Conversations at the Sanctuary: Is Iyengar Yoga For Everyone?
Don’t let those thick mounted cords on the yoga rope wall unnerve you – Iyengar Yoga is actually a really ideal practice for anyone who’s keen to start yoga
Its clever use of props makes it a highly accessible practice for all, regardless of age, body type, or physical condition. In fact, beginners or practitioners with injuries, are able to achieve some of the most advanced poses because of the use of props. And if you an advanced yoga practitioner, Iyengar Yoga can help you to refine your practice. Su Unn, a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher who teaches at The Yoga School, explains the finer points of this precision practice.
Q: What is Iyengar Yoga and what makes it so unique?
Su Unn: Iyengar Yoga is a yoga system by the late B.K.S. Iyengar. The Iyengar method focuses on alignment, sequencing, and timing of the asanas (a Sanskrit term often translated as “posture” or “pose” in yoga), such that the practitioner can benefit from the asanas, regardless of his/her body’s capabilities, and also develop skills to deal with ever-changing conditions. Alignment, sequencing, and timing, are some of the main characteristics that define the Iyengar system.
Q: The use of props such as belts, blocks, blankets, and wall ropes, seem to be a cornerstone in the practice of Iyengar Yoga – how did this come about? There are interesting accounts about how Mr Iyengar first started using cinder blocks or rocks to help his students during their practice, and this eventually evolved into the use of yoga blocks. Why are these props vital?
Su Unn: The use of props came from Mr Iyengar’s deep understanding of the practice. His keen observations, coupled with his sense of practicality, led him to find items in his environment and experiment with them in his own practice. He then started using those items as tools to teach his students. Mr Iyengar once said, “It is while practicing yoga asanas that you learn the art of adjustment.”
Because of the use of props in the Iyengar method, poses may be held slightly longer (than without props) before tension and fatigue set in. They also become more accessible and precise. That’s why I often hear from my students about how they feel like they’ve achieved a “deeper stretch”, when in fact, the poses were more effective because of the use of props!
The props are not there to replace actions (except sometimes for therapeutic purposes) but rather, their purpose is to aid in the understanding of “intelligent action” – in other words, clear, precise actions. The use of props allows us to slow down and pay attention to the present as we stay in a pose. Props not only provide support for our body, but for our mind as well. And as we build endurance and stamina in our poses, we also develop a deeper awareness of our bodies. There is a misconception that advanced practitioners have no need for any props in their asana practice. In contrary, advanced practitioners seek out props to support the creation of intelligent action, precisely because they understand their own capabilities and limitations.
Q: Iyengar Yoga emphasises the precise execution of postural alignment. Why is alignment so important?
Su Unn: Alignment, commonly interpreted as a physical positioning, is an energetic balance, a relationship between an action and the load that’s coming on to it. Think of alignment as an exercise in sensation that has to be “felt” … one which demands the participation of the practitioner, rather than merely as a positioning exercise which requires using just our sense of sight. It requires the engagement of mental and sensory faculties, the process of which, has an effect on the mental culture of the practitioner. There are asanas for each body part. Done correctly, they support the functions of various physiological systems, to their greatest potential. The practice of alignment also gives rise to sensitivity and perceptual skills, which leads us to the other two aspects, sequencing and timing.
Q: What is sequencing and how does it affect the practice of Iyengar Yoga?
Su Unn: In Iyengar Yoga, sequencing refers to the performing of a set of asanas in a particular order. Learning in this manner allows the practitioner to cultivate a particular action, starting from the most accessible and working towards more challenging variations.
Sequencing plays a fundamental role in intensifying the effect of different postures. For example, to learn the action of pressing our hands into the floor, we can start from the Cat Pose, where we learn to press the base of our index fingers into the floor and widen our palms. We then take that understanding into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). At this point, we can use blocks to bring the floor up to support the integrity of the body, by placing them under the hands. From there, depending on the proficiency of the practitioner, we may choose to go on to more challenging poses which put more load onto hand action, such as Plank Pose, Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-limbed Staff Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog), or Adho Mukha Vrksasana (Handstand).
Another subtler form of sequencing refers to the particular order that actions are performed in each asana. Take for instance, in standing asanas, where our feet and legs are of priority, and the actions of our feet drive our legs to support our spine. Often times, we tend to veer towards the things that we like to do, or the things that we think we can do well. The order in each asana allows us to go beyond our individual likes and dislikes, allowing asanas to really work through our systems in the most beneficial ways.
Q: Timing is important as it allows us the potential to intensify the effects and benefits of our practice. If we are unable to hold an asana for a recommended duration, will its benefits be compromised?
Su Unn: Timing refers to the length of time spent in an asana or pranayama (breath control) and is something that is grown out of practice. In the beginning, we’re usually unable to hold an action or posture for too long. But we can increase that duration with repetitive practice. However, the holding of asanas should not be perceived as an imposition – it is not about setting a timer and holding the asana until the timer goes off! Your practice should develop organically… holding an asana beyond what your body can support, may instead be detrimental and cause you stress or injury.
I remember a particular incident which happened during a class with my yoga teacher, Peter Thompson, one of Australia’s most senior and experienced yoga teachers. We were doing Uttasnasana (Standing Forward Bend) with head support. Peter told us at first that we would be staying in the pose for the next 10 mins. However, he brought us up after about five minutes. He explained that it wasn’t about the tangible time but more importantly, it was about the “effectual time”. Duration-wise, we had held the asana for five minutes, but it really had the effect of being in the pose for 10 minutes (again, bringing the emphasis back to the sense of “feeling”).
Q: You’ve met Mr Iyengar twice. What did you learn from meeting the man himself?
Su Unn: Seven years ago, I first met Mr Iyengar at the 2011 China-India Yoga Summit in Guangzhou. He was teaching there, along with other senior Iyengar Yoga teachers. It was my first time experiencing Mr Iyengar’s teaching, and I found it to be vibrant and compassionate. It was also demanding in that there was no compromise when it came to the discipline of the practice.
Two years later, I met Mr Iyengar again at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, India. When I first got there in June 2013, I noticed that Mr Iyengar was leaning on other people as he moved around. I found out from other practitioners that Mr Iyengar had been so ill that he was hospitalised just a few months earlier, in March. Some believed that he had been in a critical condition, but managed to pull through. During my two months of teacher-training there, Mr Iyengar came to the practice hall to practice every day without fail. By mid-July, he was walking around on his own, shouting across the practice hall when he observed something that needed to be corrected! I was really inspired.
Editor’s note: If you’re new to Iyengar Yoga, it is strongly recommended that you explore it with the guidance of a qualified teacher, so that you learn how to practice correctly and safely, before doing it on your own at home.
About Su Unn:
Su Unn began her yoga journey in 2007, but it wasn’t till 2008 that her practice really took off after she went under the tutelage of Senior Iyengar Teacher, Peter Thompson, a student of the Iyengar family since 1981. “It was his generosity in spirit and compassion that convinced me that I had found my teacher,” she shares. As Su Unn deepened her yoga practice, her asana work on the mat took on a higher purpose and evolved into something that nourished her entire being. Su Unn received her Introductory Level II Iyengar certification in 2011, and continues to develop her practice under Peter’s guidance. Find out more about her weekly Iyengar Yoga classes here.