On a recent visit to NYC I attended classes at the New York Iyengar Institute. As a board member of IYANC and a regular student at IYISF I was very eager to see what our “younger sister” Institute looked like. As you may know IYISF was the first Iyengar Institute in the United States, and was followed by the founding of the Institutes in Los Angeles and New York.
Unbeknownst to me the NYC Institute was just two and one-half blocks from where I was staying in Chelsea. Serendipity can be so kind! When I approached the building I saw that there was a phone to call upstairs to the Institute in order to be “buzzed in”. Before I could figure out the number to dial another student came up, dialed and was allowed entry. I smiled at her, said the word “Yoga?” and with her nod followed behind her. We entered the elevator and she pressed the 11th floor. We disembarked into an outer lobby that had many low cubbies for shoes. Once I removed my shoes I went through a door into a glass lobby with a reception desk. I was asked if this was my first visit and I said that it was and that I was visiting from the San Francisco Institute. I could see that the receptionist was entering my identification data into MindBodyOnLine (MBO) the same software used at IYISF. I asked if there was a discount for Iyengar Yoga Association of the United States (IYNAUS) members as is done at IYISF, but was told that they haven’t done it yet. I was offered a new student 3-class pass for less than the price of two classes, which I purchased. I was directed to the dressing room and then also shown where the class was to be held.
Since the outside temperature was in the 30’s I had many layers of clothes to peel off before I got to my yoga garb underneath it all. There was a place to hang-up coats and then a hive of wooden cubes to store street clothes. The women’s bathrooms were modern, bright and clean, but it did make me chuckle to see that they had the same instructions on the toilets as at IYISF i.e. to hold the handle down for ten seconds when you flush. I wonder why Iyengar Institute toilets are so fussy?
I proceeded to the studio where my class was to be held. It was very bright and sunny with windows on two sides. There also was a stage for which the teacher to demonstrate. There were stainless steel industrial storage racks that held the bolsters and double racks that went up to the ceiling to hold the folding chairs—regular and tall chairs. Blocks (wood and foam) and blankets were stacked on the floor, and there was a bin for a tangle of belts. There was a rope wall very similar to ours except with a high centered loop above the high ropes. I meant to ask what this was for, but never did.
When the teacher came in I introduced myself and was greeted with the conventional Iyengar greeting of “What should I know about your body?” and “Who is your teacher?” Students began filing in and I noticed that we began class a couple of minutes before the hour on the wall clock.
Interestingly, class did not begin with the invocation, or with “Om’s”, nor with any formal greeting. We began with a shoulder opener that appeared to be a preparation for Gomukasana (Cow-faced pose), but the teacher cautioned that she did not want students to do Gomukasana. Being the new kid on the block and also a stereotypical “good girl” I attempted to do exactly as she instructed. Several times she had to stop her instruction and stop students who began to move into Gomukasana. Students seemed to expect and accept the good-natured scoldings. I had never seen preparation for Gomukasana taught the way that she taught it, and I felt fascinated by her leading us through the natural movement of the humerus in the shoulder socket. She also used the memorable word “jaunty” to describe how the movement of the lower arm begins as the back of the hand rests on its own hip in a “jaunty manner”.
Since it was the third week of the month the theme of the class was backbends and we were led through a series of backbends at the ropes—some I had seen before and some I had never seen. I was delighted that I was provided with a lot of individual correction even though there were about fifteen people in the class. The beauty of the Iyengar method is that even if you have not seen the asana performed with certain props before, or if the props are differently configured, the instruction is so precise and thorough that you have no trouble following. One of the most beneficial things the teacher pointed out to me is how I hyper-extend my elbows, especially my right, in Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog) and how that results in a torque of my shoulders. Her words of correction were to move the distal (elbow-side) end of my humerus to the outside. She reinforced this teaching by poking me in the very spot and instructed me to move the bone away from her finger. It was a real “Ah-hah!” moment! You might well ask did I not know that I hyper-extended my elbows. (I did.) Was I not offered correction before in San Francisco? (I had. I was told to tighten my triceps.) Somehow, though I felt like “I got it!” this time. Maybe it was the different words, or maybe I was more receptive since I was on holiday. Anyway it worked. Thank you.
