Why I Love Iyengar YogaBy Ana L. Palles
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit verb yuj which means to yoke or unite. Uniting body mind and spirit is one of the objectives of yoga. By bringing awareness to the body and quieting the mind, yoga seeks to aid the process of union between the different aspects of our being.
Iyengar yoga was developed by B.K.S. Iyengar and is a form of Hatha yoga. Yogi Swatmarama introduced Hatha, the most popular yoga in the United States, in 15th century India. Its name is derived from the Sanskrit words for Sun and Moon, indicative of the union of opposites.
Iyengar yoga carries this same focus on balance and union with some notable refinements.
Three elements make Iyengar Yoga distinct from other yoga styles These are technique, sequence, and timing. Technique refers to learning adjustments in body alignment through the practice of asanas and pranayamas. Sequence refers to the order of how the asanas and pranayamas are performed. Lastly, timing is the time spent in performing the asanas and pranayamas. Iyengar Yoga promotes the growth of all the eight disciplines of Yoga, affecting the practitioner's physiological, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being … (www.abc-of-yoga.com).
An Iyengar yoga class is quite different than a typical yoga class. It tends to be quieter, there is an air of reverence that is quite calming for the mind, and the attention is brought within so that it is much more about the individual person than the class as a group. Although I enjoyed power yoga, anusara, ashtanga, and other yoga classes I’ve dropped into over the last two years, I am passionate about Iyengar yoga. Why is this my favorite yoga? It’s fairly simple.
- Welcoming Atmosphere and Personalized Instruction
- Deep focus on Body Awareness and Alignment
- Development of Stillness in the Mind
Yoga is meant to be non-competitive and open to all, yet some classes are more open to newcomers than others. Often when a group has been working together regularly, they know their teacher well, anticipate the moves and perhaps require very little instruction. And this is fine, as long as there are no newbies in the class trying to follow along. However, even when you know the pose, there are often variations depending on the training the teacher has received. Coupled with the fact that there is always room for adjustment and improvement, rote yoga simply does not work well for me.
At a recent class, my Iyengar instructor demonstrated the difference between going lower into a pose by rounding one's shoulder and back as opposed to staying a bit higher. By sinking the spine into the body and pulling the shoulder blades down the back, we were able to gain greater extension and flattening of the back.
As we watched, she reinforced, "The ego tells us we are lower and therefore we are doing a great job with this pose. Yet observation of the body tells us that this is the ego's illusion." It was a powerful lesson as we looked at our backs in the mirror and she came along and adjusted us.
While Iyengar yoga classes are quite consistent on how the postures are done given the extensive teacher certification, I have not found that same level of consistency in other classes. For example, in Iyengar, you are instructed to bend the knee when coming out of particular postures in order to protect the knee from injury. This is important given the number of people with knee problems.
Many Iyengar instructors I know are also proficient body workers studying the skeletal structure quite in depth. Rolfing, feldenkrais, and other forms of structural integration work go hand in hand with the Iyengar training and it is common to find teachers integrating these other practices. As a result of the focus on the body's structure, the instructors are very aware of the joints, ligaments and skeletal system and are mindful of preventing injury and assisting the body to transform.
Iyengar yoga is welcoming to newcomers because there is a heightened opportunity for success. Iyengar yoga teachers will generally demonstrate the pose and then guide the students through precise and detailed instruction, making adjustments on the person to accommodate for their particular body structure. Iyengar teachers provide auditory, visual and kinesthetic cues, helping drive concepts home. Those of us who have learning disabilities appreciate the multi-faceted approach.
Iyengar yoga also holds the postures (asanas) a little longer than other yoga styles. This enables one to experience the benefits of the pose and to teach the body how it feels. Additionally, it allows enough time for the body to relax into the pose and often, without realizing it, I have found that tight quads or hamstrings will gently release.
This style of yoga is accessible for all body types and challenges because the teachers go through very rigorous training in a variety of techniques to achieve the pose. One of the major barriers that heavy set, older or physically challenged people have to overcome when choosing a fitness class is the fear that they cannot keep up with other members of the class and that they will feel inadequate or judged poorly by others. A friend of mine once lamented “you have to already be in perfect shape before you can go to one of those fitness clubs.”
As a size 16, I am by no means the norm at many fitness centers. However, I can honestly say that not only have I always been warmly welcomed at any of the Iyengar classes I have attended, but the instructors have all demonstrated true dedication to the Iyengar teaching style. They work closely with each of us to help us accomplish the purpose of the posture based on our body’s individual structure and both the advanced and beginner student can access the healing value of the asanas.
Yoga is a very therapeutic practice. I believe that fundamental to maximizing these benefits is not only understanding the postures and their purpose, but establishing the mind-body connections and breath symmetry that is foundational to yoga.
Regardless of the ailment, there is bound to be a yoga posture designed to help. For example, torso twists help to massage the internal organs and stimulate the spine and help sciatica sufferers. Several of the forward bend positions are very helpful for high blood pressure.
