Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Iyengar Yoga And A Whole Lot More
I want you to take an Iyengar yoga class. I’m not particularly invested in anything else you do and I won’t push my other passions on you. I don’t care if you take up knitting, listen to Mavis Staples or read Harry Potter. I’m no one’s brand ambassador. I avoid logo’ed products at all costs, but I wrap myself in the Iyengar flag with pride. When it comes to yoga, I’m an Iyengar evangelist.
I’m not the only one. If you know someone who practices Iyengar yoga, you probably have heard them emphasize Iyengar over yoga. Practitioners of BKS Iyengar’s precise and detailed style of yoga tend to be effusive about its advantages. Some might call it preachy. When my buddy Paul and I go for brunch after our Sunday Iyengar classes, we invariably end up trying to convince the waitress to take a class at our local studio. We actually carry cards for the studio to hand out to anyone foolish enough to let the conversation wander into yoga territory.
So what’s so special about Iyengar yoga? The precision for one thing. There are many detailed instructions on how to perform each asana and Iyengar teachers are rigorously trained to teach them to you. The focus is on form and alignment. The asana are the same poses you’ll meet in any other class, but you’ll be in them for longer, often using props – like blankets and blocks – to get your body as close to the ideal shape as possible.
Another thing that sets Iyengar apart from other styles of yoga is its therapeutic bent. The bigger Iyengar studios have special programs for people with heart problems and limited physical movement. And most Iyengar teachers will know exactly which poses and modifications to use to treat your sore back, achy knees, jet lag, insomnia, scoliosis, chronic headaches or any number of other common ailments. I turn to my Iyengar teacher before I call a doctor or make a physio appointment.
The other big benefit of Iyengar is that eventually your practice of yoga becomes meditative. As you bring your attention to your body, your mind stops churning. It becomes as quiet and calm just as it would be if you were meditating by following your breath or repeating a mantra.
Your First Iyengar Class
Iyengar isn’t for everyone. The best way to find out if it’s for you is to take a class or two.
Finding a Class
First you’ll need to find a teacher. Iyengar is practiced around the world. Google can help you find a local class. In most major cities there are one or more of big Iyengar studios that offer a schedule of regular classes at different levels. And in almost any town, you can find an instructor or two working independently giving classes at a community center or other location. Look for the Iyengar certification mark to be sure you’ve found a trained teacher.
Choose a “Foundations” or “Level 1” class, but even if you stumble into an advanced class, the teacher will probably welcome you and give you modifications that will allow you to participate.
What to Wear
T-shirts with leggings or shorts are worn in most classes and studios but anything comfortable that you can move in works. Iyengar teachers want to get a good look at your knees so don’t wear baggy pants. You’ll practice in bare feet.
What to Bring
You can probably leave your mat at home. Most Iyengar studios provide mats and all the other props you’ll use in class. You can leave your water bottle behind too, for the most part, drinking during class is frowned upon. But if you have a medical reason – low blood pressure or a dry mouth resulting from medication, say – explain it to the teacher and you’ll be fine.
Lying Over the Blocks
Before class starts you may see people “lying over blocks” or lying over a bolster as they wait. The block or bolster is under the upper back with another propped under the head to raise it a little higher. This arrangement opens the chest and is used at the beginning of many classes.
What Happens During Class
If you’ve taken vinyasa or ashtanga classes and are used to sequences of poses that flow from one to the next, be prepared for something entirely different. There will be more instruction, more starting and more stopping than you’re used to.
Did I mention that the Sanskrit names for the asana will be used? Luckily you don’t need to know the difference between chaturanga dandasana and paschimottanasana. Besides naming the poses in Sanskrit, the teacher will demonstrate them. She may also call the whole class to gather around her mat to watch, explaining dos and don’ts after the demonstration.
Then it will be back to your mat and your turn to do. But don’t just take the pose. Wait for instructions. There will be many.
The teacher will talk you into the pose bit by bit. The journey into each asana is an important part of the practice. When you finally find yourself in the desired shape, expect to hold it for several breaths as the teacher cycles through the instructions a few more times, helping you to refine your alignment. The pose may seem simple and familiar at first but even standing in tadasana (mountain pose) can be a major workout in an Iyengar class. By the time you hear the cue to release, you may be out of breath and sweating. You’ll have time to catch your breath while the teacher demonstrates a slightly harder variation or the next asana.
During class, you will undoubtedly use some props. The teacher will tell you what to get and when to get them. She’ll also mention modifications you can make to poses to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of your body. Iyengar is all about alignment and correct positioning. Props help get you there. Your teacher may also use her hands (and feet and props) to adjust you. Or you may work with a partner, adjusting each other as directed by the instructor.
