There is and always will be a lot of debate when it comes to alignment in a Yoga class. Some (myself included) who tout its importance. And others who believe it’s not so important in the practice.
Looking at Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga two completely different practices. Yet both Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar were students of Krishnamacharya. The underlying principle of his teachings was to 'Teach what is appropriate for an individual'
Whilst Ashtanga recognises the importance of breath and movement. Iyengar is alignment first and foremost.
In today’s modern practices which I believe developed out of a need to address western lifestyles and bodies, I strongly believe a combination of these beliefs is necessary.
Through healthy alignment that is optimum for ‘your’ body you reduce the risk of injury, increase strength, take the pressure off joints, encouraging the correct muscles to engage and work. When the body is aligned optimally the muscles and joints assume their correct working roles leading to a greater sense of ease through the whole body. More often than not when there is a weakness or if the body is incorrectly aligned some joints may overwork in place of the muscles which don't engage - leading to injury over time.
Only when the body is aligned will you find a sense of ease so the breath can flow freely.
So what does ‘optimum for ‘your’ body’ mean. Recognising we are all individuals, shapes, sizes, some hyper-mobile others strong but inflexible, injuries past & present... I could go on. We enter a Yoga class and for the most part instruction is general for alignment. There are definitely some that in my mind are non-negotiable especially when it comes to safety (knees, back, neck) but more often than not some of that instruction needs to be adapted for the individual whether it’s a whisper in the ear or a hands on adjustment, this is the instruction you need to pay the most attention to. To align your body in a way so you can find more freedom. Gaining strength and freedom physically will lead to freedom and ease mentally too.
Take 2 extreme body types. Someone who is hyper-mobile may find some areas of the practice easy, almost too easy as their joints allow an amount of mobility that may feel right to them but over time can lead to injury. Encouraging that student to pull back and engage muscles more, will help them feel, connect to - and be in their bodies more.
A person who comes to class feeling stiff and inflexible may feel tempted to force the pose leading to injury.
Ultimately finding the best alignment for person number 1 will help them engage muscles and build strength while for person number 2 proper alignment will help the muscles relax and encourage more ease.
Whether you are new to Yoga or have been practicing a while you should take the time to pay attention to the structure and alignment of the pose from the foundation up. What is going on for you and in your body in the moment and paying attention to the breath. Whether you are in a fast paced Vinyasa class, or a class where poses are held for longer, understanding your body's structure and how to align in a way that is safest for you and allows the breath flow freely. A sense of bliss and ease will come not just to your practice on the mat but off it too.