Breathing into the pose and sinking deeply within helps the body release and relax resistant muscles. Holding the pose for a minute or two gives the body time to trust and let go, enabling the yoga practitioner to experience the benefits more profoundly than they may have anticipated.
I have seen all body types, fitness levels and ages working quietly to their individual level. The teacher walking around the room, gently and steadily providing instruction and making adjustments by adding blankets or blocks as needed to bring the person’s body into proper alignment.
The fact that they work so hard to make the yoga experience a welcoming, healing practice, and focus on individual variations is almost like having your very own personal yoga trainer.
Body Awareness and Alignment
“Stop and feel the effects on the pose on your bodies,” the teacher tells the class with gentle emphasis. The class is perfectly quiet with the exception of her soft barefoot steps gliding across the room. Everyone is in their own worlds reaching deeply within to feel the internal organs, the legs and the head. She wants not only our minds to learn, but our bodies, so that we can recreate the feel of this pose when we’re working on it at home.
Iyengar yoga is most famous for its emphasis on proper alignment. Alignment of the bones and joints leads to better balance with less work of the muscles. In this way we gain more stability in the asanas with less effort. Proper alignment improves circulation, creates inner space (literally in the joints), and brings a balanced flow of energy through the whole body, which leads to health and well being. Attention to alignment in yoga is much more than making a list of points to remember while performing asanas. It is about developing a body awareness that reaches into all aspects of life … (Center Iyengar Yoga, Firenze).
Improper alignment can lead to injury. The alignment of our body is in part about our location in space, how straight or stacked our bones are. Are our shoulders hunched? Are we balanced or leaning? Is our head jutting forward? Are our knees straight?
When I first started yoga, my teacher would tell me I was actually leaning forward during one of the standing poses. I could not feel it because from my perspective, I was in a straight, flat line. To illustrate the point, he came up behind me, using his body as a brace for me, held my extended leg, and torso around the waist, then pulled me back so that I could get a sense of where I should be in relation to a vertical line.
I felt as if I was falling backward and would have if he had not been standing there holding me in place. He asked me to stop thinking about losing my balance, and instead think about what my body’s position felt like in space.
We then worked the pose with the wall behind us, carefully positioning our feet. The goal was to be perfectly straight in the position, which meant touching the wall with the back of the legs and head. This trains the body to understand where it is, what alignment feels like, and the subtle movements to move everything into position. It took awhile but I have slowly recalibrated my posture and am greatly improved.
Yoga is great at healing chronic problems and moving through pain. A little over a year ago, I was experiencing mild sciatic pain along one hip and thigh making me stiff and sore. I worked with a strap to help extend the leg and gain lateral movement across the body. It took me awhile to relax into the pose and allow the muscle to drop. The changes happened subtly. One day as I was working on the floor with the strap moving my leg out to the side and then across my body, I realized that I was doing it easily without pain.
Once I realized this, my body clicked with recognition and relaxed even deeper. I was surprised at the amount of movement accomplished. The instructor commented, “Wow, you’ve got a lot of hip flexibility.” I chuckled because this had not been the case several months earlier. I was making changes, and they were good.
The methodical approach of the Iyengar practice has also resulted in improvements with my stance. With so many of us spending hours in front of our computers, hunching of the back, rounded shoulders forward angled head and compressed necks are pretty common. We are continuously reminded in class to spread our shoulders and bring the shoulder blades down the back, spreading the collarbone. This very subtle movement has profound effects on shifting the body. It has helped in preventing and eliminating the middle back pain I used to experience from hours at my desk.
The process teaches the body, not just the mind, to understand what it is feeling and recreate it. My body recognizes and welcomes the movement.
Stillness and Meditative State
I stopped by to visit my mother after yoga class one evening and she asked, “what have you been doing, you look so much more vibrant and alive than I’ve seen you in some time.” We had done some amazing poses that class, some of which I wanted to stay in even longer. I felt limber and energized. I also felt a deep sense of inner joy and contentment that is sometimes hard to access in our busy lives.
Most yoga teachers are very concerned with a methodical order of poses, always winding down with poses designed to work congruently with one another. For example, downward dog pose followed by upward dog pose. Pose sequencing is very deliberate and studied to ease the body’s transition.
Even the relaxation poses follow a process with a focused meditation. Relaxing the forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, ears, breathing slow deep breaths and resting completely helps the body integrate the work it did throughout the class. I leave with such a sense of calm and stillness that I always eagerly look forward to my next Iyengar class. It has brought about such a significant change in my life that I enthusiastically recommend this practice to friends and clients.
If you're interested in exploring Iyengar yoga, look for a beginner level Iyengar class in your area. Check out local yoga studios, the city parks and recreation center classes and the YMCA. You can also do a search of teachers and studios in your area by searching the certified Iyengar teacher registration.
Additional Information and Resources
Regardless of fitness level or challenges, I hope you’ll give Iyengar yoga a try. Enjoy!