Iyengar yoga: the waist-trimming exercise class the A-listers love

The following article appeared in Times Life on 17 October 2015, written by Peta Bee. The author examines Iyengar yoga and takes a class at the Iyengar Yoga Institute, Maida Vale, London, where I did my teacher training.

Nigella Lawson’s slim new figure is not down to fasting or cutting carbs. So what is behind her latest transformation? In the November issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, the nation’s most glamorous TV cook says that her secret is simple. “I have never been on a diet to try to lose weight. I feel like I haven’t lost weight, but I’m possibly in better shape,” she says. “I am doing a rather slow form of yoga now called Iyengar.”

Quietly and without the overt commercialisation of some yoga brands, Iyengar is among the most popular yoga forms in the world, and Nigella isn’t the only celebrity to discover its ability to lengthen limbs and tighten stomachs. Madonna is a fan, as are Jennifer Aniston, Andie MacDowell and Joanna Lumley.

More so than many other varieties of yoga, Iyengar also focuses on perfecting alignment, improving posture and rehabilitation after injury. It appeals to men as much as women. The precise strengthening postures have attracted sports people such as Ryan Giggs, Joe Hart and Rio Ferdinand, and the New Zealand rugby team. The ballet dancer Alessandra Ferri, who is 52 and still a star ballerina, credits it for helping to extend her career.

For the well-connected, the fitness oasis is the Iyengar Yoga Institute tucked away at the end of a narrow cobbled lane in the leafy enclave of Maida Vale, west London. Classes are snapped up immediately, and if you manage to grab a place you can expect your mat to be sandwiched between those of glamorous local mummies who have heard about its glute-lifting effect, top athletes and the hard-worked bodies of the nearby Notting Hill and Primrose Hill sets.

Despite being the first purpose-built yoga centre in Europe when it opened 30 years ago, until recently its light-flooded studios were known only to an army of hardcore enthusiasts. But word has spread. As I wait for my class to start, a bewildered receptionist is fielding calls from model agencies and glossy magazine editors all trying to secure a place on the most sought-after class in town. Many of the 50 or more weekly classes are booked up the minute they become available and there has been a sharp uptake both in the number of first-timers trying taster classes and in those signing up to be members.

Developed by the pioneering yoga teacher BKS Iyengar, the white-haired, bendy-bodied guru from Karnataka in India who is credited with introducing yoga as we know it to the West, the underlying principles are that yoga should be accessible and achievable for everyone and should be easily incorporated into a western lifestyle. Iyengar started practising the 2,000-year-old tradition of postures after a series of childhood illnesses and began teaching in the 1930s in Mysore in India.

Over the next three decades he honed the way he taught traditional postures, documenting new methods that used aids such as blocks and ropes to help people to achieve them. In the 1960s he published his book Light On Yoga, which became an international bestseller. With 500 pages of detailed instruction and photographs of postures, it was the first yoga publication of its kind. It is still regarded as something of a bible and dipped into by millions of people around the world.

None of Iyengar’s postures are unique. You will find the headstands, shoulder stands and other moves typical of the approach in other types of yoga class. What distinguishes it is that it aims to work every part of your body systematically, giving great muscle definition without adding bulk. It is methodical, the very antithesis of the fast-moving, posture-packed versions to which the fitterati have flocked in recent years, and its regimen of precise alignment and deliberate sequencing is reputed to be fantastic for correcting posture, balancing the body’s weak spots and for rehabilitation after injury.

It is especially good for fixing problems linked to desk-hunching or keyboard tapping. A study this year by researchers at the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva found Iyengar yoga to be an effective way of healing back and neck pain when compared with control groups. While it won’t burn calories in the same way as, say, Ashtanga (which is a dynamic, demanding form of yoga, with both a cardio workout and resistance training in one), it is hardcore and can do wonders for tightening the stomach muscles, shaping the upper arms and giving the illusion that you have grown longer and leaner.

Nigella’s claim that she just does a bit of Iyengar “in a very slow way. Sometimes, lying down” is deceptive. It’s harder than you might think. Even in my basic class, props such as bolsters, harnesses and blocks are used to increase awareness of your positioning and to make the poses accessible. There’s a stronger emphasis on accuracy than I have experienced in other yoga, even to the point that the edges of your mat must be positioned parallel to the floorboard joints. Iyengar involves holding a position for what seems like forever — in our class, one to three minutes is not unusual — while practising strict breath control and attempting three to four repetitions of each pose. Unlike Bikram, with its fixed order and poses, there is no strict format to follow. Instructors dip into the catalogue of 200-plus poses outlined by BKS Iyengar, according to their own preference and the ability of their class.

