What is Iyengar Yoga? The poses and the philosophy…..
People know of it as “Alignment” yoga.
What that means is that you begin to understand how the pose works for your hip, or your back, or your shoulder, or neck etc. The muscles of the body are great informers -as they get stronger and longer, you begin to notice how moving one way of the other can help your hip, hamstrings, core, shoulder etc. The way the poses are taught helps you pay attention to what’s going on in your body so you have tools to fix, help, or get stronger on your own.
Iyengar Yoga is accessible to everyone regardless of age, ability, or physical limitations. It’s not about anyone else in the room. It’s about you. The instructions in the pose help you pay attention to what is in front of you (namely you!). We also use an array of props designed by BKS Iyengar. These props can make the pose more manageable, more intense, give support when needed, and give you a different perspective on the shape of the pose that might be helpful for you.
We practice different poses every class, every week. Over the period of a month your entire body will have been “worked out” and you will have “worked in” to your mind, the various things you learned about yourself.
The practice of yoga is an amazing journey. No two classes are the same. Why? because we are different every day, but we are also creatures of habit; we tend to accept the status quo. This practice challenges you to look at things from many different perspectives. The Iyengar method speaks to that every class. There are hundreds of ways to approach every pose depending on what you need to work on. Because of that, Iyengar Yoga has many therapeutic applications. Back issues, hip and knee issues, shoulder and neck, and also stress, depression, anxiety can be helped, and in some cases cured through regular practice. BKS Iyengar said “Yoga will cure what can be cured and help us endure what cannot”.
Clear and Precise instructions
Teachers are taught to articulate and have the ability to describe what to do in a pose and how to make that happen. Teachers demonstrate the poses being taught. Teachers are taught to closely observe what is practiced to see what we missed. Alignment improves, understanding evolves, and concentration deepens.
Rich Diversity of Poses are Utilized
Iyengar Yoga has a rich, diverse collection of poses that are practiced over time. No two classes are the same. Each week there is a different emphasis. Standing, Seated, Back bending, Twisting, Inverted, or Restorative. The creativity of the teacher is well exercised and a student can focus on different parts of the body each class.
Home Practice is Cultivated
As one moved through the various levels of classes, new sets of poses are learned and students cultivate the ability to develop a home practice. Levels are important because they offer a sound, safe, and solid understanding of the poses, and confidence builds and the evolution of the yogi continues for years and years.
There is an ineffable quality to Iyengar Yoga and one must try it to truly understand the uniqueness of the method. It is best to attend a few consecutive classes to investigate the teacher, the variety of sequences and the effects created. As an educated consumer you will be able to describe the differences for yourself. Do come…….
And now onto the philosophy….
3/27/18: Prejudice and misunderstanding
I regularly see the bumper sticker “ do something that frightens you every day” (Elenor Roosevelt). What an extraordinary idea ! Think of stepping out of your comfort zone, for a few moments once in a while to see what might happen.
According to Patanjali, the mind stuff (citta) exists in 5 categories (vrttis): pramana – direct perception; viparyaya – misperception; vikalpa – imagination; nidra – sleep; smrti – memory. Memory collects all our thoughts whether imagined or real. Iyengar says that “ memory is not a platform to review the world”. It is to be used with discriminatingly.
For a while I’ve been thinking about the second vrtti – viparyaya – misperception. None of us like to think we misunderstand things, but Iyengar suggests that human thinking is largely based on exactly that – viparyaya-vrtti.Here is what he writes:
“There is a subtle way in which memory influences our lives without our realizing it. The imprints of memory at an unconscious level act as a filter to perception. Intelligence strives to see things as they are, but mind and memory tend to interpret these in relation to the past. The effect of this is imperceptibly to construct sandbanks of prejudice. We are all aware of how prejudice acts retrospectively; you see something and place a distorted value judgement on it. But prejudice also projects itself into the future, by which I mean that it influences us to see and there for to experience only those things that will confirm what we already think. That is why I say it acts as a filter, eliminating anything that will challenge our entrenched beliefs. If you think that all foreigners are untrustworthy, then it is certain you will meet lots of them who are, as you will never notice any others. Yoga calls this viparyaya – misperception, and it is a lot more dangerous and difficult to eradicate that the simple misperception of misreading the number of your bus because you have forgotten your glasses.” Light on Life. Pg 145-146.
