Why Yin Yoga Is The Punk Rock Of YogaJan 14, 2022
Are you a non-conforming yogi? Do you like to do your own thing in yoga classes? If so, you might be intuitively using an approach called Functional Alignment.
To understand Functional Alignment, first we'll explore Aesthetic Alignment. When a yoga practice is concerned with how the postures look, then it is aesthetically focused. This type of yoga practice prioritizes things like symmetry of the body and precise placement of the arms, legs, hands and feet.
Most yoga alignment is aesthetic.
On the other hand, a yoga practice that uses Functional Alignment is more concerned with how yoga postures feel rather than how they look. When we practice functionally, we view yoga postures as tools to stretch, stress or stimulate a target area – e.g. the spine, hamstrings or quads.
Here's a short video about Functional vs Aesthetic Alignment in Yin Yoga:
Aesthetic Alignment: It's about how it looks
Have you ever attended an in-person yoga classes where it felt like the teacher was trying to line everyone up and make them look exactly the same? This teacher may move around the room confidently, fixing an arm here and a foot there, working hard to "correct" everybody until every person looks like the people around them.
A teacher like this is primarily concerned with teaching the aesthetics of alignment.
This kind of yoga instructor may become very popular, using detailed anatomical language and sounding knowledgeable as he or she recites remarkably detailed alignment instructions.
Beginning yoga students tend to like this because it's easy to follow such precise instructions. Many people also enjoy being able to put their trust in an authoritative presence.
This emphasis on conformity happens because mainstream yoga promotes the notion that there's an ideal alignment for each pose. Yoga teacher trainings leave instructors with the belief that there's one way that all people should look, and that everything that doesn't look like the "full pose" is a modification (read: lesser version).
Because most Yin Yoga teachers begin their yoga career teaching an aesthetic style of yoga like this, it's not uncommon for an untrained teacher of a Yin Yoga class to use alignment cues that are not appropriate in Yin Yoga.
Functional Alignment: It's about how it feels
Why are you doing a particular Yin Yoga posture? What’s the anatomical target area that you want to stretch, compress, or engage? Each Yin Yoga posture has at least one target area such as the hamstrings, spine, glutes or groin.
Any given Yin Yoga posture also has an infinite number of variations. This is because there is a vast variety of human skeletal structures. You can imagine how different a ballet dancer’s bones are from a bodybuilder’s.
A good Yin Yoga guide – whether it's a teacher, a video or a book – will mention the target area of each pose and will suggest multiple variations of each pose. In a yoga class setting, when making adjustments or corrections, a good Yin teacher will have a dialogue with the student to determine whether or not the correction helped or hindered their ability to feel the stimulation in the target area.
This is important in Yin Yoga because we spend a much longer amount of time in a given posture than we do in other forms of yoga. This means there’s more potential for harm. When a beginner is not told where she should feel a pose, she may tend to focus on outer form and aesthetic values rather than internal cues. Even if she feels discomfort or pain, but she is not hearing that this isn't normal she may push through. With the lack of good instruction she will naturally try to make her body look like the teacher’s or like someone else’s.
"No two people react to yoga practices exactly the same way, and every yoga pose is bad for somebody." – Paul Grilley
Do Yin Yogis think we should do away with alignment altogether?
Aesthetic Alignment is effective for yoga beginners, who are typically much more visual and haven't yet developed somatic sensory awareness. Children also learn aesthetically – all of us are born with mirror neurons that give us a natural ability to copy movements.
However, as we advance in yoga, we gradually gain awareness of the uniqueness of our bodies and our own somatic experience. We become what anatomist Gil Hedley calls "Somanauts" – space explorers whose realm is the inner world of the body.
It's easy for a yoga teacher to impress yoga beginners with authoritative, exacting alignment instructions. However, the more a yogi advances and learns, the less impressed she is by this.
The people who are drawn to Yin Yoga tend to be longtime yogis who have a well developed sense of intuition. In yoga classes, experienced Yin Yogis insist on doing things their own way as they follow their inner guidance about what feels right.
In a gentle way, this is how we resist the concept of an ideal, externally-imposed shape in yoga.
That's why I call Yin "the punk rock of yoga." Yin lovers tend to be nonconformists who do things their own way.
I'm sometimes asked if I think we should we do away with yoga alignment altogether. Definitely not. That's where good training comes in.
When a yoga teacher has been well trained in Functional Alignment, she understands that each student's bone structure is in charge of her alignment. The student's movements, body angles and limb placements are guided primarily by his or her intuition. This is not a lack of alignment, but instead a more deeply attuned and personalized alignment.
The aesthetic, outward shape of the posture is much less important than this inner sense.
Functional Alignment was created by Paul Grilley, who taught me Yin Yoga. It's a brilliant approach to customizing yoga so that each individual can find what works best to stimulate subtle energies in beneficial ways.
"In a functional approach to yoga there is no perfect pose. Each hand and foot position helps or inhibits our ability to stress the target areas. The most effective way to do this varies from person to person." – Paul Grilley
To learn more about Functional Alignment, sign up for my Ten Days of Yin course.
If you're a yoga teacher wanting to train in this method, check out my Online Yin Yoga Teacher Training.
Get the free Yin Yoga Guidebook
A Yin Yoga posture gallery for personalizing your practice