“Each instructor will bring a different set of postures in a different order to each class,” says Judy Lynn, who is teaching this morning’s beginners’ lesson. “Don’t expect a set format to the order of teaching.” It is the diversity of the poses that many consider to be Iyengar’s most therapeutic attribute. All its teachers are well-versed in biomechanics, trained to understand which positions are most likely to cause injuries and how to modify them by tweaking your technique. They dispense instructions in a more clinical fashion than you might typically expect from yoga, repeating advice until it eventually clicks.

There is little risk of overuse injuries when sequences vary every session; devotees claim you can stick with it for life. Indeed, another of my instructors is Elisabeth Wengersky, who is 83, remarkable not only for her age-defying appearance but for her flexibility. Wengersky took up Iyengar yoga in 1978 and has been teaching it since 1996. With her chic white bob and enviable physique, she would not look out of place among a class of women a third her age. There can’t be many 83-year-olds with bodies as flexible and well conditioned as hers? “Iyengar teaches progression,” she says. “It’s a matter of building layer upon layer.” There is no limit, she says, to the age at which you can get the most out of your body. BKS Iyengar died last year, aged 95, but stayed true to his belief that daily yoga practice “will keep old age at bay” by working on his own body for three hours a day and teaching for many more. Nearing 90, he could still pipe-cleaner his body into a backbend and hang upside down on a rope swing for 20 minutes or more.The thought leaves me feeling inadequate. Wengersky pulls and pushes my hips and shoulders into position with minute tweaks that produce a stretch deeper than I have felt in years. There is, she reassures me, no need to head straight for the endpoint. “You need to build up, to learn the progressions correctly before you attempt full asanas [yoga poses],” Wengersky says.

Our studio is adorned with black-and-white pictures of a wiry Iyengar contorting himself with ropes, hanging upside down and doing impossible backbends. As I withstand the head rush that comes with holding a shoulder stand for several minutes at the end of the 90-minute class, I realise that I have pushed myself to the point of achiness, to that level of muscle fatigue you might assume you would only get at bootcamp or in a spin class. Yet there’s a long way to go. I could well be back for more.

Three Iyengar poses to try at home
Tree pose (Vrksa)
Improves balance, but also strengthens the spine, thighs, calves and ankles for better posture. Stand up, feet together. Breathe deeply. Place your right foot with your heel and toe in line with your left ankle. With your right hand, lift your right leg and place it on your inner left thigh so that your knee is as close to right angles to the floor as you can manage. If this is too difficult, lower your right foot to just above knee or calf height (not on the knee). Push your left thigh into your right foot and vice versa to help to maintain balance. Place palms together and take your arms over your head for balance. Focus on an object in front of you and hold for at least 90 seconds, breathing deeply all the time. Repeat on the other side, then repeat the entire move twice more.

Extended side bend pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana)
Lengthen the muscles between the ribs and pelvis, including parts of the lower back, and open the sides of the ribcage, improving ribcage mobility and lung function. Better breathing and posture are a result. Stand with legs wide apart, feet parallel. Turn your right toes in slightly and move your left foot at right angles so that it is facing away from you. Bend your right knee to right angles so that it is directly over your foot, raising your arms until they are parallel to the floor. Keep facing forwards. To progress the move, bend lower, placing your right hand behind your right foot and extending your left arm overhead, palms downwards. Hold for as long as is comfortable. Aim for at least 90 seconds, breathing deeply. Repeat on the other side, then repeat the entire move three times.

Seated pose (Sukha)
Relaxation and stress relief. Reduces tension in the upper back and shoulders. It’s a good pose to do at night, and could help you sleep. Sit comfortably with legs loosely crossed. Relax your shoulders so that they are away from your ears and keep your spine straight. Settle your mind and breathe deeply, setting a slow and easy pace of breathing. Place palms together and in front of your chest. Remain seated and continue observing your breath for five minutes or longer.

The arms act, the chest experiences

It’s the annual UK Iyengar Yoga Convention, when hundreds of Iyengar yogis gather together from all over the country, and from abroad, to be taught by a senior Indian teacher. This year we’re in Exeter for three days of being taught by Birjoo Mehta, who studied with BKS Iyengar from his boyhood.

Primarily, the Convention is a chance to learn from those close to the Iyengars and develop our practice. But the Convention is also a chance to get together with like-minded people. It’s an opportunity to catch up with old friends and meet new.

Birjoo’s theme for the Convention is “dharma”. This is often translated as duty. BKS Iyengar in The Tree of Yoga, defines it as  “the science of ethical, social and moral obligatons”. Birjoo said being dharmic is being sustainable; different parts of the body work together to sustain another part. The body is an eco-system.