How often do we say – I don’t do that pose? Or that pose hurts this? or I believe this is the only way? From only buying a certain brand of milk, to being on our yoga mat and only practicing a pose a certain way – for what ever reason, can push us right into “sand banks of prejudice” that Iyengar mentioned.
Manouso Manos lectured that Scientists have found out that “citta” or this mind stuff is based upon risk assessment. Our next move is based upon how much risk we are prepared to take. This is a strange way to think about our daily lives, but consider it in terms of how easy it is to act, or do anything that is completely free from any associations with the past. It’s not that easy…and worrying is not preparation! Our asana practice is a fascinating way to watch our mind stuff – what pulls us in, pushes us away, watching where we draw our lines?
One of the oldest translations of Yoga is skillful action; Doing the right thing at the right time. Leaving no residue or karma. If we are stuck in the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law , Manouso says , we run the risk of being stranded on “sand banks” of our own prejudice. He went on to tell a story that illustrates viparyaya and the skillful action that ensues.
Two monks are walking by a river and see a women who wants to get to the other side of the river. One monk picks her up and carries her to the other side. The other monk is horrified that the monk touched her and says – you broke your vows of not touching a woman. The monk turns to him and says – oh her??? I left her on the other side of the river bank.
The definition of Yoga
The following is taken from dharma talks given by Manouso Manos at the July Intensive in San Fransisco.
“The original definition of yoga is that it was the vehicle that would take you to heaven. The vehicle that we have is our practice. Another definition is that yoga is skillful action. These are the same. It is about doing the right thing at the right time.
When people would bring their injuries and ailments to BKS Iyengar, they would list all that had happened to them, and he would ask “what is the matter with you right now?”
For most of us, it is hard to separate the now from what happened before. Science tells us that 3 out of 4 of our thoughts are about planning what is to come next. This occupies 75% of our thought process. We know the saying that “worrying is not preparation”, but what is it to have a thought? What is consciousness? It could be that it is risk assessment. In varying degrees, every thing that we do comes out of working out our risk level. The most obvious perhaps is when we cross the road, we look both ways. It is so obvious that it is almost done instinctively – it is the ego protecting us. Our ego is designed to make decisions that reduce the amount of risk so that we can stay alive. Whether we are aware of this process or not, 3 out of 4 thoughts that we have go through this sequence to get us from point A to point B. A state of awareness is actually risk assessment. How do we find ourselves in the present? Being present is not about not thinking, or being stupid, the paradox is that we have to delve deeper into this thought process and examine it on a moment by moment basis to overcome our fears, our prejudice, and become more sensitive.
When we sit with our beliefs, we will always be held back in the memories of what we could have done better, or the fear and anticipation of not being ready or good enough or well enough to do anything in the future.
My karma ran over your dogma
Yoga is not a set of beliefs. It is only from experience that we are able to overcome the driving force of our ego; not by discarding it but by examining, controlling, even facing it. What are you protecting? Why?
Life is not about what position we choose to defend but about how we got here.
There is the story about the two monks who are walking along a river and see a woman washing clothes by the side of the river. She is done with her work and needs to get to the other side of the river. One monk, seeing that she needs help, approaches her and helps her across the river to the other side. The second monk is appalled. “ How can you do this? You touched her? You broke your vows never to touch a woman.” The first monk looks at him and says “Oh her? I left her by the side of the river.” This brilliant story illustrates skill in action – the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.
How can we develop skill in action?
Our anxieties are our own personal hells and our turmoil is the only way in to examine what we do and why. The ability not to cover up for yourself is the beginning of skillful action. To be willing to learn, to do something with the information you already have is your practice. When you have a glimpse of your skillful action of your own, you have a responsibility, not just to get yourself there in a yoga class, but also when you are in the grocery line, or stuck in traffic.
“Should we not at least make a beginning and take a few steps toward mastery? For the danger of developing too little yoga and becoming a victim of our inadequate world is far greater than that of becoming an unearthly superman.” Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Hans Ulrich Reiker.
The state of Pramana – direct experience – not imagined, dreamt, or conjectured.
