is poetry in motion and hard to achieve by any other means. One could easily argue, when watching current Ashtanga guru Sharath Jois practice the warrior poses on YouTube, that this “intelligent body alignment guidance” is missing, as his knee ankle relationship is nowhere near the standard 90 degrees we’ve all come to believe is gospel. How do we explain the self-proclaimed world’s most advanced Ashtanga practitioner missing a posture detail that every beginning Iyengar practitioner knows by heart. I mean, if Sharath were to pop into an Iyengar class one day and assumed those warrior poses, he would be immediately blocked and strapped so hard it would make his head spin. Forget that he can absolutely rip Karandavasana, one of the biggest challenges in the Ashtanga sequencing, more easily than most of us can stand in mountain pose — he doesn’t get basic standing pose alignment — how can he be so advanced ? I’ve thought about this for a long time, and come to the conclusion that a) Sharath is obviously aware of the 90 degree angle concept having worked with literally thousands of practitioners over the years who do it that way, b) he does it the way he does because he feels it’s “more correct for him,” and c) geometric precision is not the goal of his asana practice — he could easily do the warrior poses that way — it’s to CREATE OPTIMAL ENERGY OR PRANA FLOW. This is the secret to the Ashtanga system that people who haven’t practiced it consistently can’t really understand — the shape of the pose is of lesser importance than what’s occurring within the body while practicing the pose. In the modern world, we have been so heavily influenced by “science,” we tend to view things from a very analytical point of view — A + B = C, etc. What we seem to have lost, or allowed to go dormant, is the ability to accurately access our intuition or internal guidance and TRUST IT. The Ashtanga philosophy comes from an ancient lineage — the Yoga Korunta, written by the sage Vamana Rishi ~ 5000 years ago — and is heavily influenced by a connection to the deep internal energy dynamics found in so many of the very oldest cultures such as Egypt, Sumeria, China, etc. So, essentially, this method encourages practitioners to learn to connect with and trust their internal guidance, and allow that to be the guide for their alignment in yoga postures. The key is learning to discern the difference between true intuition and the ego mind, which is very subtle and can only be accomplished through a dedicated meditation practice and continuous attempts at humility.
Due to the polarizing nature of these two forms of yoga practice, it seems that, historically, most practitioners tend to gravitate towards one style or the other. However, a blending of these two extremes along with a dash of tantra/kundalini yoga seems to create a very balanced practice, and many modern yoga styles seem to b heading in that direction. Experience, great care, and a subtle understanding of each is necessary to blend these differing approaches together without watering them down too much and create a distracted, ungrounded approach which ends up being too loosely formatted and loses depth. Unfortunately, it seems that many modern “teacher trainings” are creating this exact problem. Teachers should highly consider spending a good amount of time studying and practicing each approach individually before attempting to blend them together. This is a tremendous amount of information to digest and incorporate into your body and consciousness, and attempting to teach others before this has occurred is, at the least, very questionable and highly likely to do a big disservice to the amazing, sublime art and practice of yoga.