From meditation to journaling, we move now to the most active form of Connecting to Source: Iyengar yoga. After taking Iyengar yoga classes for more than 5 years, I’m still a beginner. This isn’t because I’m a bad student or have bad teachers. I’m still a beginner because Iyengar yoga conveys a wealth of information: physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Many people think of yoga as physical exercise but, in it’s purest form, it’s an active meditation that coordinates body, breath and mental focus.
What Is Iyengar Yoga?
Iyengar is a form of hatha yoga developed by B.K.S. Iyengar. Born in 1918, and still actively practicing and teaching, Mr. Iyengar pioneered the use of props (blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters, chairs, etc.) to help yoga practitioners perform asanas (different poses) with attention to details of correct physical alignment. Poses are held for longer duration while interrelationship of different parts of the body is studied and alignment is perfected.
Another key aspect of Iyengar yoga is the sequencing of asanas, which creates powerful cumulative effects. In an Iyengar class, you won’t have a “yoga bingo” type of experience (where the teacher randomly calls out names of asanas, as if they were popping up on balls in a bingo machine). Instead, the teacher purposefully sequences the asanas to impart particular lessons, and each class is unique.
Mr. Iyengar has written several classic texts on yoga, including Light of Yoga, Light on Pranayama (the science of breath), and The Tree of Yoga. As Mr. Iyengar explains in this last book:
“Yoga means union. The union of the individual soul with the Universal Spirit is yoga. But this is too abstract a notion to be easily understood, so for our level of understanding I say that yoga is the union of body with the mind and of mind with the soul….”
“Through the performance of asanas, I become totally involved and find oneness of body, mind and soul. For me, this is active meditation. Although asana is sometimes described as physical gymnastics, this is a quite mistaken description, because asana means pose, and after posing, reflecting and reposing. Asana is not just exercise….”
“You have to make an effort of understanding and observation. ‘Why am I getting pain at this moment? Why do I not get the pain at another moment or with another movement? What have I to do with this part of my body? What have I to do with that part? How can I get rid of the pain? Why am I feeling this pressure? Why is this side painful? How are the muscles behaving on this side and how are they behaving on the other side?
“You should go on analyzing, and by analysis you will come to understand. Analysis in action is required in yoga. …. You have to see what messages come from the fibres, the muscles, the nerves and the skin of the body while you are in the pose. Then you can learn.”
How Are Iyengar Yoga Teachers Trained?
What initially attracted me to Iyengar yoga, and keeps me coming back regularly for classes, is the quality of its teachers. Before I started practicing yoga, I had several very good personal trainers and I explored other physical disciplines like Pilates. My Iyengar teachers have taught me far more than anyone about my body and its problems, habits, weaknesses and strengths, and how to work to bring my body – and in the process, myself – into balance.
In The Tree of Yoga, Mr. Iyengar emphasizes that “you have to work with a competent teacher to see why there is pain, what happens when you are doing which movements, what mistakes you are making in your postures, where the stress is when you are working, whether it is necessary to give stress to that point or whether it should be shifted elsewhere to nullify the pain.” Certified Iyengar teachers are beyond competent.
To begin Iyengar teacher training, you must have been a student for at least 3 years, attend at least 3 classes a week, and practice daily on your own. From there, you must complete at least 2 years of rigorous training for an introductory certificate. Subsequent intermediate and senior levels of certification are available. As stated on Mr. Iyengar’s website: “It is not just the ‘time’ or ‘years’ of practice that makes one eligible for a particular level of certification but the ‘quality’ of the practice.”
Manouso Manos, who holds one of only two Advanced Senior certificates granted by Mr. Iyengar, previews what you can expect from an Iyengar teacher in class:
“Most of us think we can write the script of who our yoga teacher is but we can’t. Of course, you have to find a yoga teacher who speaks directly to your understanding. But that doesn’t mean that the yoga teacher should not be pushing your buttons once in a while, saying, ‘Hey, there’s a little more to this.’ You can’t structure the box of what your yoga practice is. In fact, yoga is, by definition, transformative. The joke that I tell, and I’m not the first one to say this, is that you cannot change and stay the same at the same time.
“And this is an example of what most of us want to do in a yoga class. Okay, I want to control this. I want to have this, I want to understand this and you’re not going to push my button. And the answer is, the yoga teacher should always push you into at least a minor state of discomfort. This will encourage you to move into a state where you’re willing to step out of that hard box that most of us are in, out of that control freak and that ego that tries to box us in.”
Yoga Samachar (IYNAUS newsletter), Fall 2011/Winter 2012 edition. “You cannot change and stay the same at the same time.” In addition to being funny, that observation is pretty darn powerful!
How Do I Find An Iyengar Yoga Teacher Near Me?
A complete listing of Iyengar yoga teachers worldwide is available on Mr. Iyengar’s website. To search for Iyengar teachers in the U.S., go to the IYNAUS (Iyengar Yoga: National Association of the United States) website. I practice at Yoga Circle in downtown Chicago, where I take classes from two instructors who I love: Todd Howell and Bob Whittinghill. For a schedule of classes at Yoga Circle, click here.
Remember, as Mr. Iyengar points out in Tree of Yoga, “It is never too late in life to practice yoga.”