To illustrate how to apply dharma in our practice, Birjoo sat on a chair and took his hands through the back of it. He stretched into the hands, taking the corners of his shoulders back and shoulder-blades down. He said all of these actions were done for the sake of the chest.

He told us the story of the Brahmins who were told they could eat as much as they wanted so long as they didn’t bend their elbows; so they fed each other. None fed themselves. Their actions were for others. It is the same for the body; we work in one part of the body, for the benefit of another part.

As we didn’t all have chairs, we did the work he had done in the chair, in Tadasana, arms behind us, belt on elbows. We would feel what the right tightness for the belt was through how our chest felt. If it felt ready to burst, that’s how we know what’s enough. Birjoo said: “Students ask, ‘Am I doing it right? Am I doing it enough?’. If they look inside, they will know. They won’t need to ask.”

You are doing the work for the sake of the chest. The chest is the experiencer; the arms and shoulders are the actors. You act/do the action with the hands and shoulders to get the chest open. The chest experiences.

If you have a balloon, then you press on the balloon with hands above and below; the hands feel they are getting nearer together. But what does the chest feel? The chest feels it is expanding.

Don’t think “What is the leg doing, what is the arm doing?”. Look only at that part of the body on which you are focusing – at the moment, the chest.

Bring the consciousness to the collar-bones; touch the breath to the collar-bones.

We did all of the introductory standing poses. Each time we did a pose, we started with the breath/consciousness filling the chest and reaching the collar-bones. We had to not lose it as we went into the pose.

As a contrast, sometimes we did it “how we normally do it” – put foot here, stretch there. When we did this, Birjoo said he could see us working quite aggressively in the ams, for the sake of the stretch in the arms, not thinking about what that does for the part of the body which is experiencing the action of the arms (the chest). Then we repeated the pose, taking our focus back to the chest and how the actions of the limbs and body affected the chest.

In the afternoon session he answered questions and taught some Pranayama, building on the work in the morning, showing us what a dharmic breath was.

After that, we emerged, dazed, into the sunshine to do Sirsasana (headstand) and other poses for some group photos for International yoga Day tomorrow. It was a struggle to emerge from the restfulness achieved in our Pranayama to do Sirsasana – and do it well enough to be on camera!- but it was a fitting end to the first day. I felt part of the yogic ecosystem as we did our Sirsasanas; one part of  a bigger practice that wouldn’t work if each person didn’t do their small part.

 

 

 

International Yoga Day, 21 June 2015

This Sunday (21 June) is the first-ever international yoga day, declared so by the United Nations. For yogis, this is exciting stuff! Here’s an article from the New York Times, which gives the background to how the day came about and also has some good detail on how BKS Iyengar (pictured) was responsible for spreading yoga from its origins amongst high-caste Indian men.

bksiyengar headshot

Making Yoga an Exercise in Democracy

Article in New York Times, by Manu Joseph

NEW DELHI — India has persuaded the world to dedicate a day to remember what the world does not wish to forget on other days anyway: that yoga is the gift of an ancient civilization that once lived in India — and in Pakistan, too, if you wish to annoy the Indians.

After Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose known yogic skill is limited to one elementary pose, nudged the United Nations, most of the world united in marking June 21 as the first International Yoga Day.

Despite India’s claim over yoga, it is not a mainstream household practice here. It probably never was. And its modern resurgence in some niches, like schools and affluent urban quarters, is not a continuation of an ancient legacy, but a part of an escalating global movement. Yoga had to wait until India transformed itself into a more equal society to seep into places it had never been permitted to go.

For a long time, yoga was the preserve of the highest-caste men, and what belonged to them usually did not percolate down. But then, about seven decades ago, one of them chose to commit a heresy. He began to teach not only Indian men who were not Brahmins, but women as well, and, later, foreigners.

A strict teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar sometimes hit his adult students. Once, when a couple brought a dazed boy to him, and the boy said that he was dazed because he had achieved spiritual enlightenment, Mr. Iyengar gave him a tight slap and cured him. When foreign female disciples expressed an interest in him, he wrote in his book “Light on Life,” “My flashing eyebrows and fierce glare came to my rescue.” And, when the Vatican approached him to teach yoga to the pope in secrecy he agreed, but on the condition that if someone asked him whether the news were true, he would not lie. The Vatican withdrew the request.

Mr. Iyengar — who died last year at the age of 95, surprising many with his mortality — was largely responsible for liberating yoga from men like himself and creating the circumstances for it to infect the world and in the process win the adoration of Indians.

