Iyengar Yoga: What Makes it Different?
In recent days, many in the worldwide yoga community have been aware that the 95-year-old yoga teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, was hospitalized last week. He left this life today at 3:15 am (India time).
If you practice almost any form of Hatha Yoga, whether or not you have studied directly with BKS Iyengar or someone who teaches his method, your practice has likely been influenced by him. His explorations into alignment and its effect on the gross and subtle physical bodies have changed the way most of the world practices Hatha Yoga. His scientific way of looking at Yoga and the body appeals to our Western predilection for academic knowledge. His penchant for breaking down poses to the most minute details has given us a path to practicing asana and pranayama with intelligent precision.
Even at 96, he has continued to learn and refine his understanding. Like any master, his passion for Hatha Yoga has opened up new ways of looking at practice.
On the surface, most of modern, Western yoga doesn’t look much like what Iyengar has taught. Popular yoga is much faster-paced than Iyengar’s slow, methodical practice style. There’s no music or attention to fashion in Iyengar yoga. His institute in Pune, India, is of modest size on a busy street in the city. When I was there years ago, there were bare concrete floors (not the trendy kind). There was no air conditioning or excessive heat. The weather outside determined the climate of the yoga space.
But if you’ve ever used a yoga block, a bolster or a strap, you’ve practiced with some of Iyengar’s innovations. If you’ve practiced shoulderstand with blanket support under your shoulders—and for the sake of your cervical spine, I hope that’s how you always practice!—you’re taking advantage of a modification he devised to prevent degenerative disc disease. Iyengar talked about the “four corners of the feet” before anyone else. If your teacher emphasizes alignment, whether he/she knows it or not, the whole idea of alignment awareness came from Iyengar.
So even if your experience with Iyengar’s philosophies comes from somewhere else, there’s likely at least one aspect of your practice that can be traced back to his innovations. In case you don’t know a lot about his history, here’s a very brief bio:
B.K.S. Iyengar began practicing yoga at the age of 14. In his early years, he suffered ill health and turned to T. Krishnamacharya to learn about yoga and improve his health. When Iyengar was 16, Krishnamacharya sent him out into the world to teach. Iyengar was the first yoga teacher ever to teach to groups of people. He is the author of 14 books and his seminal book, Light on Yoga, has been published in 18 languages.
A Personal History with Iyengar Yoga
My initial exposure to Iyengar happened six months after I began practicing Yoga, when I moved to Salt Lake City. The first big difference I noticed when I began my journey into Iyengar Yoga was STANDING POSES—lots of them. With the exception of Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) my original Indra Devi-trained teacher had never taught standing poses in her classes.
Being naturally flexible and not very strong, I didn’t like the standing poses much. I suffered through them to get to the poses I enjoyed—backbends, twists and seated forward bends—the ones I thought I performed well. Years later, I would realize that standing poses were exactly the medicine I needed to balance my natural instability.
Alignment: Attention to Detail
The second big difference I noticed was the minute attention to details of alignment. These Iyengar classes were rigorous. They required that I give attention to what felt like insignificant details. At first I rebelled. I could do the poses just fine, after all, why all the fuss?
As time passed, I had the opportunity to study with Jean Couch, Felicity Green, Mary Dunn, Judith Hanson Lasater, Ramanand Patel, Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, and Mary Palmer. These teachers shared a deep knowledge of Iyengar’s alignment philosophies. While Iyengar yoga was much harder work than I’d been accustomed to, I began to understand the importance of paying attention to alignment. I was really learning yoga, inside and out. Without the attention to detail, I probably would have gained only a surface understanding.
In 1989, I went to Pune, India, to study with B.K.S. Iyengar and his daughter, Geeta. Studying yoga in India, its place of origin, was an experience rich beyond my wildest imaginings. Among the multitude of things I learned, one thing Iyengar said stood out. I have always remembered this (and I’m paraphrasing): Iyengar said that we practice asana and pranayama to create a peaceful environment for the mind to settle.
Alignment is important not only because it prevents injury and corrects imbalances, but because it creates continuity in the body, a flow that allows the mind to be at ease, the true definition of yoga.
The Art of Sequencing
Iyengar yoga gives a lot of attention to sequencing the poses in specific ways in order to create specific effects. The way we sequence our practice can alleviate imbalances such as anxiety, depression, tiredness, hyperactivity, and the whole array of emotions. Here’s a chart that shows how to sequence poses with regard to their heating and cooling effects.
The originators of such yoga props as bolsters, blocks and straps, the Iyengars have been instrumental in developing therapeutic applications of yoga. Knowing that not every body is the same, Iyengar developed props so that everyone, regardless of his/her physical condition, could gain the benefits of hatha yoga practice. I had the opportunity to watch some of Iyengar’s therapeutic classes while I was in India. He, his son Prashant, and several assistants attended to more than 20 people, all with differing special needs, giving each person exactly what they needed in the moment. Inspiring.
Iyengar advocates long holds in poses. The longer you hold a pose, the more deeply its effects can integrate. Iyengar yoga considers not only asana’s effects on the physical body, but also the effects on the more subtle koshas—the pranic (energy), emotional, intellectual and bliss bodies. To reach these deeper body “sheaths,” a pose must sink in a bit, which takes time.
B.K.S. Iyengar has written many books on yoga philosophy, including a translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Steeped in the yoga tradition, Iyengar’s hatha yoga teaching integrates all eight limbs of yoga into the practice.
Here is a great summation of the Iyengar philosophy: “Asanas and Pranayama are merely used as the tools with which to master all eight aspects of Patanjali’s Astanga yoga. Mastery of the body is the gateway to mastery of the mind. Consider the following: The whole human being from the outermost skin to the innermost being (or soul) is interconnected. For example, if the body is ill, the mind also becomes depressed, lethargic and bad tempered and if the mind is stressed the body becomes tense. The intensity and depth to which Iyengar yoga is practiced on the physical level does affect and change the mind and spirit.”