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A Tool for Yoga Teachers: The Eight Universal Principles of Optimum Alignment
As founder and director of the Tantravaya School of Yoga and Ayurveda, Shy Sayar takes a somewhat unconventional approach to training yoga teachers. Rather than a series of sequences or poses, Shy teaches his trainees a set of eight Universal Principles of Alignment he’s developed over time.
“I used to teach dozens if not hundreds of poses in a teacher training,” he says. “Now, I find that it’s enough to take two dozen poses–as special cases. By the end of training, I can ask my students to pick any pose, whether we’ve talked about it or not, and I ask, ‘What do you need to know to teach it?’ As they consider that question, they realize it’s just the eight principles, nothing else.”
“It’s all just about our relationship to gravity," he explains. “For every body and in every different pose at different times, we all need both the action that is rooting and the action that is lifting, spreading wings. Depending on the individual person and the individual pose, as well as the time of life and time of day and so on, some of us will need to turn one action more up and the other action a little bit less or vice versa. That allows us to bring us all to balance.”
Shy maintains that providing a foundational lens through which to view the body prepares his teacher trainees to better deal with students at all stages and abilities.
“It’s all just a relationship to gravity and individual differences which are already in the pairs of opposites.” He maintains that any yoga teacher could teach any pose to any student via intelligent application of the principles
“I wanted to give practitioners a reliable, consistent, easy-to-remember and understand pair of principles, a pair of oppositional actions. If we just keep those in mind, no matter what we’re doing in asana or any physical gesture we move with safety. We have a direction in which to apply right effort that’s proved to be tremendously helpful, not only for my yoga students but also for the teachers that I’m training.”
His basic understanding of optimal alignment opened a door to therapeutic applications and ways to address chronic pain conditions. He shares, “As I was beginning to understand the physical structures that determine mobility, range of motion, alignment and misalignment of the body, I started to outline a realignment therapy technique. It involves isolating particular muscles in order to manipulate the bone structure back into balance through increasing the number of dendrite connections in the brain map for that region.
“Some people do better when they really focus on pulling the femur heads back, on pressing the upper thighs back like you would in say Downward Facing Dog. For others, that action produces hyperlordosis in the lower back. The tone in the abdomen is lost, the belly spills forward. For those people, lifting the pit of the abdomen in every pose seems to be so much more effective.”
A real challenge in his thought process was developing the notion of how anything can be considered universal. Shy began to see every action as what he describes as ‘roots and wings’, drawing on the concept of freedom that arises from firm foundation–Shtirra/Sukham to use Patanjali’s concept.
He elucidates, “Something that moves in one direction and from that anchoring something else that moves in another direction, and thus creates spaciousness or Sukham, but also engagement and Sthira in asana, stability and strength. We are not only able to achieve perfect alignment in every body, in every pose, or even every active gesture, but we’re able to infinitely respect and account for individual differences.
A Blueprint for Perfect Alignment: Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Typically, trainings begin with a comprehensive application of the principles to the simplest of all poses: Tadasana. This can be a bit confusing to the uninitiated. Shy tells of overhearing one of his students speaking to her partner on the phone during one of his trainings. “The conversation went something like: Yeah, honey, we’re on Day 5 of learning to stand, just standing. It’s really interesting. I’m learning so much!”
“We spend five or six days learning how to stand,” Shy explains. “By the next day, we’ve done Standing Backbends, Standing Forward Bends, Chair Pose, Twisting Chair, Chaturanga, Cobra, Up Dog, Down Dog, Kneeling Lunge, High Lunge, Warrior I, Warrior II and all their variations. It’s an accelerating system. Because everything that’s in these four pairs of principles or two pairs of lower body and two pairs of upper body that mirror each other is in Tadasana.”
