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The definitive text on yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, was written over 2500 years ago. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states that yoga should be practiced one-on-one. This premise recognizes the uniqueness of each person’s structure and the need for individualized routines.
The human body has an ideal design, including ankles, hips, knees and shoulders that are vertically aligned, feet that point straight ahead, and a spine that is curved just the right amount. Simply put, the human body is meant to have good posture. With this ideal alignment you can run, jump, carry heavy loads and make repetitive movements for many, many years.
To determine the state of your alignment, stand with your back and your heels against a wall. Touch your head to the wall and notice how you feel. It will probably feel very odd, even uncomfortable. This test is a good measure of how far your body may have traveled away from vertical alignment. Now, look at yourself in a mirror. Are your shoulders level? Do your hands and arms hang the same distance from your body, and can you see more knuckles of one hand than the other? Do your feet and knees point straight ahead?
Actually, few of us are in perfect alignment, and the result is usually pain. Pain begins as poor alignment. This may be due to an injury, weak muscles, improper exercise routines or too little time spent crawling. Many of us were simply born with imbalances. As we age, we begin the western ritual of sitting: at our desk, in our car and at our home. More sitting and less movement complicates and worsens our imbalances.
Poor alignment leads to excessive pressure in one area of a misaligned joint. This excessive pressure can lead to inflammation, pain and deterioration of the cartilage. If the joint is greatly misaligned – especially the spine – nerve impingement will often result. Depending upon which area of the joint is affected, the name of your particular condition will vary: arthritis, bursitis, capsulitis, tendonitis, etc. If it is a common condition, it may receive a name like carpal tunnel, tennis elbow or plantar fasciitis. The names may be different, but the cause is almost always the same – you have strayed from your original design.
The good news is that improper alignment can be corrected, and as a result, pain can be eliminated. A poll conducted by Good Morning America and USA Today determined that one in five Americans suffers from chronic pain. Discovery Channel’s recent airing of “Breaking Down Back Pain” illustrated that exercise is the most effective way to eliminate back pain.
Many people, many paths, one goal. For each of us, the causes of misalignment are unique and the path back to health must be unique as well. For the best results, your yoga or pilates instructor, physical therapist or chiropractor must be an expert in understanding your personal structure, and what is needed to help you return your body to its original design.
There are also specialized experts and modalities for exercise-based postural reeducation, including the Alexander Technique (AT) and Titus Motion Therapy (TMT) – methods that help the body remember its innate blueprint for health, through a series of individualized exercises which correct posture while also enhancing balance and flexibility.
Exercise therapy is rooted in the philosophy that the body is inherently designed for proper function and alignment through movement. However, with the evolution of technology has come a sedentary lifestyle – computers, television and driving are a few of the reasons that human bodies are no longer as active as in the past. One result of this inactivity is poor posture, a culprit of many chronic ailments.
Treatment-based therapies, including Osteopathy, CranioSacral Unwinding (CSU), the St. John Method of Neuromuscular Therapy (NMT) and Network Spinal Analysis (NSA) also work toward aligning the body. These methods all vary. What they have in common, however, is that they deal directly with an individual’s specific needs, and make excellent accompaniments to your yoga practice.
Group classes are helpful for maintaining health, but only after you are aligned, and your body is functioning properly. Keep in mind that the saying, “One man’s food is another man’s poison,” is true of exercise too. If you are looking for pain relief or want to prevent the onset of future aches and pains, it is necessary to work with someone who can thoroughly evaluate your alignment and prescribe a routine which will bring your body back to radiant health.
Exploring the modalities that are available and finding a one-on-one practitioner or teacher is an important and necessary step to ensure that you are practicing yoga with your own optimal musculoskeletal alignment.