Edit 17th January 2019:
I’ve been giving this some further thought and one other benefit of ‘alignment’ is that, when we have a base ‘template’ to work from, we can readily observe habitual patterns of movement - and perhaps explore other options.
The body is very good at finding the path of least resistance, in fact we’ve been designed in that way to conserve energy - but that sometimes means that we have a tendency to set up poses in ways that aren’t conducive to best realising their intended benefits (or that we maybe lack the requisite body awareness to do so).
But when we have a clear intention of ‘why’ we’re taking a particular movement or posture - what it is intended to achieve - then we can identify the most appropriate ‘alignment’ to meet that intended aim (though this will still vary person to person).
So maybe I’m still a little bit ‘alignment based’ after all - I did say I reserve the right to change my opinions. :)
A fellow teacher recently started an online debate about the value of 'alignment' cues.
She asked me to pitch in with my two pennies' worth and, should they be of any interest, I've pasted in my thoughts below - although I should note that my perspective on this is ever evolving (see my last post for why I reserve the right to change my opinions :))
And if you'd like to find out more, or work more closely together on what alignment might mean for your practice, please do get in touch to arrange some one to one sessions.
I’m a little conflicted on this. I used to wear the term ‘alignment based’ as a badge of pride but now I never use it.
I guess the first question is ‘what does (physical) alignment actually mean’? For me it’s finding a greater sense of ease, fluidity, comfort and efficiency in whatever we're doing. This is going to be different for each individual’s unique body - which calls into question the validity of 'universal alignment principles'.
That said, I do think that alignment cues can be helpful as a container for practice - particularly for newer students or those with less body awareness...to guide students (roughly) into whatever posture we’re practising in a given moment.
The problem I think is that 'alignment' has become a loaded term because it’s being used as a synonym for ‘safety’ which is not necessarily always the case.
Maybe ‘alignment’ cues could be broken down into different types
1) ‘Precision’ cues - used find our way into ‘the shape’ (although it's often an idealised version). But who’s to say that the traditional or 'correct' shape is the right one for every body in the room?
I did find these type of cues useful when I was new to the practice...but then over time I came to realise that some of the alignment cues I was being given (and told to strictly adhere to) weren’t always working for my body...which ultimately lead to a much deeper exploration of the practice for me.
2) Technical cues - used to help students find greater ease / efficiency when setting up a given pose or taking a particular movement.
I do use these types of cues quite a bit - I find they can be particularly helpful for poses or transitions that are technically more challenging to access for most people.
3) ‘Safety’ cues - this is tricky territory because we can’t guarantee that what we’re offering will indeed guarantee a safer space for everyone.
Also, some commonly used alignment cues are seemingly plucked out of thin air and it’s important to remember that injury only occurs when a load is placed upon the body that exceeds the body’s capacity to handle that load (unlikely to happen for e.g when we place a foot on the knee in tree pose…unless there’s a big problem with the knee already).
In fact as long as we don’t exceed the loads that our body has the capacity to handle, our bodies will lay down stronger and better quality ‘material’ - so we’ll get stronger moving in ways that we’re not used to doing.
So the key to mitigating injury (we can’t ever guarantee it will be avoided altogether) is to approach our yoga practice skilfully and really listen to the feedback from the body - that’s much more important than taking ‘correct alignment’.
Plus life itself doesn’t always happen in perfect alignment - so if we’re only ever teaching/ moving in the same ‘correct’ patterns then we’re not really preparing ourselves for the reality of what life will throw at us...if our physical, internal, spiritual, mental sense of balance is reliant on ‘perfect alignment’ then we’re on thin ice.
4) Internal / explorative cues - I try to use these more and more.
Once we’ve got into ‘the shape’ inviting students to sense what’s felt in a pose and encouraging them to explore the posture for themselves...find what position of an arm, leg etc. feels most easeful, to find their ‘sweet spot’ in a stretch, to move in ways that feel right for their body in that moment and to bring a greater sense of awareness to habitual patterns of movement (and whether we can find alternative patterns that offer a greater sense of ease and efficiency).
So yes I do think that ‘alignment cues’ can be useful but we should be clearer and more honest about what exactly we mean by ‘alignment’. It’s such an interesting question though (for me at least!), one I think about a lot and I’m sure my opinion will continue to change and evolve...