by Michelle Finch
Understanding the origin of where modern yoga asana cues came from and what it means for your practice.
Have you ever heard of posture rules like feet hip width apart in backbends or pelvis level and square in Pigeon? How about hands shoulder width apart in all inversions? These are just a few of the thousands of alignment cues used every day in millions of yoga classes around the world. They are common knowledge to most experienced yogis, but the majority of people have never stopped to ask themselves from where the ideals of how we should practice the poses came. It is simply assumed that these cues have been handed down through the ages as so much of the yogic teachings have been, when this actually couldn't be further from the truth.
Just like the invention of the rubber yoga mat, the rules of alignment within the various postures are relatively modern. In fact, a great many of you reading this article are actually older than almost all modern alignment cues!
To quote my teacher and friend, Paul Grilley, the truth is that the "rules of alignment became both rigid and pervasive with the rise of yoga teacher training (TT) programs...[which] were rare until the late 1980s and early 1990s." Prior to that point in time, an individual's asana practice was highly personalized; made possible by a much smaller and intimate practice environment.
With the birth of the modern exercise craze came large yoga studios and the group class atmosphere, which brought forth the necessity for an abudance of teachers to be trained quickly to lead those classes. In the forward of the book Your Body Your Yoga by Bernie Clark, Paul Grilley states that "the [yoga teacher training] education had to be systematized to be time efficient, and students needed to be assessed unambiguously. Both needs were met by creating manuals with strict and memorizable 'rules of alignment' on how postures should be taught." And from that point forward, yoga was taught following various versions of these cues.
As with all systems, it only took a few generations of removal for the previous individualized way of practicing and teaching to be lost in the sands of time, so to speak; for these arbitrary rules to become written in stone and shrouded behind the fanatical belief that teaching yoga asana in any other manner would put one's students in harms way.
"Any time an art is constrained to mass production, it will be simplified, codified and rigidified. It is true in yoga, in dance, in the martial arts and in religion. Simpler is easier to teach and absorb, but it also leads to inaccurate generalizations and intolerance of individuality." Paul Grilley
The hard truth is that when it comes to applying broad generalities to the human body, in regards to movement, we can inadvertently cause more harm than good. Afterall, it's not uncommon for very experienced yogis who follow these strict rules to find themselves nursing various injuries throughout their body. Therefore, one could conclude that softening the rigidity of these rules may actually be the proper preventative measure to apply.
So, what does this mean for how we practice and/or teach? Afterall, generalizations are necessary to learn the fundamental concepts of how anything works. Yet, the nature of the evolution of knowledge is we must eventually outgrow the boundaries of those initial rules. Therefore, the invitation would be to give yourself and/or your students permission to allow the natural maturation of the practice of yoga asana to take place; to see that ultimately, we must all come home into a highly individualized experience.
About the Author
Michelle Finch is the owner and one of the lead trainers at Exalt Yoga. She started practicing yoga in 2003 and was a dedicted power yogi until 2012 when she discovered Yin Yoga. She has since studied with many senior Yin Yoga teachers and currently assists Paul & Suzee Grilley, co-founders of Yin Yoga.
If you would like to learn more about how to individualize your practice, I recommend exploring the functional approach to yoga asana, which can be applied to all styles of yoga. It is a simple system of prioritizing what we should feel in a pose over how we should look.