In yoga classes, in the marketing and in mainstream media there is a lot of press around yoga being good for flexibility. If you look around, the ads, Instagram pictures, and selfies are largely very flexible people doing incredible poses. There has been some push back on that to point out that yoga is also good for building strength, which is true. There are some truly challenging postures that require significant physical strength to safely enter, maintain and exit. But both of these focus on a very small part of a yoga practice, the physical aspect.
What I see as missing is how yoga helps with alignment. I choose the word alignment because what I am talking about is not just the physical alignment of the postures, which is important, but also the mental and emotional alignment that comes with a yoga practice.
To better understand how alignment in the postures leads to mental and emotional alignment, I want to explore each in more detail.
Yoga helps to adjust physical alignment by focusing on the postures and over time re-teaching the body what it means to work as it was intended. The emphasis on posture, stacking bones and muscle engagement often help to alleviate certain chronic aches and pains such as lower back pain, shoulder and neck pain, poor posture and more.
This improved physical alignment frees the body to focus on things other than simply standing, or compensating and straining to hold itself out of alignment (think slouched shoulders or uneven shoulders from carrying a bag on one side all of the time). In addition, improved posture allows the body to function more efficiently. Breathing becomes easier because the diaphragm isn’t pinched or compressed. Blood circulates throughout the body more efficiently, carrying fresh oxygen in and carbon dioxide out faster. This helps to increase endurance and concentration and also combats mental fatigue.
Emotional alignment is really the ability to deal with what life throws your way and still be able to (mostly) maintain a positive outlook on life. Not everyone is going to be flowers and sunshine every day. At least no one I’ve met yet. But developing an emotional balance through yoga allows you to let the little irritations that used to drive you over the edge, simply roll away. And the big hits in life, well, they still hit but you have a calm, confident mindset that no matter what, you will take that in stride and keep going.
With a positive outlook, your heart opens naturally. Your sense of compassion grows, as does your ability to experience the full range of emotions without being controlled by them. You may still be sad, but the likelihood of slipping into an all out depression lessens. The same with happy emotions. You can experience happy emotions at a higher level without necessarily becoming attached to them or feeling sad as they wane.
This can also be referred to as Spiritual Alignment. This in no way means you are off to shave your head, give away all possessions and sit on a mountain sustaining yourself with the dew of a ginko leaf and the energy of the Universe (thank you Kung Fu Panda). Although maybe you will, it certainly isn’t a requirement.
Mental/spiritual alignment is more about doing the right thing for the right reasons and being compassionate. It can be the simple things, picking up a broken bottle and putting it in the trash. It can be helping a stranger by opening the door for them, or smiling at someone while taking a walk. It can also be more profound, say starting an organization to help those who aren’t able to help themselves.
When it all lines up…
So how does yoga fit into all this? Yoga works in layers. The initial layer is the physical, working through the asanas, or postures. This builds strength, balance and awareness. This leads directly to physical alignment. Once the body is strong and healthy, you move on to the next layer.
Once the body is in better alignment, the energy of the body is free to flow. This allows us to clean out the emotional gunk we accumulate day to day in life. With the emotional gunk out, we can experience life from a happier vantage point. There isn’t a dirty lens to look through. We begin to experience a more positive attitude and things that used to bother us seem less and less irritating.
The next layer involves the use of breathing to root out and release negative emotions. Sweeping out this gunk that builds up in daily life quite literally allows us to breathe easier. This is why breath cues are layered into a yoga practice. Matching movement to breath not only increases the abilities of the body by making the physical postures easier, but it also allows the body to release emotions that no longer serve us and where we want to go.
With a strong and aligned body and an open heart, the mind flourishes. You may begin to start tapping into your intuition. Your sense of what actions you want to take becomes clear. Your desire to act upon these thoughts grows. You begin to experience a drive to do things that leave the world a little better off than it was yesterday.
Yes, yoga is good for making us stronger and more flexible physically. But it doesn’t stop there. A regular practice brings us into alignment in other ways leading to a more harmonious life with those around us. I believe that is more appealing than just focusing on the physical side and being able to do the best looking dancer pose.