When he was learning yoga in the India of the time, he wrote, “I can assure you that spiritual democracy did not exist.” The great gurus were secretive and parsimonious with what they let out. Things got worse for him when he began to teach. In 1954, after returning from his first teaching trip outside India, he stopped by the house of a maternal uncle in Bangalore, but he was not allowed in. A Hindu was forbidden to cross the sea, so he had become impure. And, since he was teaching women, “It was generally assumed I was guilty of immorality.” So he got married.

Yoga is today the preserve of women, and there is an ever-failing campaign to lure men to the exercise. In January, in Goa, I went to meet Patrick Broome, the yoga coach of the German soccer team that won the 2014 World Cup. He told me that many players on the squad were embarrassed to be seen doing yoga, because they thought it was feminine.

“Some liked it, some didn’t care,” he said. “Some needed an excuse to come to the yoga studio. So they made it look like an accident that they had landed in the yoga class, as though they were searching for the gym and had got lost.”

Mr. Broome’s favorite Iyengar quote is: “How can you know God if you don’t know your own big toe?” A great yoga teacher is, inevitably, philosophical, and Mr. Iyengar probed the mind as much he did the body. He defined “action” as “movement with intelligence.” And he believed that ultimate liberation is built on “a thousand little freedoms.” “Freedom,” he wrote, “is gained incrementally and over time.” He often claimed that yoga had nothing to do with Hinduism.

It is also India’s claim as it begins to take charge of International Yoga Day. It is hard to accept or dispute the view and still make sense. What is true, though, is that most of Hinduism has nothing to do with religion, and yoga is a part of that which is not magic.

Follow Manu Joseph, author of the novel “The Illicit Happiness of Other People,” on Twitter at @manujosephsan.

Below are the practice programmes designed by Geeta Iyengar for June 21 for us to practise. Some of you have tried it out in class this week. If you have time, join the yogis practising on Sunday across the world and try it out!

International Yoga Day 2015 practice programme part1International Yoga Day 2015 practice programme part2

Establishing a home yoga practice

Whenever there’s a break from yoga classes because of the holidays, students often miss doing yoga. Some wish to practise at home but don’t know where, or how, to start.

This post is intended to help you start a home practice so that you continue to get some of the benefits of yoga even when there is no class.

Even very new beginners can do a simple practice.

The benefits are great: as soon as you begin to practise yoga, there will be a big  improvement in your yoga, as well as in your health, strength and flexibility,

How do you start?

The obstacles we put in our own way are the biggest barriers to starting. We are tired; too busy; we don’t know what to do in the practice; we just don’t feel like it.

The best advice to counter this is simply to let yourself sit on your mat for a few minutes, even if you don’t feel like practising. If after that time, you don’t feel like doing any yoga, then today wasn’t the day for it. Sometimes, though, because you are sitting on the mat, you will start to do a pose and before you know it, you have begun!

Don’t set yourself unrealistic expectations when you first begin. Decide that you will do 10-15 minutes every day and keep it to that. Far better to do a short amount of yoga regularly than to do a longer amount erratically.

A perfectly good practice when you first start would be to do the poses you know well from class, which we’ve done often: dog pose; the common standing poses; an inversion. Treat yourself to the poses you like. You will enjoy your practice more and you will be practising.

Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

Dog pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

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Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II)

Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those newer to yoga may benefit from doing the standing poses against a wall, to be sure their alignment is good. Even experienced students should do this occasionally. As BKS Iyengar said:  “The wall is a great teacher.” You will learn where the pose is going wrong by using it.

Once regular practice is established

When you have a regular practice established, challenge yourself sometimes to do the poses you find difficult. The best way to improve at the poses which are hard for you, is to do them more frequently. But when first trying to establish a practice, don’t focus on the poses you find difficult. This will give you the perfect excuse to not carry on!

If you have a bit more time to spare, you could follow a pre-set programme from an Iyengar yoga book – most have practice programmes at the back. Alternatively you could follow practice programmes. (Click here to view some simple practice programmes; click here to view practice programmes for experienced students). You should only practise the poses that you have been taught in class and know well, leaving out any poses you haven’t been taught or do not know well.

Eventually, when your practice becomes part of your daily routine, it will feel second-nature to do it. After a practice, you will feel great; as after a good class. It will feel uncomfortable when you don’t practise! Personally, I begin to suffer when I haven’t been able to practise for a day or two. My body aches, I feel out of sorts. I’m not happy until I’ve practised.

Ultimately, if you wish to accelerate your progress in yoga, then practice is the secret.

