To Align or Not To Align
Stillness. Peace. Tranquillity. Those were the words I carefully and deliberately repeated to myself today. Over and over — for seventy-five full minutes of bliss.
In my 250-odd published articles (plus another 300 or so if we sum my admittedly tame attempts of blogging), I’ve never written about my yoga practice. It’s personal; I’m still a beginner; and it hardly ever seemed relevant. In August I passed the five-year mark since that memorable day in Sydney when I instantly fell in love with yoga. Some 550 classes later — perhaps 750 hours of yoga practice in total — I am far off that 10,000 hours line that allegedly marks true mastery.
With all of us yogis, our practice is an ever-changing thing; it means different things to us during different times of our lives. It shows us new things, never ceases to amaze, and constantly teaches us about ourselves.
Recently, I’m all about the alignment — how you hold one part of your body in relation to the other. I’d rather slow down and do poses properly, matching the movements to my breath, rather than rush through poses to keep up with a fast-paced class.
Now that I’m once again practicing with mirrors, I’ve noticed that in Trikonasana I curve my back like the head of some primordial hydra. Re-align. When I’m playing with variations of down-dog or three-legged dog, my right hand moves much in front of the left hand. Re-align. This morning I noticed that on the left side in side-crow (Parsva Bakasana), my top knee wants to get horribly out of line. Pull it back in.
You can find a fair bit of dispute among practitioners how exactly a pose should be held, or how you should — or shouldn’t — hold your limbs or arch your back. That’s inevitable. Schools of yoga guide somewhat differently, and instructors may differ between them in how they cue and what particular alignment they emphasise. Variations are fine, but that doesn’t mean anything goes. While we may argue over elbow bending in Chaturanga or back arching in Utkatasana, I don’t believe anyone advises kicking into the knee of your standing leg in Tree Pose or jumping into poses your body doesn’t yet have the strength or flexibility to hold.
To me, alignment goes beyond all that. It means to weave one part of your body into another, ensuring that they fit together — seamlessly, if you can. It means to practice what you preach. It means to not manipulate the world with words of deception. It means to put your money where your mouth is. It means to align breath with motion, to connect the inside world with the outside world, to do good in the world.
Action is what matters, Austrian Economics teaches us. Action is how we embody the desires that we want, make them properties of the world. Through action we separate the values and desires that truly matter from the fleeting (and endless) ideas in our heads. Get your a** to yoga class. And if you don’t — stop pretending that you “really” want to go.
In our personal lives, it means to align actions with values — or values with action. Don’t say you want one thing if you constantly act in ways that lead to another; update your values and your speech — or change your actions!
“It’s so amazing,” a friend recently told me, “that you just do what you want.” He meant that if I say I want to do something, I actually go through with it. I try, fail, try again, or I eventually succeed. Else I find that I didn’t really want the outcome I envisioned, or wasn’t willing to put in the work needed to achieve it.
I remembered a conversation I had many years ago with a 50-something divorced lady, after I had just returned from my first trip to Costa Rica. She dreamingly complimented me on my journey and how amazing it was that I had just thrown myself into the unknown. Over and over again, she maintained that she also wanted to do something like that. “What’s holding you back?” I finally asked, for which she didn’t have a good answer.
Lots of people live life like that — all talk, no walk. Or “tawk,” as Nassim Taleb would derogatorily call it. Words they don’t actually believe come out of their mouths, professing values and desires they never act on. It’s not so easy, you might say. I have this or that thing holding me back: family, illness, fears, jobs, commitments. Those are all tremendously valuable things — life-sustaining, even. But if you put them ahead of whatever dream you claim to harbour, you’re telling me two things:
- You don’t really want that dream — or you’re at least not willing to put in the work required.
- Your mind, your values, or perhaps the words they produce, are not aligned.
It’s fine to value family over adventure, job security and income over travelling the world. More than fine, really. It’s not fine to delude yourself that you want those dreams if you don’t act on them. Dreams unaccompanied by action are empty wishes, deceitful words.
If my life, biologically, psychologically, societally, prevents me from pursuing some abstract idea I harbour — or more importantly if I’m not willing to do the work — there’s little use in crying over spilled milk. Water under the bridge. Instead: move on — and re-align! We all want to be “better” at no opportunity cost; free things and miraculous windfalls are nice, but they’re generally not part of most people’s lives.
This insight extends way beyond the mat. While it’s difficult to iron out all the little inconsistencies and intellectual contradictions we carry around, they don’t go away just because we don’t see them. They might not bother us consciously, but they put our entire being out of alignment. If you believe that market transactions are oppressive and hurtful, the simple act of buying coffee is mentally tough — not to mention a trip to the supermarket or to IKEA.
If you believe that international trade is immoral — as it involves fossil-fuel powered transportation or the occasional low-paid labour (or god-forbid, child labour!) — you struggle to consume anything. Penance required for every little purchase you make.
If you believe that humans are a plague on nature, like so many of my environmentalist friends do, every action you take is painfully out of sync with your professed beliefs. Breathing, consuming, eating, showering, travelling, even existing is painful: you are literally impacting nature with every step you take.
If you believe that “the Patriarchy” governs our lives and constantly oppresses us, your every interaction with other humans beings — and yourself! — is a painful misalignment between actions and values. You say you want one thing, but you act a different way. Sometimes your body even physically rebels against the intellectual instructions you send it.
Alignment matters, on and off the mat. When you’re not aligning action with thought and values, movement with breath, body limbs with body limbs, things go bad. On the mat, you injure yourself and hurt your practice. Off the mat, you hurt yourself and others around you.
Do what you say you want. Practice what you preach. Let action demonstrate your values, or update your values such that they align with your actions. Update, align, re-align — always.