What is alignment anyway?
We often hear the term, ‘alignment’ referred to when we are on our yoga mats. We all huff and puff and stretch and strain. Striving to mimic the shape of the asana and achieve the mythical state of ‘correct’ alignment, the illusion of the ‘perfected’ posture. But what is ‘correct’ alignment anyway? What constitutes ‘perfection’ in the pose?
Is it the way the pose looks? The precise positioning of our limbs? The overall shape or the angles of an asana?
Is ‘good’ alignment the result of our ability to contort ourselves into forms identical to those our teachers are demonstrating or that we see reflected around us in class or on social media? Of course not.
This would mean that alignment exists purely in the realm of the physical. But we know that yoga is more than simply how a pose looks. Yoga is about how the pose feels. It is entirely possible to occupy a physical posture without feeling easeful or steady mentally and emotionally. (An approach which can lead to injurious consequences). We are much more than our physical bodies.
Therefore, any concept of alignment needs to be one that aligns, (lines up) all aspects of our experience of being alive. Body, mind, and Spirit.
Any true concept of alignment must be one which can be applied in a universal way, but that simultaneously acknowledges the uniqueness of the individual.
So, if alignment is not about the form of an asana, what is it about?
Alignment is a state of being. When mind, body and spirit are in unison. On the mat, we call this state, ‘asana.’ Asana is ‘the state of being attained when we have reached a balance between stability and ease’, YS 2.46, (sthirum sukham asanam). Feeling steady and easeful in the present moment. Being in the right place, at the right time, with the right focus. This is what it means to be aligned.
The right place is always exactly where we find ourselves. The right time is always now. Right focus is where our internal yoga practice comes in to deliver our bodies and minds into the present moment. Embodied and aware. Here and now. This is yoga.
The method we use to help us achieve this is known as Tristhana.
Tristhana is a concept which comes to us from the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition. Notwithstanding its history, Tristhana offers yoga practitioners a useful paradigm to work with to help us towards becoming aligned. Stable and easeful both on and off the yoga mat.
The Sanskrit word Tristhana is comprised of 2 words: ‘Tri,’ meaning ‘three’ and ‘Sthana,’ which has multiple meanings some of which include: ‘ place,’ ‘state’ or ‘condition’, ‘holy place’, ‘altar’ and ‘a state of pure tranquillity’.
Tristhana then, are the three places we need to inhabit equally to bring us into a state of alignment.
These three places are breath, bandha and dristhi.
The way that we are breathing, our posture and the amount of physical tension required to maintain stability in that posture as well as our mental state, our focus and attention. All contribute equally to creating our sense of physical and mental ease and focused attention and comfortable embodiment in the present moment. THIS is what it means to be truly aligned.
Tristhana is a tool that be used to align our breath, our bodies, and our minds. Anchoring them harmoniously in the present moment. When understood correctly, Tristhana is a doorway into the state of yoga.
Our movements, our breathing, and our focus are all linked. They all influence one another and can all be used as individual points of attention. This is an especially useful way to begin exploring the concept. Just choose one of the three places to begin and allow the process to unfold.
Remember, that due to the connectivity of the ‘three places,’ when we direct our intention towards one, the other two will be influenced as well.
Tristhana is usually thought of as something that we use only in our practice on the mat; however, like so many other aspects of yoga sadhana, we will only have mastered this state when we are able to maintain it off the mat too.
Working with the concept of Tristhana can enable us to begin to bring more of a sense of alignment, stability, and ease into our everyday life off the mat.
However, for now I offer you a few thoughts on how you might begin acquainting yourself with this idea whilst you are practicing asana.
Sadhana (Practice) Suggestions
How to start working with Tristhana in your practice on the mat:
Noticing the relationship between the ‘three places.
The relationship between breath and body.
Experiment with making the connection between body, breath, and attention.
Within the asana, notice your breath.
The breath that we employ on the yoga mat is Ujjayi.
The subject of the Ujjayi breath, its importance and how to perform it; is a complex and fascinating area of practice.
The Ujjayi breath should always move slowly, steadily, smoothly, and deeply.
If we are unable to sustain these qualities in our breathing, then we must adapt the asana instead.
The physical body must alter its expression so that excess tension can dissolve, and the easeful breath can accompany the shape.
Bridge the gap between body and breath to find a place where you are both steady in your physical posture as well as easeful in your breathing. This requires focused attention. Dristhi.
The relationship between body and mind.
The next time you are in a balancing asana, try moving your eyes and attention to different points in your surroundings.
Compare and contrast this approach with setting your gaze gently but steady on an object on the horizon, or at least in front of you.
You will soon make the connection to how much our attention, (in this instance in the form of our eye gaze), effects our physical balance and stability.
This is just one example. The concept of Dristhi stretches far beyond what we are doing with our eye gaze. But it is a particularly useful way to begin working with awareness as it is directed through the eyes.
The relationship between the mind and the breath.
When practicing Surya Namaskara, pay close attention to the breath.
How does the way in which you are breathing; the depth and length of your inhalations and exhalations, whether the movement is occurring on an inhalation or an exhalation.
Try to maintain a pace during your vinyasas whereby the length of the Ujjayi breath and length of time it takes you to move mindfully from one asana into the next is coordinated.
Aim to arrive in an asana right at the end of the breath. Give yourself permission to slow down. Use the Ujjayi as your metronome. It’s delicious and much harder than you might think.
This technique alone is a powerful method with which to deepen your practice and align yourself on the mat.
Try it. Experience for yourself how the ancient theory of Tristhana can help you to deepen your practice and bring you into a state of alignment today!