Today, yoga is more popular in the U.S. than ever. As of 2016, there were 36.7 million U.S. yoga practitioners and climbing. People are trying yoga for all different reasons. In a recent study, 61% of people said flexibility was what drew them in; for 56%, it was stress relief; and for 49%, it was general fitness (Forbes).
With the fundamental philosophy of yoga encouraging non-judgment and compassion toward ourselves and others, various styles and techniques of yoga are available to us in order to explore the paths that leads us to this heightened awareness of being.
Iyengar yoga, as founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, is one such path of yoga. It is the practice of precision. It emphasizes the physical alignment of the body in asanas, creating a sense of strength, stamina, flexibility and balance, as well as concentration (dharana) and meditation (dhyana).
Here we'll explore more about this style of yoga, its founder and what the practice is like, offering you insights through quotes by B.K.S. and my own personal experience in order that you may decide if this may also be the right practice for you.
Who Is Iyengar?
B.K.S. Iyengar was born in India in 1918. As a young boy, he suffered from numerous ailments such as frequent bouts of malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis. With poor health and depression, Iyengar often wondered if life was worth living.
Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (Iyengar's brother-in-law) proposed that Iyengar live in Mysore, working on his yoga practice in order to help improve his health. Krishnamacharya became Iyengar's revered guru, taking the place of his mother and late father as guardian. It was because Iyengar was in such poor health that he was recommended a stiff regime of yoga practice to "...knock me into shape and strengthen me up to face life's trials and challenges as I approached adulthood" ("Light on Life"). At that time, Iyengar was only fourteen years old.
When Iyengar set off in yoga he had no understanding of the "greater glory" of yoga. He was seeking only its physical benefits, which did truly save his life. It was yoga that gave birth with health from illness and firmness from infirmity.
(More on Who Was B.K.S. Iyengar?)
What Is Iyengar Yoga?
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there is an eight-fold path leading to liberation, known as The Ashtanga Yoga System or The Eight Limbs of Yoga. Based off of the teachings of Patanjali and Krishnamacharya (Mysore/Ashtanga), Iyengar yoga is characterized by several qualities: primarily precision and alignment, timing of the poses, sequencing of the postures, and the use of props.
Faulty practice causes discomfort while proper methods bring lightness and an exhilarating feeling in the body as well as in the mind; feeling a oneness of body, mind and soul. When stability has been achieved in a pose, it’s then possible to safely intensify the depth of the posture. The bodily movements of asana eventually become graceful and effortless.
As B.K.S. explained, "The yoga I teach is purely Ashtanga yoga, known as the eight limbs of yoga. My pupils who follow me call it ‘Iyengar Yoga’ to distinguish it from the teachings of others. The use of simple props to maximize the opening and awareness of the body provides support to the less flexible and extra extension to the more advanced student."
One of B.K.S. Iyengar’s innovations is the use of props: chairs, blocks, blankets, straps, bolsters, sand bags, benches and walls. The purpose of the props is to assist the student to attain ideal alignment and enable him/her to have experiences that they wouldn’t be able to have had otherwise.
Because of Iyengar's in-depth work with props, people of all ages and health conditions can perform the asanas with ease, thus experiencing a plethora of benefits. The use of props are encouraged to assist students into a pose without putting them at risk of injury.
Props can be used to heal an injury; tone the body; remove fatigue from the body/mind and replace it with lightness and energy; and develop gracefulness, poise and understanding. What we learn with support, we can use to refine and improve the classical execution of the postures and the way we live our lives. Effective alignment can help to achieve balance between body, mind and breath.
(A popular posture, here's How to Hold Proper Chaturanga Alignment.)
Your Inner Yogi explains: "A purposefully placed prop can encourage us to explore and experience new positions we wouldn’t have otherwise attempted. Consider simple movements, like taking a block under our hands in a forward fold to bring the floor closer to us. Or placing a block under our feet in a forward fold, asking us to reach further. With either utilization, the block is meeting us where we are and allowing us to move deeper into exploration."
Journey With Iyengar Yoga
Yoga is about becoming attuned to our individual self: body, mind and spirit. Yoga is a way of making room for exactly where we are while letting go of judgments, perfection and malice — toward ourselves and others. The more we do yoga, the more we become aware of our dynamic, fluid nature of the local and global consciousness on and off the mat.
Let Iyengar yoga bring a light to your practice and transform the way you view the world on and off the mat. Find a studio and/or teacher and get more information on this special style at Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States. I also suggest reading "Light on Life" and "Light on Yoga" by B.K.S. Iyengar.