In the Iyengar Method, our asana practice is based on following certain actions of the body. These actions can be the same, or different in certain asanas.. We do this to bring consciousness and awareness to parts of the body to strengthen, lengthen, compact, extend, and contract muscles and to bring focus and concentration to the mind. These very physical actions are felt as sensations in the muscles and soft tissue. Our muscles are our primary teachers. As our practice evolves, the interactions between actions, involve a deeper and gradually more sophisticated levels of sense perception. From activating the four corners of the feet, to lifting the side chest, these very physical actions take us directly to a place where we feel the results of those actions for ourselves. Patanjali calls this “pramana”. BKS Iyengar once said that the body is the least threatening vehicle with which to observe the vrttis or fluctuations in our consciousness. The body is also gives us our most direct feedback. The mind then files this in memory as a real experience based on something that you felt and that happened to you directly in that moment.
Pramana is the Sanskrit word for ‘”correct knowledge” – it is the first of the 5 vrttis (states of knowledge). The rest are error, imagination, memory and sleep. Correct knowledge is direct knowledge cultivated from direct experience, through our senses, or verbal.
In a recent article in the New York Times on “College Tours” the difference between acquiring information through “pramana”, right knowledge and “vikalpa” imagination was highlighted. The article wasn’t about yoga, it was highlighting the effectiveness of human decision making. Do we make better decisions through conjecture about how something might be? Or if we experience something directly?
The article said that College tours are not reliable sources in regards to giving a potential student the most accurate picture of life on a college campus. The reasons were to do with providing “right knowledge”. College tour guides project a student into an imagined scenario, or what could happen if …..here is an excerpt from the article.
“This has to do with the difference between our present selves (the self making the decision — in this case, where to attend college) and our future selves (the self experiencing the outcome of this decision). As Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University and Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia have argued, “ “our present selves believe we are good at making decisions for our future selves, but in fact we all do a relatively poor job of predicting what our future selves will actually value and enjoy.
For example, if you try a new restaurant, would you prefer to select your meal from the menu, or let someone who had already eaten at that restaurant choose for you? Most people unquestionably prefer to choose their own meal. But research in Dr. Gilbert’s book “Stumbling on Happiness” shows that while people expect that they will be happier with the meal of their own choosing, they actually enjoy more the meal selected for them by an experienced stranger.
How can this be? It can be because if we are making a decision we haven’t made before (such as where to go to college or what to eat at a new restaurant) then our present selves must rely on imagination, instead of experience.”
It’s challenging to imagine attending a college we haven’t seen yet, so visiting the campus — to take a tour— seems like a prerequisite to making a good decision. But visiting a college is not the same as being a student there, nor is it the same as speaking with someone who has been or is a current resident at the college. This distinction matters a lot, because of the many ways in which our imagination misleads us. This is “viparyaya” (the vrtti that refers to error or misunderstanding).
As a decision-making tool, imagination is inherently flawed. It necessarily omits significant details. It is devoid of any real substance leaving gaps so that we don’t notice what we’ve made up, from what is real, or what is misunderstood.
Our imagination is also biased by the here and now, using details borrowed from the present to fill in our view of the future.
The article concludes that speaking to someone who is currently at the college, or visiting the college with a current student gives direct experience to the prospective student, and a more truthful picture of what to expect. Students who go this route are more prepared. As Plato said – to know is not enough, we have to know that we know. In other words, our understanding has to be from direct experience, rather than from an imagined scenario.
In the yoga sutras of Patanjali, Pramana, or “correct knowledge” comes from direct experience – we know this happened because we lived it first hand. Correct knowledge consists of sense perception, logic, and verbal testimony, Patanjali lists sense perception as being the first and most valid state of mind. Vyasa states that “ (Sense) perception is superior to any other sources of knowledge – indeed, all other sources of knowledge are based on it…because it is the only way of truly knowing the essential nature of an object.”
Our sense perception in asana gives us direct feedback. Through this feedback we are led to the next action, the next direct sensation etc. We are kept present, alert, during our asana practice.
The Three Gunas
Prakriti is the Sanskrit word for Nature. Nature’s characteristics are that of:
Tamas: stillness, inertia, dull, dense, immobile. eg: water in a state of tamas: ice.
,Rajas: dynamic, energetic, hot, virbrant, quick, mobile. e.g.: water in a state of rajas: waterfall.
Sattva: the ideal balance between tamas and rajas. Luminosity, detachment, indifferent to the oscillations of life. e.g.: water in a state of sattva: a lake.
