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.