Thoughts while listening in to a conversation between J. Brown and Erich Schiffmann
There once was a young student who wanted to be a great scientist. Her father taught her some basic mathematics and gave her a question to solve. She did some quick calculations and came up with the answer of “3”, but she was dissatisfied: she want to be more precise. So, she got out her cell phone and invoked the calculator function and came up with the answer “3.14”. Still not happy, she opened her computer, fired up Excel and worked out the answer to 8 significant digits: “3.1415926!” She proudly presented her findings to her father, who was puzzled. He repeated the question he gave to her, “What is the average age of a 40-year-old mother and her 10-year old son?” The answer, of course, is 25. The wanna-be scientist was very precise in her answer, but she was completely inaccurate.
There is a big difference between precision and accuracy. Some yoga teachers are very precise in their alignment cues, and yet, unfortunately, they totally forget what the question was. For example, they may state, “The knee in Warrior 2 must be exactly over the ankle and point along the 2nd ray of the foot, towards the 2nd toe!” This is a very precise request, but for many people, it is a completely inaccurate and inappropriate cue. If the question is “What is the best alignment for the knee and the foot to maximize health and minimize risk of injury?” then the precision of the offered alignment cue may entirely miss the fact that for some students the foot should be rotated outward, while the knee will point inside the big toe.
B.K.S. Iyengar was often referred to as “The Master of Precision.” He would sometimes use a mirror to help explore the way his body moved, and what felt right in a posture. Erich Schiffmann also liked to use a mirror sometimes. In J. Brown’s November, 2016 podcast interview of Erich, they talked about his time studying under Iyengar. In the 1970’s Erich had been studying with Iyengar and the senior Iyengar teachers in Europe, but he read an article that came out in 1979 by Joel Kramer: Joel’s philosophy excited Erich greatly. He resolved to meet Joel and did: in their first class Joel taught Erich how to send a line of energy down his arm, and suddenly, in Erich words, everything lined up: “ding, ding, ding…” Erich’s whole yoga flipped inside out. He finally understood where Iyengar was getting his alignment ideas. Iyengar was doing his practice, focused totally internally, running energy down a line and wherever it “dinged”, that position would become his new alignment cue, and he would start to tell people about it. Iyengar’s precision came from paying attention to where his body went, and it was these precise cues that Iyengar then shared with his students.
What Erich realized was that the practice was not about putting your body into a specific shape; rather it is about “looking for the places that ding…so that the alignment comes from within.” The shift in Erich’s practice allowed him to look for the postural alignments where energy was free to flow, instead of trying to put his body into a perfectly, precise aesthetic alignment, which actually ended up injuring him a lot. Injuries happen when the cues are not accurate! Precision is nice, but accuracy is far more important.
Erich still honors alignment, but he seeks to find it moment by moment: the alignment that works for him is completely intuitive, not directive. When it became intuitive to him, he said that he felt like he was actually doing “my yoga”. Up until then he was doing Iyengar Yoga, Desikachar Yoga, Vanda Scaravelli Yoga, and loving it, but it always felt like he was doing somebody else’s yoga. He was dependent upon somebody else to give him the next little learning thing: a refined alignment cue. But, as soon as he started doing his own yoga, his personal practice kicked in, and he started learning from it. And then he discovered–“Oh wow! This is fun!” Alignment cues developed by somebody else, for their body, may be quite precise and detailed, but they may not be accurate at all for your body!
Erich’s next evolution was to take his realization into his teaching. He said, “as the teacher–your job is not to impose alignment on somebody else; though give them clues along the way, give them basic stuff [like, stay in the right lane, turn left, turn right…some simple fundamentals], but mostly you are trying to help them find [their] alignment. So that their practice becomes safe and intuitive.” In other words, help them find their yoga for their body. Once they have their alignment worked out and accurate, then they can work towards greater precision. But, start with accuracy first. Get the rough outlines of the posture blocked out, like an artist blocking out a drawing–this makes it accurate–then add the details, make it more precise.
Thanks to J. Brown and Erich Schiffmann for letting us listen in to their discussion. It is important. As teachers, we are reminded to take care when instructing students: are we defaulting to telling them what to do, or are we helping them discover what works for them. It is easy, and convenient, to offer directives and dogmas that we have learned from our teachers, and we can get overly focused on mimicking these cues precisely, but it is far more important and valuable to guide our students to discover the innate alignment that their bodies need. For that, we need to foster their inner intuition and help them become aware of the accurate alignment cues they need to attend to. Or, as Joel Kramer said in the article that influence Erich so deeply,
“It is necessary for all serious practitioners of Yoga to take from other people’s experience that which can be helpful to create a personal expression of Yoga.”
- — For a look at what might be more accurate and appropriate directions that recognize human variations, check out Your Body, Your Yoga, pages 176-180 and pages 188-198.
- — This is a wonderful conversion, and I highly recommend you listen to the whole interview, but for the pertinent comments, start listening around the 45-minute mark for about 5 minutes. You can find the podcast at www.jbrownyoga.com. All of Erich Schiffmann’s quotations are from this podcast.
- — See joeldiana.com for a copy of Joel’s article entitled “A new look at yoga: Playing the Edge of mind & body.”
- — Erich Schiffmann suffered many injuries through forcing himself into particular alignments–this is surprising because in an advanced alignment class, you would think that the alignment cues are insisted upon because they are going to protect you and prevent injuries. His experience is not unique: in the same podcast, J Brown also mentioned the many times he too was injured trying to follow someone’s idea of alignment precision.