It was amusing in the dressing room after the class listening to the other students talk together. They were obviously all “regulars”. They seemed not to notice me as I was putting on my street clothes in one corner of the dressing room. I was amused to hear that they enjoyed having attention diverted away from them by that new woman (me) and that it gave them a break. One woman laughed and said it gave the teacher “new meat” to work on. On the way out I stuck my head into their group and told them I enjoyed having the class with them, and that I was happy to be able to offer them some reprieve!
Two days later I came back for another class with the same teacher. When she saw me she asked if I was taking her class again. I said that I was. She frowned and said that she was afraid that it was going to be the same class again. I smiled and said that was great because I learned several new things from her and I was eager to have them reinforced. She then proceeded before class out in the lobby to show me another trick to correct hyper-extension of the elbows. She went to get a roll of paper towels and instructed me to get into a crawling position and to do Adho Mukha Svanasana with the full roll of paper towels between by inner elbows. It felt great! My usual independently moving shoulder blades were synchronized by the guide of the paper towel roll. (I had done something similar with a block before, but since the block is too narrow if anything it reinforced my hyper-extension.) She told me this is how she had worked with her own body because she has hyper-extended elbows and a carrying angle “in spades”. She also worked before class with me an arm’s length from the wall with my hand “fixed” and isolating the movement of my shoulder. I have been working with these proppings at home to my benefit.
I thank my San Francisco teachers for readying me to listen attentively and to be receptive. And of course a big thank-you to the New York Institute!
It often seems that there are as many different kinds of yoga as there are cells in our body. It can be very confusing. When Mr. Iyengar is asked to define what he teaches, he often demurres. He says something to the effect of, well, he just teaches Yoga.
But that is a bit misleading because if you have ever taken a class with anyone other than a certified Iyengar teacher, you know yoga can be very, very different.
Recently, Mr. Iyengar gave a series of interviews on his own method, and how it fits within the greater context of yoga. I found it absolutely fascinating, and relevant to all practitioners.
In his unique style, Mr. Iyengar explains aspects of the practice even the most dedicated yogis might not be aware of. Here are some points that he made:
“Whatever the stye of yoga may-be, one experiences a transformation in one’s life’s style. My way of practice is not different to others except in the alignment of the motor nerves with the sensory nerves. This needs intellectual reflection and skillful actions without distorting even the minutest part of the anatomical structure of the body, so that the bones, the joints, the muscles, fibres, the energy, the mind and the intellegence are made to function simulateously with balance and harmony so that the life force as well as the core touches all the concerned layers of the body. ”
What is the importance of precision and alignment within Iyengar Yoga?
“My Friend, alignment leads to precision and precision is a divine state where one experiences the cosmic force mingling with the individual force. In short, precision is the meeting place of the individual soul with the Universal Soul.”
Can you describe the function of the props that are central to the teachings of asana?
“Use of props…is not central in my practice or teaching as an alternative method of mastering the asana. As true teachers are rare, I evolved these props to guide the doers to get the sense of right direction while performing the asana as the props to not allow mistakes to happen and the practitioners cannot go wrong in their practice. Props are self-help and self-guides for self-practice.
Secondly, (props help) those who…cannot perform the asana independently. As the hospitals have Intensive Care Units which monitor the body functions, these props monitor the body of the practitioners by not allowing wrong practices to occur so that the practitioner experiences a sense of well-being, comfort and confidence.
Thirdly, these props to two things at the same time. They help to extend and expand the muscles, joints and organs of the body and lead one to relax the mind to look within with comfort which is key to meditation.
As the props guide the body in the right direction, the feeling of well-being is felt in the body, and the mind experiences elations and freshness. This experience of well-being and freshness in the mind naturally takes one to experience equipoise and oneness in body, mind and self. “