The Eight Universal Principles consist of eight opposite actions, which are organized into four pairs of oppositional productively antagonistic actions: Two pairs in the lower body and two pairs in the upper body. Perhaps the best way to understand the principles is to have Shy describe Tadasana:
Begin Where You Stand
Stand with your feet parallel under the sit bones. Press into the roots of the big toes while lifting the inner thighs up and away from each other. Draw the upper thighs back and reach the sit bones down or lift the lower belly, and from that lift, follow and lift all the way through the back of the head or the bones behind the ears while keeping the floating ribs in the back body
With the palms facing into the sides of the body, press as though into a resistance so that without actually changing the wrist when you spiral the upper arms out. The chest opens and blossoms without the actual heart leaning forward, but can rest in the back and ribs rest in the back body creating a free and peaceful flow of energy with strength and stability in the body.
Building from the feet up, stand with feet parallel, almost outer feet parallel so it’s actually the center of the feet parallel. Reach down through the roots of the big toe.
Think of lifting from the bones behind the ears kind of like sliding the back of your head up a wall, Can you imagine what that does to your Tadasana? All the way from pressing the balls of the big toes down, reaching the bones behind the ears. You see how that’s actually a mirror action. It gives length throughout the whole spine.
Press the base of the first metatarsal where the peroneus longus muscles attaches–so not the actual big toe but the cushion behind it - into the ground. It turns the thighs a little bit more in than out, giving a feeling of width in the SI joints.
The actual posterior iliums or the back sides of the side bones of the pelvis move away from each other and that allows for what we call counternutation, the pelvis tilting a little bit back. That both stabilizes and puts a tremendous amount of space in the lower back.
While keeping weight pressing through the inner feet (the roots of the big toes), lift the inner thighs up and away from each other, almost smiling from the inner knees to the outer hips.
We find that many of the most important muscles of the legs turn on, that the legs lengthen, and the whole body becomes a little bit taller and longer as a result. The kneecaps also align, pointing in the same direction as the toes. So stability, safety and spaciousness result.
Lift the lower belly. I find lifting the lower belly to be a lot more effective than “suck the gut in.” It gives us length and spaciousness in addition to strength and stability. So again, “Sukham, Sthira and Asanam” in Patanjali’s language.
Bringing in the Panchamaya Kosha Model
The Pancha Kosha system of the five sheaths of yoga is another important part of the Tantravaya training. While the principles may be based mainly in the flesh body, the Annamaya Kosha, Shy invites his students who have questions after they complete their training to tune into the wisdom of the energy body, Pranamaya Kosha.
“If you then check what it did to your breath, how deep in your body, how even between right and left, how even between front and back is your breath, then Pranamaya Kosha will reveal to you the truth and reveal to you what is a pose that’s actually or a gesture or an action that’s taking you in a right direction for yoga,” he says.
“When we balance lifting the back of the head while pulling the floating ribs back, we create space for the respiratory diaphragm to the center, into the abdominal cavity. So the abdominal cavity is a hydraulic system. When we are able to allow the hydraulic system of the abdomen to compress vertically from top to bottom and expand laterally to the sides, front and back like a kidney breath, we give space for the respiratory diaphragm or precisely the central tendon of the respiratory diaphragm to which all of these fibers connect, to descend down towards the abdominal cavity. This pulls the lungs into spaciousness and, through a magical gift of physics, draws air pressure from the atmosphere of the planet from the Mother into us.
“In a way, we’ve never taken a breath before that. There’s no need to take a breath. We just create the right conditions and the Mother gives.”
Shy says that an emphasis on Annamaya Kosha is the appropriate place to begin working. “We begin with that in every gesture. We begin with that I believe to the day that we die and beyond. We create the right conditions to be given to. And as we are given to and overwhelmed with the generosity of life, we can stop doing yoga, begin to receive yoga and through being overwhelmed and overabundant, to give yoga whether we teach or just live as an example. That’s what we’re all striving for. Let me not in the very least claim to be a master in this, I’m only a student. And I’m grateful for what I’ve been able to articulate for myself and for my students.”