Reflections a year after becoming Iyengar certified

post assessment face

The face above is one that had just come out of the last portion of the rigorous two day Introductory II assessment for Iyengar yoga certification. Exhausted, hopeful, anxious and relieved, I could barely walk out of the venue site in Lamont, PA. I would find out the next day that I passed. That was a year ago.

It is also a face that represents four grueling years of teacher training. When I started the teacher training program, there were 17 of us. Only three finished the program with certification (one moved away and got certified through another instructor). Our program included five and a half hours of weekly classroom time and one weekend a month teacher training classes on both Saturday and Sunday. In the month before our assessment we met every weekend and would practice on our own outside the studio at a student’s home.

We trainees had to stand in the back of the room and observe. When we were competent enough, we could assist. Our teachers would allow us to teach one pose to the class we were observing. We would always get a lesson after the class: How do you teach this to someone with a knee injury? How do you teach this to someone with a back injury? What if they are too weak to do it this way? What is an alternate pose if someone has high blood pressure? Those and many more questions are ones we had to work through and show mastery in before our teachers would allow us to apply for certification.

I am grateful for my teachers Ray and Shelley for being so hard on us. Without them, I would not have had the toughness to get through the rigors of the assessment process. I have to say that there were many times that I questioned their methods. I often thought they were too strict. But I stuck with it until the end.

In the year that followed, I have reacquainted myself to my devoted wife and have made more time for her. There have been many changes in the Iyengar community. Earlier this year, Guruji received the Padma Vibhushan award in India. For me that validated his dedication to Yoga and its spread throughout the world. He was also in a good position to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Then, on an August afternoon, I heard the news that Guruji had passed. I immediately called my teacher Ray who confirmed it. It was a very sad time.

Luckily, there was a workshop taught by Laurie Blakeney at the time. She is a very long time student of Guruji. Her teaching respected the heaviness of the time, but made it light and healing for the O’ahu Iyengar community. Despite hearing of Guruji’s passing when she got off the plane in Honolulu, she was still able to provide a first class workshop.

Blakeney’s toughness to teach jet lagged in the midst of bad news comes from the same toughness that was taught in our four year apprenticeship. It is now dawning on me the value of going through such a difficult process. Like the pressure that makes a diamond out of coal, this process brought out the inner luminosity that was dormant in us.

Blessings to my wife, Guruji, my teachers, and the Iyengar community for this experience.

Why do we use Sanskrit when teaching Yoga?

sanskrit

As an Iyengar instructor, the very first thing we teach students about the pose is its name in Sanskrit. If the word is complicated like say Triangmukhaikapada Paschimottanasana*, we break it down piece by piece. Why in the world do we do this? Are we yoga snobs? Why not just say an approximation of the pose in English leave out the Sanskrit, and be happy with that?

First of all, Yoga originated in India at a time when Sanskrit was widely used. It is the original language of all the major yoga texts including the Bhagavad Gita and the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Just like French is the language of fine cuisine, Sanskrit is the language of Yoga. That may not matter to someone who just takes Yoga at the boutique studio down the street, but if you travel around the world you will be grateful to hear the familiar Sanskrit words that you have learned from your Iyengar instructor.

Yoga has had quite a journey from it’s origins. When B.K.S. Iyengar was teaching yoga in India when he first started, he had very few students. Yoga was viewed at the time like something one’s eccentric grandfather did many years ago in adhering to antiquated traditions. That is when Iyengar decided to take his Yoga teachings to the West which was hungry and ripe for his teachings. While spreading Yoga in the West, Iyengar stayed rooted in India to recharge Yoga as a cultural treasure for it’s country of origin. Just months before his passing, Iyengar was recognized by the President of India for is work in yoga. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently proposed an International Yoga Day.

Instructors who take the extra pains to learn the Sanskrit words present themselves as more serious about the subject. When I hear what some people are calling Asana-s, I feel a twinge in my belly. Wild Thing, Happy Baby, and Chair Pose have no basis in Sanskrit, they are words that come from the fitness-yoga craze that is the majority of yoga we see now in the West. I got berated one time when I corrected a person who was calling Utkatasana “Chair pose.” I pointed out that it is translated as “awkward or fierce pose.” It surprised me how strong of a reaction people had about saying something incorrectly.

pranava

As Western practitioners, we must respect Yoga’s origin and language. Sanskrit is beautiful and easily lends itself to chanting and devotion. Sanskrit has a vibrational quality that transcends merely speaking a language to communicate. Yoga Sutra 1.27 states that the Pranava, or the sound “OM” is the source of all sounds of the universe and Yoga Sutra 1.29 states that deep meditation on this sound will lead to one’s realization. What English word does all that?