The last few minutes of class will be devoted to savasana or another resting pose. The teacher will talk you through a relaxation process.
Clean Up Please
When class is over, join your fellow students in returning props to the rightful places. Studios that provide mats usually expect students to clean them before rolling them up and putting them away. Watch your classmates to see what they are doing and how.
More About Iyengar Classes
The Four Week Class Cycle
Iyengar classes follow a four week cycles. The first week of the month is focused on standing poses, the second on forward extensions and twists, the third on back extensions and the fourth on restorative and pranayama. In months with a fifth week, the theme of the extra class is the teacher’s choice. Although these classes have their particular focus, they may include any pose. Every Iyengar class will include a headstand and shoulder stand or a variation on them. The four week cycle is followed at every level.
Most Iyengar teachers and studios offer classes at various levels. At each level, instructors work from a detailed curriculum. Teachers must have advanced certification from the Iyengar Institute to teach more advanced classes. Three or more Foundation Level classes may be suggested to students with physical challenges or no experience in yoga at all. If you’re in reasonable shape or have done some yoga you’ll probably start with Level 1 classes. These classes will be an hour and fifteen or an hour and a half long.
You graduate into Level2 classes when you’ve learned to do headstand and shoulder stand. Don’t worry, your headstand can still be leaning against the wall. The level 2 curriculum is more advanced and includes more complicated poses. Level 2 classes last one and a half to two hours.
Not all studios offer Level 3, 4 and 5 classes. These advanced classes deepen your understanding of the asana, pranayama and your own body. Lasting two hours, they often require permission to join.
Workshops, Intensives and Sadhana
Many Iyengar teachers teach a monthly workshop – a class of three hours or more focused on a particular topic, like healthy knees or developing home practice. They may also offer seasonal sadhanas; daily classes for 5 or more days intended to deepen your practice and knowledge. You’ll also find Intensives; courses that last several days and involve many hours of practice each day. Once you’re hooked on Iyengar, you’ll want to add some of these special events to your schedule.
Iyengar teachers sometimes take their students into postures and movements that don’t seem like traditional poses. These side trips are usually designed to prepare different parts of your body to do an asana that is coming later in the class.
Inversions – particularly sirsasana (headstand) and salamba sarvangasana (shoulder stand) -- are an essential component of Iyengar classes because they have many benefits. You’ll do them in most classes. Headstand will come earlier in the practice and shoulder stand close to the end to bring your energy level down..
As a beginner you’ll practice an easier variation or preparation version. For example, you might do Prasarita Padottanasana (wide-legged forward bend) with the top of your head resting on a block to get the blood to the brain benefits of headstand. Viparita Karani (legs up the wall) with your pelvis resting on bolster is a beginner's alternative that offers some of the benefits of a shoulder stand.
As you attend Level I classes, you’ll learn to do headstand against a wall and shoulder stand using various props. As you advance, you’ll learn handstand as well.
Many advanced Iyengar classes begin with an invocation in Sanskrit. The chant honors Patañjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras.
yogena cittasya padena vacam
malam sarirasya ca vaidyakena
yopa karottam pravaram muninam
patañjalim pranjalir anato’smi
sankha chakrasi dharinam
sahasra sirasam svetam
Roughly translated, the invocation speaks of the value of yoga for the mind and the body and thanks the sage Patanjali for sharing them with us. The second verse describes Patanjali; his human upper body, the conch and disc in his hand and a cobra with a thousand heads crowning him. Then it offers respect to him once more.
The use of props is one of the most identifiable aspects of Iyengar yoga. BKS Iyengar invented most of the popular yoga props. It is told in classes that the first prop was a paving brick that he used to help a student who couldn’t reach the floor. Although the most used props are now manufactured to standard specifications, the theory behind their use remains the same – get you into the shape of the asana so you can enjoy its benefits without compromising alignment or injuring yourself.
Blocks, blankets, belts and bolsters are the most common props, but there are many others including chairs, wedges, half and quarter moons, poles, stools, shoulder stand boards, heart benches, weights and eye pillows. Even the walls of the studio and the baseboards are used as props.
Prop handling can be confusing at first so watch the demonstrations carefully. It won’t take long to get the hang of it.
In Iyengar studios, blocks are usually made out of wood. You can create three different elevations depending on how you orient them; the smaller the block surface touching the ground, the higher the block elevation. You can stack several blocks to get more height. You can place blocks under your hands in standing poses like trikonsana or in a forward bend like uttanasa; under your head in balasana (child’s pose) or under your heels in adho mukha svanasana (downward dog). As a student of Iyengar, you get used to the feeling of the wooden block, cutting into your forehead or penetrating your upper back.