Nature is comprised of these three characteristics, all three of which express and re express themselves continuously. Sometimes there is more rajas, sometimes more tamas, there are always elements of sattva in nature. Air at it’s most rajasic is a hurricane or tornado, at it’s most tamasic perhaps on a hot, humid, windless day. Sattva is the in between – the cool summer breeze . Nature consists of all that exists in our phenomenal world, including our consciousness. The mind is seen as rajasic, the body, as tamasic, Here are notes that I took from a lecture given by Manouso Manos in San Fransisco at one of his Intensive study weeks, and us thus paraphrased.
“When we talk about the gunas, we all seek that sattvic state and yet our culture produces a pseudo sattva state of “sweetness” where blemishes are removed, never saying no, where a state of happiness is desired above all else. New age – rhymes with sewage. We are a culture that indulges in narcissism. Especially in yoga we are meant to be laid back – what is that? Yoga does not mean laid back, so where does that idea come from?
We co-exist with rajas and tamas constantly. Sattva is the ability to look from a perspective of objectivity, of distance so we don’t get too involved with the small picture and our small place in it. What if we could see the big picture and make everything our responsibility and see our lives from a position of objectivity where our ability to discriminate becomes less subjective and more objective.
When you put your hand in front of your face, it is all blurred, and little further and you see the lines, a little further and you see each individual finger and further still you see the whole hand. We get stuck on the way and mistake what we perceive in front of us as being the whole picture when it is only part of a bigger picture.
Time and comparison are the equivalent of understanding tamas and rajas – but when you start to seek out the in between ie: have some perspective – the space instead of the form, the silence instead of the sound, then you start to see everything as connected – that you, as an individual are part of the universal consciousness. When we exist in tamas and rajas we can get into a habit of avoidance. The obstacles come thick and fast, as we continue to perceive that it is not our responsibility.
A journalist in Canada wrote an article about yoga – all different kinds. She described them in detail and asked why the other yoga classes were full and the Iyengar yoga classes were not. Her conclusion, after taking all the classes, was that Iyengar Yoga makes you responsible for your actions.
Yoga is skill in action – this is it’s original definition. That skill evolves from perspective and the ability to see the picture objectively. It is our separation that makes it NOT our responsibility. We back away (tamas) or fill our lives with other things; busy busy (rajas). Both are ways of avoidance.
Those who are able to see the big picture and not get so flustered but life, we consider that there is something wrong with them – they are stupid (the holy fool) and non discriminating. It is our intolerance of things that makes life interesting that allows to become subjective, separate from the other – that allows us to say to the person who doesn’t care what kind of wine they drink, or food they eat. Imagine if we all didn’t care – not in a superficial or flippant manner but because we are not attached to the outcome, because we are part of what makes the outcome. Life would be boring in a certain way.
The Yogi’s called it a game – life as a game. We oscillate between tamas and rajas because it feeds our attachment to the past and the future. They called it a game because, out of this game, we develop “skill in action” to become less attached to these oscillations of tamas and rajas – this the evolution of a sattvic state.
Sattva means that we see the big picture, not the small. We are able to be objective, not subjective. We see ourselves totally integrated into the world around us and that any piece of garbage is our garbage, every child is our child, every problem is ours to solve, every pet is our pet etc. Imagine seeing the world like this.
Tolerance is a fair, objective and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc. differ from one’s own. We may even experience intolerance towards ourselves. Practicing tolerance begins with ourselves. We are all prejudiced about something – whether it be buying organic milk as opposed to nonorganic, to turning our back to someone whom we didn’t want to see. Tolerance is composure of mind and heart in the face of adversity and differences. It’s the ability to restrain oneself from acts of aggression and insult, and instead practice acts of patience. Through tolerance, we begin to move beyond the afflictions of our own mind, and end up in a place of compassion toward others, where we can clearly see our similarities and investigate our differences.
Tolerance is not the denial of feeling or thought, but rather the opening of our hearts and minds. It comes through the hard work of mental training, and asana and meditation practice.
I was reading an article in Yoga Samachar written by
Zubin Zarthoshtimanesh, a long time student of B.K.S. Iyengar who teaches at his own yoga centre, Iyengar Yogabhyasa in Mumbai. The subject of the article was Tolerance. He writes: “We all tolerate a lot in life, but that does not mean that we are evolving. Tolerance increases and becomes a virtue not if you tolerate more but if it synthesizes itself with other qualities like patience (titiksha), forbearance (sahana shakti), peacefulness, calmness (shanta guna), forgiveness (kshama), knowing, determination, and compassion.”
