The first person I think of when I hear the term “alignment” is B.K.S Iyengar. He was one of the original students of Krishnamacharya in India, along with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Indra Devit. These were the first pioneering teachers who brought the practice of yoga to the United States in the 1960’s, along. Even if you have never heard of these figures, if you have ever attended a yoga class you have probably been influenced by their teaching. Iyengar wrote the book Light on Yoga, which has been called the bible of modern yoga in the West. His particular style of yoga, creatively named Iyengar Yoga, focuses especially on cultivating proper alignment – especially along the spinal column – within the postures (or asanas, as they are called in Sanskrit).
He taught that proper alignment, rather than greater effort or straining, is what made the physical posture (asana) and breath control (pranayama) so effective in opening the channels of energy within the body so that prana (the energy or life-force that pervades and sustains all things) may flow freely, infusing the body, mind, and spirit with grace and well-being. Some have likened prana in Hinduism and yoga philosophies to the Holy Spirit in Trinitarian Christian theology.
Alignment is also a hot topic in business consulting and organizational development. Consultants look to see if the corporation’s vision, mission statement, and values are actually reflected in the day to day operations and decisions made by executives, managers, and front-line workers. Areas of misalignment often lead to poor business practices and inefficiencies which are reflected in unsatisfied clients, poor products and/or delivery, and often disgruntled employees as well.
Think of the decision by high-ranking executives at Volkswagen to move ahead with installing “defeat devices” on Volkswagen vehicles sold in the United States so that they could cheat and provide false information on emissions tests. This “misalignment” cost the company billions of dollars in penalties in addition to the loss of current and future customers who no longer trust the Volkswagen brand. Alignment is good for both your physical and financial health.
Since I have been practicing yoga for about five years with various teachers and on my own, I think of myself as pretty well-aligned, at least physically, if not spiritually. So you can imagine my righteous indignation when I recently went to see a physical therapist, and she told me that my spine is not very well-aligned. I had gone to see her in order to address chronic tendonitis pain in my wrists and forearms, the intensity of which had been ebbing and flowing since my days of intensive rock climbing in my early twenties. She began to treat the soft tissue and joint alignment issues in my wrists and forearms. And, like the excellent therapist she is, she also wanted to address the root causes of my recurring tendonitis, which are likely related to poor posture that places increased stress upon the nerves and tendons in my arm and hands.
I finally realized that somewhere along the line, I got the idea that “straightening” my spine meant rotating my pelvis forward, creating an increase in the curvature of my lower back (lumbar region) and in the amount of muscle tension required to hold this position. This was in turn increasing the curvature and tension in mid- and upper-back (thoracic and cervical regions). What I have been re-learning with her help is that in order to align and straighten my back I need to release this tension and allow my pelvis and hips to come to a natural, neutral position. When I do this, I can literally feel my spine naturally lengthen and straighten, and the muscles that run along each side of my spine to relax.
I have now become much more attuned with the tension in my back muscles. I am catching myself rotating my pelvis forward and tensing the muscles of lower back (because this has been my default position for decades hardwired into my neuro-muscular pathways), and then responding with a gentle reminder to allow that entire area, the pelvic floor and surrounding areas, to relax so that things can fall into place.
Ironically, this is exactly how my practice of Centering Prayer works! Whenever I notice I am engaging in thoughts (which is an umbrella term for cognitive thoughts and emotions, memories, bodily sensations, images, etc.) I simply notice this, repeat my sacred word, and let go back into that open awareness, resting back into God’s embrace. When I let go of both thoughts and the tension that arises in my pelvic floor, I also notice that I am wasting less energy and that energy is able to flow more freely along my spine and back – and my tendonitis is beginning to heal (albeit more slowly than my ego would prefer).
This is one simple example of how mind-body awareness, when integrated into a contemplative practice, can have a profound effect on everyday awareness, including physical, mental, and spiritual health. Notice tension in lower back, repeat sacred word on exhalation, relax pelvic floor and back, allow natural alignment and integration to emerge, energy flows more freely, rest in awareness of God’s love presence – repeat ad infinitum!