Blankets are kept neatly folded on a shelf in the studio. Stack a few and sit on them to ensure that you can lift your sacrum in seated poses. Use them to support your head in poses when you’re lying down. Blankets get folded a whole bunch of different ways so sometimes you feel like you’re doing origami. You’ll quickly learn about half folds, triple folds and various methods of rolling blankets.
Belts also require some getting used to. They get used doubled or in loops of different sizes. You can find yourself with a belt on your heel, toes bases, at the top of your leg, mid-thigh, above your elbow or below your elbows.
A rope wall is one of the most fun and unique parts of an Iyengar studio. You’ll see long loops of heavy-duty braided cord hanging from two levels. These can be used to add an element of traction to many poses. Hanging sirsana is a safe way to enjoy the benefits of a headstand with no pressure to your head and neck. Sometimes called yoga kurunta, the rope wall may be included in an Iyengar class at any level.
Iyengar yoga is named for its founder, BKS Iyengar. Sickly as a kid, BKS started doing yoga as a teen. His teacher was Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, the man sometimes referred to as the “father of modern yoga”. Krishnamacharya had another famous student, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Pattabhi Jois went on to develop the ashtanga style of yoga while BKS developed Iyengar yoga. Jois and Iyengar both get credit for bringing yoga to the west in the 1960s.
Mr. Iyengar founded the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, India. The institute is now run by his children and grandchildren. Guruji (as Iyengar’s students often call him) practiced yoga until his death in 2014 at the age of 95.
Light on Yoga
Guruji wrote many many books on yoga. The most famous is Light on Yoga. It is pretty much the definitive guide to yoga. The pictures in Light on Yoga represent the first time photos were taken of such a complete selection of yoga poses. Don’t be surprised if a dog-eared copy of the book gets pulled out during class. Teachers love using Mr. Iyengar’s photos to illustrate how the poses should be done.
Mr. Iyengar’s other books include Light on Life, Light on Pranayama, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and The Tree of Yoga.
His daughter, Geeta Iyengar – a revered yoga teacher in her own right -- wrote Yoga: A Gem for Women, another essential yoga text. Geeta died in 2018.
Iyengar teachers are thoroughly trained thanks to rigorous regulation by the Iyengar family and nationally run regulating institutes. Most Iyengar teacher training programs around the world are taught by people who were trained by Mr. Iyengar himself. Training is extensive and takes a minimum of two years. In addition to your teacher training classes, you are expected to attend yoga classes and maintain a daily home practice. Teachers must be assessed by a board of experienced teachers in order to be certified. There are many levels of certification: including Introductory I and II, Junior Intermediate I, II and III and Senior Advanced I and II. Most teachers spend a month studying at RIMYI before getting certified and many travel to Pune every year for a month of study.
Twenty-one states currently have teacher training programs approved by the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States.
Only teachers who have passed their assessments can call themselves a Certified Iyengar Teacher and display the certification mark.
If you’re a regular Iyengar yogi and some part of your body starts to hurt, the first person you turn to is your Iyengar teacher. BKS Iyengar first turned to yoga to recover from a series of illnesses. He always saw this style of yoga as therapeutic. Most of the larger Iyengar studios and institutes offer special practices for ailments of various kinds. For example, the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles offers yoga for Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and other neurological challenges or movement disorders. Iyengar Yoga Maida Vale (London) offers a Monday class for people with back problems and a Tuesday class for people with other issues including knee and shoulder problems or high blood pressure. Toronto’s Yoga Centre has a special cardiac care program.
All Iyengar teachers are trained to deal with sore knees and backs, stiff bodies and the various aches and pains that humans experience. Yoga itself is often the best treatment and an Iyengar teacher can tell you which asana will help and how to modify them.
Well-Known Iyengar Teachers
Senior Iyengar teachers who had the opportunity to work with Mr. Iyengar on multiple occasions have a vast knowledge of the discipline. You can share in it by reading their books and articles, watching their videos, taking a class at their home studios or attending the workshops that they offer around the world. Here are but a few names to watch out for.
Patricia Walden has been practicing Iyengar yoga since 1976. She teaches in Cambridge and Brooklyn MA and leads workshops throughout the US and Europe. She has written several books including The Women’s Book of Yoga and Health.
Carrie Owerko teaches classes in New York City and workshops throughout the world. She emphasized play and playfulness and used a chair as a prop in many creative ways.