We live in a world of comparisons but after a while have to recognize that, if we see them as only comparisons, then we are in a state of avidya, (“not knowing”) and become quickly intolerant of what we perceive as our own shortcomings, or the shortcomings of those around us. If we chose the words – This is a good day , or a bad day , worse or better, right or wrong, or I wish I was better, more flexible, smarter, kinder etc. then we need to take another look, to observe why we have assigned this label to ourselves on this day, and with it, the obstacles that ensue. My teacher, Manouso Manos often tells us to look at the wall – notice where our eyes are drawn. For nearly all of us, our eyes are drawn to the mark on the wall, the chip in the paint, the blemish. We live in a society that is intolerant of blemishes, and constantly seeks to erase them. We seek to erase them in ourselves. What if you took the opposite view to see the differences as teachers, as guides, as opportunities for change. Imagine how strong and empowered you would be?
B.K.S.Iyengar used the practice of asana to explore complex emotions like tolerance. He said that Yoga begins when we become aware of oppositional dualities, and begin to balance these opposites. For example, in asana, what presses down, what lifts up, what moves back, what moves forwards? Finding the balance between these makes us understand more clearly, and with that we become more tolerant.
Patanjali says in sutra : 2:48 tatah dvandvah anabhigatah
From then on the sadhaka is undisturbed by dualities.
Being undisturbed by dualities requires that we be tolerant.
Our asana practice offers us a daily opportunity to work this out. This week, we have been working on Manouso’s instructions in tadasana to press the thighs back and take the tops of the buttocks down. Too much of one, throws the thighs forwards, too much of the other, lifts the top buttocks up. The middle ground, the balance of opposite actions, is an investigation of the back and forth between these two directions until the movement between both is so subtle, and we are able to stand on our legs. Iyengar wrote, in The Tree of Yoga, that our practice is trial and error and “as the trials increase, the errors decrease”. This is the essence of our practice. It is through this that we cultivate knowledge, discrimination, and a more tolerant acceptance of ourselves.
As we seek to find the balance between the oppositional actions in our asanas, the journey takes us out of the” I can’t, I can, this side is good, this side is bad, this is wrong, this is right, I hate this pose, I love this pose” prejudiced to one of recognizing the differences between our right and left side for example, as a place to investigate again and again and again.
Zubin concludes: “In the 25th Yoga Sutra of the third chapter, Patanjali says, “Balesu hasti baladini,” which means that by samyama (the union of focus and concentration) the yogi will develop the physical strength and endurance of an elephant. Now as you all know, elephants, in addition to their physical attributes, are also known to have perfect memory and tolerance. Strength is normally taken only in the physical dimension, but the same being (the elephant) also embodies a perfect memory.”
Quotes from BKS Iyengar
We should be humble within.
We are all intoxicated with our own confusion.
If the mind is made to be still, the eyes must be still.
If the nerves are still, then the Self is still.
The mind must not stop at one point and say, this is enough. It must go further, the Self must be everywhere.
To live in the moment is spirituality. To live in the movement is divinity.
Be a fanatic with yourself while practicing Yoga.
When you are fully in the body, you meet the soul.
Freedom starts inside, freedom from the dualities of mind and body, spirit and material.
Training of the mind and body leads to awareness of the soul.
You say “mind over matter” I say, “matter over mind”
B.K.S. Iyengar. Wisdom from the Master
The American Yoga ReVolution with Iyengar disciples Manouso Manos and Patricia Walden
A Conversation with Manouso Manos
Yoga: The Art of Transformation.
Manouso Manos gave a lecture at the Asian Art Museum as part of this exhibition. He describes yoga, past and present, and the life of BKS Iyengar, his teacher. Check it out.
NPR story about BKS Iyengar:
From a lecture given by Birjoo Metha at “Yoganusasanam 2014”
What is the difference between individual consciousness and universal consciousness?
Imagine a river coursing through the landscape. Then there is a lot of rain and the water comes down fast into the river and it breaks its banks and over flows into the surrounding area. When the waters subside there are ponds left over that are filled with the river water but are no longer connected to the river itself. Banks develop around these ponds and the river continues on it’s way. After a while, these ponds develop their own life within the boundaries, or confines of the pond edges. The pond is the individual consciousness. The river is the universal consciousness. The water always wants to join the river so it can see itself. Our practice is to try and break the boundaries of our individual consciousness to join the flow of universal consciousness rather like the pond breaking it’s banks. We have to let go of the identities that exist and let water return to the universal consciousness.