As a teacher and practitioner of the Iyengar method of yoga I am always getting questions about what makes this style of yoga different, “What is Iyengar?” “Is it fast moving?” “It is slow?” “I normally can’t do Yoga, I am not flexible, and will I be able to do Iyengar Yoga?”
Legitimate questions to ask, all of which I asked myself when walking into the Iyengar Institute in London many years ago as I embarked on my first class. In a world where countless Instagram posts of “perfect people” performing “perfectly polished asana”, Yoga seems almost inaccessible for us mere mortals. Yet this is a wonderful gift given to us by our great sages and a practice that has profound benefits.
So how can Iyengar Yoga help you start your Yoga journey?
Iyengar Yoga can be practiced by anyone
Here is what is different about Iyengar Yoga, and how it can be accessible to you regardless of your age, gender, fitness level, body shape or flexibility.
As a beginner to the Iyengar system, you enroll into a foundation course and you start with the absolute basics. Your teacher is trained to guide you through each asana, to build up each pose from the base: from the correct placement of the feet on the mat you learn how to align the hips, shoulders and the torso in standing asanas.
When seated you learn how to keep the weight balanced on the seat bones, and then how to maintain the vertical alignment of the spine when performing e.g. seated twists, or forward bends.
When performing asana, where there is stiffness (e.g. unable to sit cross legged without discomfort, tight hamstrings, unable to reach the toes), or injury (e.g. knee, back or neck pain), belts, bricks, blankets and bolsters are used to provide you with access to the postures without losing the aim: to
achieve the correct alignment.
With this level of attention and hands on approach from the teacher, you will find yourself learning yoga, not just doing yoga.
Through the use of props BKS Iyengar has essentially democratized yoga, so everyone can have access to it. This I believe is a fundamental difference.
Iyengar Yoga brings you strength and flexibility
After just a few lessons of Iyengar Yoga I have students telling me how different they feel, their shoulders and hips and shoulders feel more open, they are able to sleep better, their energy levels increase. The dullness in their body starts to diminish.
Many male students start to benefit from having more flexibility in their hamstrings, they describe to me how their squash game has improved as a result of their yoga practice.
Students experiencing anxiety and stress who have come to classes describe how keeping up a regular practice has helped them. Collectively I am always getting stories of how my students have become mindful of their body alignment whilst performing everyday tasks.
When I get this feedback, it often takes me back to when I started practicing, the difference I was feeling in my body just after four weeks of yoga practice was very apparent. I found I felt steadier on my feet; my thighs and calves were more alert at doing their job, I was engaging my hips like I hadn’t done before. It was like my core had been awakened.
As my practice continues, this strength increases. This can be attributed to the longer duration that poses are held in Iyengar Yoga. Activities that I used to find challenging and requiring strength I felt I was never able to access, I now find myself being able to do them with an effortless effort.
Iyengar Yoga keeps you in the present, bringing stillness
Prior to starting yoga, my mind was consumed by thoughts, often related to work. At the time I was working in a corporate environment in a job that involved extensive overseas travel, which was often demanding and stressful.
There were countless times I read, heard and considered exploring meditation. “Make some time for meditation” was often the advice I was given. I would often try this and not be able to sustain more than a minute or two of sitting still without the mind taking over, or my spine slouching.
As BKS Iyengar puts it “Meditation in the yogic sense cannot be done by a person who is under stress, who has a weak body, weak lungs, hard muscles, collapsed spine, fluctuating mind, mental agitation or timidity. Often people think that sitting quietly is meditation. This is a misunderstanding. For this (meditation) one needs the preparations of the postures and the breathing, the withdrawal of the senses and concentration… This is achieved through asana practice.”
So a strong asana practice forms the foundation
One of the differences in the style of teaching BKS Iyengar has developed, are the detailed instructions given in class by your teacher to provide you with information to achieve the correct alignment in asana. This process keeps the practitioner alert, in the present and often there is no time during class for the mind to focus on anything else.
A few weeks into my yoga practice back in 2008, I found myself developing a stillness that I hadn’t experienced before. The few hours every week of total presence I was gaining in my yoga class was enough for me to start breaking the cycle of incessant thinking that I was trapped in.
The more I practiced asana, the deeper this stillness became. BKS Iyengar describes this “In asana our consciousness spreads throughout the body, eventually infusing very cell, creating complete awareness. In this way stressful thought is drained away, and our minds focuses on the body, intelligence, and awareness as a whole.”
So through attention to the physical body as we explore it through asana practices we increase our awareness, and this begins the yoga journey. BKS Iyengar says “The practice of yogasana for the sake of health, to keep fit, or to maintain flexibility is the external practice of yoga. While this is a legitimate place to begin, it is not the end.”
I hope this blog post has interested you enough to consider signing up for an Iyengar Yoga foundation course, to personally experience the benefits of this transformative practice.
Sign Up for the next 4–week Iyengar Yoga Foundation course, running every Monday in September 6.30-7.30pm. £25 for the full course. Payable on the website under 'Classes and Bookings'
Following this foundational knowledge you will be ready to join the General Level Yoga classes.
“If you practice yoga in the right way and with the right attitude, far greater benefits and more radical changes will take place than mere flexibility.” – BKS Iyengar