Lois Steinberg teaches in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois and teaches workshops around the world. She has written several books including two manuals on Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics and Iyengar Yoga Cancer Book.
Prashant Iyengar is guruji’s son and the director of Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute. He is both a philosopher and a yogi, driving his students to a deeper understanding of how mind, body and breath are connected. He has written extensively and continues to give workshops and intensives to students around the world.
Abhijata Sridhar is BKS Iyengar’s granddaughter. Though younger than many of the other teachers listed here, she has the advantage of having trained extensively with her grandfather. She has led yoga conventions in the US, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, France, Poland and Israel.
Eyal Shifroni teaches in Israel and is the author of The Psychophysical Lab: Yoga Practice and the Mind-Body Problem, as well as three guides for using props in yoga.
Marla Apt teaches in Los Angeles and around the world. She is a contributor to Yoga Journal and Yoga International and has written articles on yoga and the relief of anxiety and fatigue.
Bobby Clennell teaches Iyengar classes in New York and workshops around the world. She wrote Yoga for Breast Care: What Every Woman Needs to Know and a children’s book called Watch Me Do Yoga.
Lisa Walford has been teaching in Los Angeles since 1982 and has co-authored two books, The Longevity Diet and The Anti Aging Plan.
Ethics and Scandals
Iyengar teachers subscribe to a code of ethics that compels them to avoid harassment of all forms and to avoid exploiting student trust and dependency. Unfortunately the code hasn’t prevented allegations of sexual harassment from arising in the Iyengar world.
Sexual assault allegations against Manouso Manos, one of San Francisco’s most senior male teachers, first arose in the late 1980s. Newer allegations against him were initially dismissed by the IYNAUS Ethics Committee in September 2018. But “for various reasons and in light of further complaints” an independent investigation was initiated. Bernadette C Sargeant, a trial lawyer with experience investigating sexual harassment cases, laid out her findings in a 36-page report that is available on the IYNAUS web site. It paints a portrait of Manos as a sexual predator and concludes that the accusations of sexual abuse by him were credible and true.
As a result of the report, the Iyengar family stripped Manos of his certification and prohibited him from using the Iyengar name in connection with his teaching or studio. Despite his decertification, Manos continued leading workshops at Iyengar studios in Latvia and Russia over the summer of 2019. Abhijata Iyengar, BKS Iyengar’s granddaughter, addressed the topic obliquely in a speech at the IYNAUS convention in Dallas Texas in 2019 by informing those assembled that she herself had been a victim of unwanted touching when she was younger. In April 2019, the IYNAUS Executive Council finally sent out an email apology to Manos’ victims.
In the wake of the Manos scandal, many Iyengar practitioners are taking a critical look at BKS Iyengar’s own teaching techniques and asking whether he himself created an atmosphere in which bullying and abuse have thrived.
BKS Iyengar used language in colorful and original ways. Teachers trained in his style of yoga often use words and phrases in the same way he did. Below are a few examples
Groins: In Iyengar the term “groins” is used in an unusual way. First of all, there are three groins: middle, outer and back. Iyengar used “groin” to mean the area where the thigh and pelvis meet – the entire circumference of the top of the leg. The meeting of buttocks and upper back thigh is your back groin. The hip crease on the outer leg is your outer thigh and the top of your inner thigh is the middle groin.
Back body: The part of your body you can’t see when you look in the mirror is your back body. Iyengar yogis believe the back body is harder to access than your front body.
Armpit chest: Not surprisingly, this is the area of your chest nearest your armpits. You lift if by bringing your shoulder blades more deeply into your back body.
Toe bases: Stand in in tadasana (mountain pose) and spread your toes. You are now standing on your toe bases, the area at the front of your foot. You will learn a lot about toe bases in Foundations and Level I classes.
Notable Iyengar Students
BKS had many notable and famous students. He met violinist, Yehudi Menuhin in India in 1951. Menuhin, who suffered from back problems, became a student and helped bring Mr. Iyengar and his work to the west.
Queen Elizabeth of Belgium was 85 years old when Iyengar taught her sirsana (headstand). You can see a photo of her in headstand on a Google Arts and Culture page.
Among his other famous students were novelist Aldous Huxley, actress Annette Benning, singer Madonna and designer Donna Karan. Ray Long MD FRCSC, author of the Daily Bandha, is another Iyengar student.
Iyengar in the Media
Iyengar The Man, Yoga and the Student’s Journey is a documentary film directed by Jake Clennell. It premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival in 2018. It opened in theaters in 2019.
On December 14 2015, a Google doodle honoured what would have been BKS Iyengar’s 97th birthday.