Why I Love Iyengar Yoga And Think You Might Too

iyengar yoga class
Not my class, but you get the idea

    This past few months I have been taking a grip on my health which included getting tested for food intolerances and getting some kind of fitness routine. At the moment I go to a gym, do Aikido and Yoga. It's yoga I want to talk about today.

   I have been doing yoga on and off since I was a little girl, and I credit it for weirdly flexible hip joints. However I had never really learned the positions properly nor have I been practicing in my adult life. So I decided to take a proper Yoga class. My original plan was to do trial classes in all the Yoga studios in the city and pick the one I liked most. However soon I realised that the only way I would go regularly and not complain about it is if it is close to home. I don't have a car and don´t need to add an extra commute into my week at the moment. Turns out there is a Yoga studio right on my street, with Iyengar Yoga.
    Now, Iyengar Yoga is a deliberate and precise form of yoga that uses props (straps, rolls, blocks, chairs and the like). The idea is that the props will help the student do the Asana correctly and get all the benefits from it, which is better than doing the Asana sloppily without help. The goal is to work your way into doing the pose without any props at all, the props are there to help you maintain the correct form and prevent injury along your way. The props can be as simple as using a belt in gomukhasana because my hands cannot touch each other yet, or as complex as building up a whole structure so that an octogenerian after a knee operation can do the Setubandha.
    An example: the Paschimottanasana is supposed to look like this. Obviously most people don't have this kind of flexibility, so they end up in this weird position where they try to strain forward, with a hunched pack and shoulders rolled forward (and feeling very uncomfortable). In Iyengar yoga we use a strap to hold the position like this, and you can hold the pose for several minutes and gradually working your way down. Notice how the back stays concave the whole time, the shoulders stay back, the chest is lifted. Those who cannot keep their legs straight get a small roll under their knees for support. After several sessions the body loosens up and stretches and gradually you need less help from the props, but you are getting the health benefits from the Asanas already on the first day.
    Iyengar Yoga is very precise, you go into the positions step by step, and the teachers carefully corrects the position. Iyengar teachers are trained to pay attention and correct the form of the students, and to work around health issues and injuries. In fact many of the women of my class are of quite an advanced age, and the teacher pays a lot of attention to what each person can and cannot/should not do.

iyengar yoga class
This pose is much more comfortable than it looks like

   When I started out with Iyengar Yoga, I was a bit unsatisfied about the slow pace of the classes and the fact that we weren't doing any of the spectacular poses. Now, after a couple of months of regular Iyengar Yoga I have much more respect for doing non-spectacular Asanas and their effects on my body and mind. I was calmer, more focused and less stressed. My posture had changed. My theatre director told me that my whole physical presence had change a lot since I have been doing yoga. Normally when someone stands, the legs are active (working), while the rest of the torso is kind of stacked on top of it, hanging down loosely. However the right way to stand is to also be "active" from the hips up: the muscles are lightly tensed, the torso is "lifted" from the navel up, even the neck is elongated and the chin lifted. If you stand like that you will automatically have more presence, you will look more confident, energetic, plus it is healthy for the back. Since I have been doing Iyengar Yoga I consciously "activate" my entire body every time I am on the stage :)
   My Iyengar Yoga teacher remindes us to keep all body parts active during most of the asanas -- even body parts that I normally would have expected to be passive. I used to think that the tree pose was just a balance exercise, but it turned out that it's not. The standing leg has to be firm and activated, the bent leg has to be active and the sole has to push against the standing leg. The belly is pulled in, the chest is lifted and the arms are active. Suddenly I can stand without wobbling and all of my muscles are working!

  Iyengar Yoga is also a very kind and non-judgemental form of Yoga, as the props enable everyone to do the positions at their own level. If you aren't flexible or have injuries, this form of Yoga might be a good choice for you. If you have been doing another type of Yoga more focused on strength and speed, you might find that a couple of Iyengar sessions will help refine your Asanas and perfect alignment. I loved that the focus of the class seemed to be to spend some time doing something good for our bodies, and not about how-far-can-I-stretch and which-difficult-asanas-can-I-do.

   The only thing I miss in my class is breathing exercises (my particular teacher doesn't do them), and also I'd lack to have a "sequence" which I could maybe do at home sometimes. I have my eye on Ashtanga classes some time in the future, but for now I will stick to my slow, precise class with lovely elderly ladies.

   Do any of you do Yoga? Have you tried Iyengar or Ashtanga, or maybe you have another style that you like best? Or if you haven´t tried Yoga yet, would you be willing to give Iyengar style a go?

photo credit: Andy Polaine, and Andy Polaine via photopin cc

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