“The student, like the teacher, needs to practise faithfully. The teacher dedicates time and effort in preparing for class and teaching; to receive the maximum benefit, the student must make the same commitment. Of course, life events may interrupt a steady practice. One may go for days or even weeks, without a solid session. But eventually, the discipline of regular practice must be established if yoga is to affect one on the deepest level.

“Guruji BKS Iyengar repeats his simple but profound advice again and again, and that is, ‘Practice’.

“Only through practice can the understanding come. And from understanding come insight, from insight – wisdom – freedom, the very essence of the art of yoga. One must experience this endlessly evolving process for oneself; it cannot be apprehended through any means, other than practice. Part of the teacher’s job is inspire the student to begin and maintain a regular practice, but the students task is to take the energy of inspiration and transform it into the reality of action.”

BKS Iyengar, Yogapushpanjali

 

 

Learning to walk

 In December 2014 I went to India to study yoga with Geeta Iyengar.

 It took me 25 years to get there. It was worth the wait.

 I loved Iyengar yoga when I started in 1990 but for several years it was only a hobby. It built up until I was attending classes three times a week and had an occasional home practice. But I also had a very busy job and then started a family. Yoga was there throughout but wasn’t the main focus.

That changed when my youngest child started playgroup. I re-established my yoga practice and when she started school, I started Iyengar yoga teacher-training.

 But going to India was not on the radar. I wanted to go, to study directly with the Iyengar family, but I expected it to be several more years before my children were old enough for me to leave them to go so far.

 Then one evening an email dropped into my inbox, saying that Geeta Iyengar was going to teach an international yoga convention to celebrate her 70th birthday. My lovely husband said I should go. He didn’t need to say it twice.

Yoganusasanam Convention

At the Convention

 

I was one of 1,300 students from all over the world at the 10-day yoga convention. Every day the teaching was amazing. I was utterly impressed by how Geeta Iyengar was able to teach every one of us in the room, almost as if she was teaching us individually. It was as if she saw us all. Despite the numbers in the room, she was uncannily able to pick out people from quite a distance who were doing something wrong. Sometimes she corrected them verbally from the stage. Sometimes she sent one of her assistant teachers. Sometimes she brought them on stage. This was when we learnt most: seeing her analyse a student’s problem in a posture and how she taught them to improve.

 It was one of these occasions when she taught me how to walk again. She brought a woman on stage, whose Upavistha Konasana (wide-legged sitting pose) was wrong. One leg didn’t straighten. Geeta noticed that the root of this problem was her right lower back and right buttock, which were not lifting.

 During this, I became aware that I was not lifting my right buttock as much as my left. I had been aware for a few years that my right leg was “lazier” than my left leg. But I hadn’t noticed that the root of this problem was higher. Geeta taught me this, even though I was not the person on stage.

 She asked the woman to walk up and down, wide-legged, along a mat. She pointed out how the woman did not swing her hips in the same way on each side. One side was loose, one stiff. I have since become aware of a similar feature in my own gait. So Geeta Iyengar taught me how to walk again. 

Meeting Geetaji

Meeting Geetaji

 There were many other things I learnt from Geetaji. Apparently simple things – how to spread the weight on the feet equally. How to break the stiffness of the shoulders. How to spread the ribs. All things I have been taught before by my teachers, but I “got” them in a purer, simpler more complete way.

 The Convention was also poignant. Earlier that year, in August 2014, our great teacher and guru BKS Iyengar (Geeta’s father), died, aged 95. All of the students at the Convention, whether they had met Mr Iyengar or not, were deeply saddened at his death. He taught most of us without meeting us. Personally, I have learnt a great deal from him without ever meeting him. Anyone who practises his method of yoga has been touched by him.

Geeta brought tears to our eyes when she spoke of his loss. “We are lonely,” she said. “We miss his voice.” She consoled us, telling us: “He is in our heart. His essence is in our heart.” And he was. Sometimes she inspired us to greater efforts by telling us: “Guruji is watching”.

bksiyengar headshot

Guruji, BKS Iyengar

 His spirit was there as we developed links and friendships with fellow Iyengar students from across the globe. I made friends with American, Malaysian, Chinese, Australian, French, Dutch and Indian students, as well as meeting new British yoga friends and deepening friendships with some of those I knew already. The whole range of yoga students were there, from those with three years’ yoga experience to the glitterati of the Iyengar yoga world, the senior international teachers.

Practising yoga with international yoga friends

Practising yoga with international yoga friends

 

The senior Indian teachers were there too, acting as Geeta’s assistant teachers. These are the people who are revered by us, who travel to teach Iyengar yoga and lead our international conventions. Yet here they were, their poses being corrected or their methods questioned. It was humbling for all of us.

