What is Iyengar Yoga? The practice, and the thoughts behind it…..

The practice of yoga is a journey.  

A yoga practice challenges you to look at things from many different perspectives.   There are hundreds of ways to approach each pose depending on what you need to work on.

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.

Here are two sequences for a home practice.



And now onto the philosophy….

A definition of Yoga

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. Both are about doing the right thing at the right time.  Figuring this out is the practice of yoga.   In this method, we use the body and all of its parts as tools to begin to ask questions.

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? Scientific studies carried out at the University of San Diego by a Dr. named Ram Chandra analysed that consciousness is our defense mechanism;  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 instinctive – it is the ego protecting us, and for good reason.  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.   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, become more sensitive, and become more present.  B.K.S. Iyengar said ” Find out where the mind blocks you.  Remove the mind to find the freedom that comes.  Yoga is meant to satisfy the soul.  You always find a way to satisfy your mind.” (January 3, 2007).

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.

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 hell 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 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.

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.

The American Yoga Revolution with Iyengar disciples Manouso Manos and Patricia Walden

A Conversation with Manouso Manos


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.