*Triangamukaikapada Paschimottanasana is translated as three parts facing one leg intense stretch of the West side (posterior) part of the body pose. It looks like this (stage I).

triangmukhaikapada paschimottonasana

 

 

How many times does it take to do an Asana before mastery is gained?

paripurna matseyandrasana

Early in my yoga practice, I was in my late 20s and fairly fit. I had picked up a copy of Light On Yoga and rushed toward the poses at the back of the book. Many disasters were had. Because I was youthful and full of ego, I went full on to trying to master the book.

Now it seems the more I do yoga, the more I go toward the front of the book to re-learn many principles that were glossed over 15 years ago. Then I realize those principles I had issues in the beginning have recurred tenfold into my later years of practice, very much like in fractal geometry where one simple pattern blows up into a chaotic and overwhelming shape.

fractal geometry

My original Yoga teacher was named Daws. He was in his late 60s at the time and did yoga at Kapiolani Park in Honolulu. He still teaches there. He would often talk at length while we were in our asanas. One of the things he said has always stuck with me regarding how often we should practice Yoga:

Once a week…is not enough

Twice a week…is not enough

Three times a week…is not enough

Four times a week…is not enough

Five times a week…is not enough

Six times a week…is not enough

Seven times a week…is not enough

It’s never enough. It’s never enough.

This is a good way to look at each asana. Every day our body changes. Every day there is something going on in our life that creates our body to move a little differently. Our asanas keep evolving too. I remember a time when I could not get my hand to the floor in Utthita Parsvakonasana. Now it is normal for me. However, there are days when I need a block or even a chair.

Gaining mastery in asana does not mean just attaining it. You see all the yoga selfies out there. If you are young and flexible, asanas are a piece of cake. It is the yearly continued practice that peel off layers and layers that make for asana mastery in the truest sense.

In the Iyengar yoga system we are taught there are three parts of the asanic journey: the Bahiranga, the Antaranga, and the Antaratma.

Bahiranga is just the superficial journey of attaining the shape of the pose, knowing the Sanskrit name, learning how to get in and out of the pose safely. This is the yoga you see in selfies no matter how “advanced” the pose looks.

Antaranga is when the asana becomes internalized. Yoga Sutra 2.46 says “prayatna shaithilya ananta samapattibhyam” or the asana attainment is reached when there is effortless effort with contemplations. This occurs when the asana is practiced so much, that the self begins to dissipate and the form of the asana starts to become the aspirant.

Antaratma is the part of the journey where the Atma, or soul is doing the yoga, and the ego is completely eradicated. This is what we should aspire to in asana.

So to address the question of how many times one must do an asana before it is mastered, the short answer is it’s never enough. It’s never enough.

iyengar kandasana

Yama and Niyama in Asana

I have been on a Yama/Niyama theme lately. That is because Yama/Niyama are the true foundation of Yoga. As Iyengar says in Light on Yoga, “Practise of asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” In the West, we have fetishized asana as “yoga” without giving the other limbs their due.

There is a popular misconception that the eight limbs are to be done sequentially. However, Iyengar taught that the limbs can be done concurrently. I will present examples on using Yama/Niyama with Asana. Here is BKS Iyengar in Utthita Trikonasna:

iyengar triangle

This is Iyengar’s pose in his prime. His arms are perfectly straight, his legs are perfectly straight, and there are three distinct triangles within his pose. In his pose, he is practicing Ahimsa (non-harming) by doing the correct actions and not injuring himself. He is practicing Satya (truthfulness) by having proper form. He is practicing Asteya (non-stealing) by not allowing one side of his body to do the work that should be done by the other side of the body. He is practicing Brahmacarya (continence) by presenting the asana in a pure manner. He is practicing Aparigraha (non-greediness) by sharing his practice with the world.

Meanwhile, he is practicing Saucha (Cleanliness) by presenting himself as with good hygiene. He is practicing Santosa (Contentment) by the placid look on his face and he calmness of his asana. He is practicing Tapas (Intensive spiritual effort) by his dedication to the pose and getting his hand to the floor without distorting any other part of the asana. He is practicing Svadhyaya (Self Study) by examining his pose and redoing what needs to be corrected. And lastly he is practicing Isvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God) by “sealing” the pose and transforming into three triangles right before your eyes.