 Apart from the life of the Convention itself, with its morning teaching and afternoon philosophy and other talks, there was the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute itself. This is the mother institute, founded by Mr Iyengar in 1975 in memory of his late wife. Its image is used as part of the Iyengar Yoga Certification mark.

Iyengar Certification Mark

Visiting the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune

Visiting the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune

 The first time I visited, I could not get over how small it was. It is so big in its significance for us Iyengar yogis but so modest in reality.

 I found it very sad to reach there too late to meet Mr Iyengar. The bench where he sat in the courtyard to catch the afternoon sun was empty. Yet his spirit fills the place.

 I attended a class there. I set up my mat. But it felt like the wrong part of the room. So I moved to the other side. Later I found out that this was Mr Iyengar’s favoured part of the room. I was glad that I had been drawn to this area. For me, hallowed ground.

 The acoustics are wonderful in the yoga hall. Chanting the invocation there was magical – 100 voices resonate powerfully in the curved, high-ceilinged room.

 As we practised in the class, Pune traffic noises came through the open windows.

From Pune with love

From Pune with love

Pune is a big, busy, noisy, dirty city. Mr Iyengar came to teach yoga there because his guru told him to. The Institute is not in a remote, quiet Indian beauty spot. It is an oasis of tranquillity right at the heart of the bustle of the city. When you step through the gates, it is like you are entering a different world.

It’s a world I hope to re-enter again before too long. I have caught the “Pune bug”. I’ve developed a taste for studying at the Pune Institute. I’ll be applying to return in two or three years’ time. But shhh…. Don’t tell my husband!

 

 

Five ways to practise yoga safely

One of my students asked me recently: how do you protect yourself from injuries in yoga classes? While there are no guarantees, these five steps will help.

1 Attend a class with a well-trained teacher

A teacher with good training and knowledge of their subject will give clear instructions so students can achieve the poses safely. They will observe the students to check that they have followed the instructions and are not performing an incorrect or dangerous action. Does the teacher moves around the class, paying attention to individual students’ poses and correcting them, or do they stay at the front? Notice if the teacher gives advice about how to avoid actions which could cause injury. If in doubt, check what training the teacher has undertaken and how long they have been practising yoga.

Good teachers give instructions to help you improve the pose.

Good teachers give instructions to help you improve the pose.

 

Iyengar yoga teachers undergo very thorough training and assessment. Before beginning the two years’ training, they have had three years’ tuition with a certified Iyengar yoga teacher – most have had many more years before beginning their training. During the training they teach under the guidance of teacher trainers and also observe classes taught by other teachers. They have to teach a practice class for a year once they pass the level one qualification. There are two assessments before final qualification. These include demonstrating – to assessors who have never met the candidates before – over 70 poses as well as written tests. Although there are many very good yoga teachers who have not done Iyengar training, there are also many other teachers with much less training and knowledge about how to sequence a class and how to adapt poses to help students with injuries or health problems.

2 Attend a class where poses are tailored to the individual

Some exercise classes, including some yoga classes, are taught with all students expected to perform the same pose in the same way, irrespective of the particular limitations of their bodies.
But we all have different bodies. Some people are stiffer than others. All of us will be stiffer in certain parts of their body more than others.
Seek out a class where the teacher advises stiffer students how to achieve the pose despite their stiffness, for example, by not bringing their hand so low in standing poses. They can use a brick or blocks instead of bringing their hand to the floor. Most beginners need to use such equipment to enable them to achieve the pose correctly and safely; the amount they use will depend on their level of flexibility. If they don’t use the equipment, they will either be doing the pose incorrectly or be at risk of injury by doing too much, too soon.

Parsvottanasana concave with bricks

Using equipment helps you to achieve the pose correctly

 

Flexible students also need to take care not to overwork flexible parts of their body; they can injure themselves from overstretching. A good teacher will observe and advise students on this.
If you join an established class as a beginner, the teacher should not expect you to do all the poses immediately, in the same way as the more experienced students. You should hold the poses for a shorter time and be given alternatives, or alternative methods, when more difficult poses are being taught.

3 Start with easier poses, build up to the harder ones

Any class where complex, extreme movements are expected immediately, or right at the beginning of a class, is to be avoided. Each class should be structured so that more difficult poses are attempted only after simpler, preparatory poses have been done. Over the course of a few months, a class should build up to more complex poses, when the students are more experienced and they are ready for them. For example, in the Iyengar system, backbends – more extreme, challenging poses (see photo below right) – are not taught immediately. Instead, standing poses (see photo below left) are emphasised in the first few months to build up strength and flexibility. These allow the students to tackle backbends more effectively when they are ready. Standing poses continue to be a feature of most classes, even at higher levels, but a wider variety of poses is added.

