Written by Renee Razzano
“Since pain is inevitable, asana is a laboratory in which we discover how to tolerate the pain that cannot be avoided and how to transform the pain that can.” B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life
As we near the second anniversary of the passing of B.K.S. Iyengar, it is an excellent moment to reflect on the gifts and lessons we’ve inherited from him in our practices and teaching.
In June and July, I was fortunate to observe senior-level Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher (CIYT) Victoria Austin’s month-long class series for practitioners who have health conditions. Victoria provided a warm and grounding presence and displayed a deep, wide knowledge of how one can employ asana – yogic postures – to help lessen pain and increase comfort. She has been a student and assistant in medical classes at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, India, so she teaches with a great imprint from B.K.S. Iyengar as well as from her own mature asana practice for refuge and recovery. She has experienced several major injuries herself and found peace and powerful tools for recovery within her own practice.
Within the last few years, I had a disruptive repetitive stress injury from computer use. As a result of my experience of pain and efforts toward recovery, I empathized with the students. People entered the classes with such varied conditions as hip pain, back pain, neck and shoulder issues, headaches, digestive problems, appetite disturbance, nerve degeneration, mood disorders, and sleep disorders. Victoria created space for all of these problems and set the stage for asana to be experienced by each student as a safe haven. She tailored her sequences to show practitioners how to respect their conditions and to practice in a safe and beneficial way. Over the course of a class, with Victoria’s guidance, students were able to modify each asana as needed to find the most comfort and benefit. I noticed a sense of relief as each class progressed and tension in their faces and bodies softened.
Each of the eight class sequences was privately shared with the students along with a series of photos that depict each asana, including specific actions, variations, and prop set-ups. Victoria’s motivation for doing this was to inform the students’ home practices. In that way, the classes provided ongoing support for a student to continue exploring asana as refuge and a source for recovery beyond the classroom.
Reflecting on the series, Victoria said that “yoga helps us look inside.” Introspection can be particularly challenging when we have pain and its accompanying fear. This series demonstrated a way for practitioners to explore practice as a tool for finding right effort and working toward integration in an ongoing way. Once, when I was in the midst of notable pain during a class, my teacher Manouso Manos told me in an especially booming tone: “not doing is not the answer.” It came as a shock initially and turned into a powerful motivator. It meant not being paralyzed by pain, discomfort, and fear. Thus, finding a way to do that brings peace and improvement is the way through, and that is the message that I heard Victoria share with the group.
Plans are in the works to offer the series for medical issues with Victoria again in 2017. In the meantime, Victoria has inspired important questions for us as practitioners to ask ourselves, like what parts of us need caring attention today (karuna – compassion)? How do we accept our situation (santosa – contentment) and use our burning zeal (tapas) to improve our conditions, our bodies, our minds? How can we make yoga a refuge for ourselves today?