Alignment and the Mind

It has been about 16 years since I last crossed paths with BKS Iyengar. So much has changed since then – what would it be like to see my old teacher?

The opportunity arose at the twenty-second meeting of the Mind and Life Institute in New Delhi, India. I had the great fortune of receiving an invitation (a big bow of gratitude to my friend, RD) and I eagerly added another week to my already-planned trip to India.

"Building a scientific understanding of the mind to reduce suffering and promote well-being." Quite a mission, isn’t it?! The Mind and Life Institute is a marvelous organization that brings masters of the contemplative traditions and scientists together to share their experiences and findings. With His Holiness the Dalai Lama as the catalyst, these meetings demonstrate how the techniques of various contemplative traditions can change lives for the better. In the here and now, and in means compatible with our secular cultures, there are techniques that have been proven to literally change the mind for the healthier.

This particular meeting of the Mind and Life Institute was auspicious, as it was the first time some of the contemplative traditions of India had been included. Masters of Yoga, Advaita Vedanta and Jainism came together to share their commonalities and examine their differences with the contemplative practices of Buddhism.

The official meeting was set to start on a Saturday evening, and Mr. Iyengar’s session kicked things off earlier in the day.

My heart was beating at a faster clip as I waited outside the India Habitat Center for the doors to open. It was serendipitous that I was even at this Mind and Life meeting, and there were no assurances I’d gain admission to this meeting with His Holiness and Mr. Iyengar. Providence smiled, however, and at the 11th hour I was graced with a ticket to this event, and gratefully took my seat besides my Madison friends Marc and Astrid.

Mr. Iyengar took the stage first, and described how through Hatha Yoga practices the practitioner (sadhaka) moves the intelligence from the outer body to the inner body, and how this wisdom then flows back outward to the skin and beyond. Mr. Iyengar then brought two of his brave students onstage to demonstrate Utthita Trikonasana.

Mr. Iyengar asked them to prepare for the pose (arms outstretched), then described how the alignment of this pose gave insight into their inner states, and correspondingly how changing the outer form of the pose would rewrite their inner state. Mr. Iyengar’s students had been working in the preparatory pose intently for more than five minutes when Astrid leaned over and asked me if their arms may be tired. Yes, I replied, they most likely are rethinking their decision to appear onstage with Mr. Iyengar!

Thankfully, each demonstrator was allowed to shift into the full expression of Utthita Trikonasana, whereupon Mr. Iyengar observed various alignment points and how they related to inner states such as fear, apprehension, etc. At this point I began to revisit the doubts that first began to visit in the early 90’s – does the minutiae of alignment really feed the healthy mind, or simply reinforce extant patterns of control? The demonstrators on-stage looked like deer in the headlights, and compared to HH the Dalai Lama a few steps away, it was evident their mindstates were apples and oranges.

This is a question I’ve been wrestling for almost 20 years. Certainly alignment in the poses has its place; we tend to move from our strengths to avoid our weaknesses, and correspondingly move from our existing flexibility to avoid the stiff places. Healthy alignment in the yoga poses helps create a more balanced body by moving not only from the places that are easy and familiar, but more importantly, from the shadow places that we tend to avoid.

Alignment also helps focus the mind. Maintaining awareness throughout the body in a yoga pose keeps the mind from wandering, which supports the yogic technique of Dharana, or focused attention.

But does realigning the body make us more attentive, focused, loving, forgiving and compassionate? Or is a sitting meditation practice a necessary part of the equation?

I’d really like to hear from this blog's readers. What are your experiences, thoughts and impressions with regards to Hatha Yoga and the mind?
From India with Love,

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