Standing poses are practised first to build strength.

Standing poses are practised first to build strength.

Stronger poses, such as backbends, are taught when you have gained more experience.

Stronger poses, such as backbends, are taught when you have gained more experience.

4 Take into account your own recent exercise regime and general health

Choose a class suitable for your needs. Do not attempt a class for more experienced students, or a higher level class, if you have not been exercising recently, or have had poor health. Some forms of exercise, whilst keeping you fit, may also make you stiff or less flexible – for example running and cycling. Yoga can help counteract this stiffness and bring more flexibility. Make sure you tell your teacher of any injuries or health problems you have. Some students will have injuries or health problems before starting yoga. In their case, poses will need to be adapted, or another pose given, so as not to worsen their problem.
Always discuss health problems with your teacher and check that they are qualified to deal with them. Regular classes may not be suitable for certain health problems and a more senior teacher’s class may be advised.

5 Tell your teacher if you feel any strain in a pose

They can observe you, see what may be causing the problem and hopefully find you an alternative method, or an alternative pose. They may also be able to advise you on how to alleviate the strain. It may be that the strain you feel in one part of the body originates with a stiffness in another area. For example, lower back pain can be caused by overuse of the lumbar spine (lower back); this overuse of the lumbar is likely to stem from stiffness elsewhere in the spine, for example the dorsal spine (the part of the spine between the shoulder-blades). Your teacher may be able to identify the source of the problem and advise you on how to improve flexibility in the stiffer area.

Over time you will develop your own knowledge, with your teacher’s help, of the poses and the best methods for you to achieve them. Once you know the poses, you will be able to deepen your knowledge of them in your own practice. With experience, you will begin to know how to do the poses safely and protect yourself from injuries. The gains from practising yoga safely can be very great, from increasing flexibility and strength, better posture to greater peace of mind.

What is Iyengar yoga?

The first time I went to a yoga class, I did not know what kind of yoga it was, or even that there were different kinds. (This was a long time ago, back in 1990 – I think people are more aware now that there are different styles.) The only thing I knew was that it was very hard, but that I left the class feeling like I was walking on air.

That amazing feeling of lightness was what brought me back to the class the following week. It remained and I went to this yoga class for more than two years without ever knowing what kind of yoga it was.

When I left university and moved to another part of the country I found a yoga class and expected the same thing. It wasn’t.

After only two years as a beginner in my old class, I could tell that there was something big missing. The teacher didn’t give students instructions on how to work in the pose. Even I could see that students were not straight in the pose but were not being corrected. And we spent 20 minutes at the end sitting in a circle around a candle. I didn’t go back.

It turned out that the yoga I’d done originally was Iyengar yoga. After that, wherever I moved to, I always sought out an Iyengar teacher. Each had their own particular style but all had the same trademark attention to detail and precision in the poses, so that I felt how hard I’d worked and could feel my muscles aching the next day! My mind was so focused on the work in the poses that day-to-day pressures were lost much more effectively than 20 minutes sitting gazing at a candle.

Iyengar yoga is named after BKS Iyengar, who lived and studied yoga in India for more than 80 years. He was instrumental in bringing yoga to the west. He himself did not name a form of yoga after himself. Instead, his students wished to show that they followed his teaching.

He died in August this year at the age of 95. But his teaching is very much alive through the thousands of teachers trained in his principles all over the world, as well his many books on yoga.

Since I trained as an Iyengar yoga teacher, I understand how rigorous the training and assessments are. You can’t train until you’ve done at least three years’ Iyengar yoga and have a recommendation from your teacher. You train for two years. To qualify you have to pass two assessments which are externally assessed – the assessors are not the people who trained you; they shouldn’t know you. Many people do not pass assessments as standards are so high.

Teachers are required to attend professional development training and many go on to higher levels of qualification. Teachers always demonstrate poses and the work in the pose they want the students to learn.

Iyengar yoga is also known for its use of props, such as brick and belts. These can be a great aid when you are a Beginner, or if you are stiff, to enable you to gain the benefit of a pose without straining or injuring your body. For more experienced students, they can help you understand the lift of a muscle or the correct work in the shoulders or legs or arms.

