One of the first things I did when I moved to Salt Lake City in 1982 was search for a hatha yoga teacher. Back then the extent of yoga advertising was a black & white flyer hanging on the natural foods store’s bulletin board—the kind with the little phone numbers you could tear off the bottom. That is how I found my first Iyengar yoga teachers, Cita Mason and her then-husband, David Riley. In addition to teaching yoga, Cita was a practicing physical therapist and David was in medical school.
I didn’t know what Iyengar yoga was or how it differed from the yoga I’d learned from my first teacher, the late June Bains, a devotee of Sai Baba and student of Indra Devi. But my brief, congenial phone conversation with Cita convinced me to try it.
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. Now a vibrant 95-year-old, Iyengar, who still lives in Pune, India, is a testament to the health benefits of yoga.
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) June had never taught standing poses in her classes. Being naturally flexible and inherently unstable, 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 tendency toward amorphous instability.
Alignment: Attention to Detail
The second big difference I noticed was the minute attention to details of alignment. June’s classes were quiet, slow-paced and mostly on the floor, with a sprinkling of philosophy, a combination I enjoyed. 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, and Cita and David brought such luminaries as Jean Couch, Felicity Green, Mary Dunn, Judith Hanson Lasater. Ramanand Patel, Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, and Mary Palmer to town. 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 from the Iyengars, 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.
Unlike the fast-paced yoga popular in the U.S. these days, Iyengar advocates long holds in poses. The longer you hold a pose, the more deeply its effects can integrate. Iyengar yoga considers not just asana’s effects on the physical body. It also considers 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.”