Isvara Pranidhana is what I aspire to in all of my poses. It is the true giving of myself to the practice in Asana. Iyengar often said “My body is my temple and asanas are my prayers.” He was referring to Isvara Pranidhana.

In modern yoga, people seem to be fixated on yoga as some sort of “workout.” While asanas do tone and strengthen the muscles and bring health, doing asana without the other limbs is much like carrying around a wheel and thinking it’s a car.

People are afraid to say that yoga is a spiritual practice because of their own religious views. But yoga transcends religion. It is what religion wants to be, but is yoga is not bound by politics. Yoga leaves the “religion” to the individual self to decide.

When asana is done for the ego, you can tell in the face that Isvara Pranidhana is absent. There is strain when we push the body where it is not ready to go.

yoga strain

When asana is practiced with all of the yamas and niyamas, this is what the face looks like.

eka pada sirsasana

In your asana practice this week, try to see if you are practicing all the Yamas and Niyamas in the poses. That in itself can be a lifelong practice.

Yama and Niyama and the Ten Commandments

10 commandments

When I was getting my masters in psychology years ago, I wrote a great deal of my papers about yoga. I took a class called “Spiritual Dimensions of Counseling” and remember writing a paper comparing and contrasting the Yama and Niyama to the Ten Commandments of Judeo Christianity. I can remember the power of seeing the two side by side and seeing how both are more alike than different. So you can see for yourself:

yoga sutras

Yama (Restraints)

  • Ahimsa (non-harming)
  • Satya (truthfulness)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (chastity)
  • Aparigraha (non-greediness)

Niyama (Observances)

  • Saucha (Cleanliness)
  • Santosha (Contentment)
  • Tapas (Intensive spiritual effort)
  • Svadhyaya (Study of the self and scriptures)
  • Ishvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God)

The Ten Commandments

  1. You shall have no other gods before Me.
  2. You shall not make idols.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
  5. Honor your father and your mother.
  6. You shall not murder.
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
  8. You shall not steal.
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. You shall not covet.

As you can see, there are striking similarities particularly in basic ethical conduct of not stealing and not harming. It is also an interesting choice of wording of “You shall have no other gods before Me” opposed to “Complete surrender to God.” I am not here to make any assumptions or commentary aside from just presenting the two side by side.

On a historical note, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras in 400 CE, but used what had been practiced for centuries and simply condensed and refined it. Yama and Niyama are in the second book of the Yoga Sutras. The Ten Commandments were written around 1500 BCE which makes them older than the yoga sutras. The Bhagavad Gita, which had many concepts that were adapted to the yoga sutras was written at the same time as the Ten Commandments around 1500 BCE. Again, this is not a contest of which is older. Without judgement or preconceived notions, it is just interesting to see the timeline of these two very similar psycho/spiritual/ethical codes.

 

Grand champions of the Yama/Niyama competition

I have gotten an unusually large response for my Yama/Niyama contest. I made up this competition in response to the ubiquitous #30daychallenges I see every day on WordPress. It is also a spin off on all the Asana competitions out there. To follow Yama/Niyama is what separates those who practice yoga from those who are just merely flexible and athletic. To illustrate how difficult this challenge is, I will list some past champions.

gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi. Extolled Satya (truthfulness), and Ishvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God). He crippled the occupying British to rubble with Ahimsa (non-violence) alone. Martin Luther King, Jr. would later adopt his tactics to springboard the US Civil Rights Movement.

iyengar sage

B.K.S. Iyengar. Used supremely intensified Tapas and took yoga from obscurity to a worldwide practice during his lifetime. If you practice yoga today, you have this man to thank. He refined and used asanas to cure ailments that medical science had given up on. Iyengar lived deeply in all limbs of yoga.

Ramana Maharsi

Ramana Maharshi. Practiced painstaking Svadhyaya with self inquiry. He asked one powerful question: Who Am I?

patanjali

Sage Patanjali. Codified yoga into 196 terse aphorisms. Also mastered grammar and medicine in addition to yoga. Originally wrote down the Yama and Niyamas.

The NFL, FIFA, NBA, and NHL have it’s superstars, I have mine. Good luck in your competition!