In Iyengar yoga you can always go deeper, so it never gets boring. Even after 25 years, I’m learning new things about the work in the leg in Trikonasana (triangle pose), or how work in the little toe can connect with the grip of the hip. First you get the basics; then you master them; then you add more detail which allows you to improve the pose. And there are always more poses to be learnt. There are still many that I’ve never yet done. So there’s always a new target to reach.

So why do Iyengar yoga? Because it is physically demanding but rewarding; it’s a great method to get fit and to improve your posture, to gain strength and flexibility; to achieve inner calmness; to learn about your body and yourself. You can go ever deeper. You too can have that amazing sense of lightness, of walking on air.

Parsvottanasana

BKS Iyengar in Parsvottanasana (intense side stretch pose)

BKS Iyengar in Parsvottanasana (intense side stretch pose)

The clue is in the name: intense side stretch. The work in the legs is intense too. The front leg is working as in Uttanasana, the back leg as in downward dog pose.

I have scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Parsvottanasana is an added challenge because my pelvis drops to one side and my rib cage turns to the other.

More experienced students take the hands behind in Paschima Namaskarasana to achieve full Parsvottanasana (see photo). This helps open the chest but makes it harder to keep the hips level and take the head down.

Starting to learn this pose, you take the hands to the floor, or to bricks. This teaches the body the fundamental movements in the legs, hips and trunk before progressing to the full pose. In the last two years I’ve come across several good methods to practise the pose, from ropes, bricks, wall to chair.

I particularly like the use of a chair. Eyal Shifroni’s excellent book, A Chair for Yoga, shows two excellent methods for keeping the hips and the trunk level and for achieving a good, straighter final pose.

I’m beginning to understand Parsvottanasana and why I find it difficult, and I hope I’m beginning to improve how I do the pose. Recently I realised that I’ve even begun to like it!

Salamba Sarvangasana

Salamba Sarvangasana translates as “supported whole body pose”. It is commonly known as shoulder stand.

“Why do we do shoulder-stand?” A student asked me this in class last week. Good question.

BKS Sarvangasana

Mr Iyengar says it is the most important of all the poses, “one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages”. “If a person regularly practises Sarvangasana he will feel new vigour and strength, and will be happy and confident,” he writes, in Light on Yoga.

The detailed benefits he outlines include:
– Helping the thyroid and parathyroid glands (in the neck) to function properly; due to the firm chinlock, their blood supply is increased.
– Because the body is inverted, the venous blood flows to the heart without any strain from gravity, allowing healthy blood to flow around the neck and chest. This helps people with asthma, breathlessness, bronchitis and throat ailments.
– Headaches disappear; nerves are soothed, bringing relief to those with hypertension, irritation, shortness of temper, nervous breakdown and insomnia.
– Common colds are eradicated by continued practice of this asana.
– Abdominal organs also affected by gravity, so that the bowels move freely and constipation vanishes. Urinary and menstrual problems, as well as hernia and piles, can be helped by it.

Using a platform of blocks in the Iyengar method keeps the neck from being compressed and takes away an element which could otherwise cause pain or injury.

The student who asked the question doesn’t enjoy shoulder-stand. It is a difficult pose. It is the first full inversion where the student has to hold the body-weight with the shoulders and arms, which do not usually carry the body-weight. (Because of this, we do not usually introduce it in Iyengar yoga classes until the student has attended classes for at least three months; by then they have learnt to open the chest and shoulders, and gained strength.) We do the pose near the end of the class, when we are more tired. This is because the pose is calming to the mind after some of the more stimulating poses earlier in the class.

Although I understand the dislike that some students have for shoulder-stand – who hasn’t felt tired at the end of the class and begrudged the last effort necessary to do a good shoulder-stand? – it is worth persevering with it. In time, you find you develop the strength in the arms and shoulders to maintain the lift of the body, and learn to work in the legs so they are lifting the pose up rather than weighing it down. You begin to feel less heavy; you begin to feel light in the pose. Certainly I find I am enjoying it more and more. As you progress there are more variations you can do in the pose and that can be a lot of fun!

Trikonasana

Utthita Trikonasana

I’ve chosen Utthita Trikonasana, which translates as “extended triangle pose”, for my first pose of the week as it is one of the most frequently practised poses. In Light on Yoga, BKS Iyengar says it “tones up the leg muscles, removes stiffness in the legs and hips……relieves backaches…strengthens the ankles and develops the chest”.
For me the key elements are the grip of the hips and the tucking in of the buttock of the leading leg, so that alignment is achieved without the bottom sticking out behind! I’m working on trying to extend the sides of the trunk evenly (often the under-side becomes contracted).
This picture of Mr Iyengar doing Trikonasana shows you how far I have to go!

BKS Iyengar in Trikonasansa