Clearing up a few misconceptions about Iyengar yoga

Sayanasana-Yoga-Pose-BKS-Iyengar

Now that the world’s attention has focused more on Iyengar yoga since his passing, I would like to take this opportunity to clarify some misconceptions about this style that I have seen in various blogs and social media.

Misconception #1: Iyengar yoga is prop based.

First, pick up a copy of Light On Yoga. You won’t find a single prop in his presentation of over 200 asanas…save a blanket and bench and a Noelle Perez-Christiaens. Iyengar designed the use of props to get students further into certain actions of the pose, and for those who could not otherwise attain the pose without supports. Further prop refinements, particularly in Salamba Sarvangasana (supported all limbs pose, or Shoulderstand) uses blankets for safety issues.

When Iyengar teachers go for assessment, we are advised to do and teach asanas without props in the middle of the room unless otherwise specified. Props are only used to get the student to do the correct “actions” of the classic asana. Once the actions are learned and mastered, we get rid of the props.

That being said, the use of props is to allow us to spend more time in asana. In an interview, Iyengar says that the Lion-diety Narasimha inspired him to use straps as devotional statues show that he used the prop to sit in meditation for long periods of time.

bronze-narasimha-a

Misconception #2: Iyengar teachers are mean.

Iyengar was quite stern in his teaching. One of my students who took a class from him in the 80s when he visited Hawai’i could not remember what he taught, but she did remember that he was strict. We are taught to say instructions in a verb-noun format like “extend your arm!” This may have a “drill sergeant” sound to it, but when you are in a precarious spot in an asana would you rather hear “softly guide your inner spirit into the pose” or “press your thighs up to take strain off your neck?”  One senior teacher said that once class ended, Iyengar was the nicest man you’ve ever met. Is the photo below that of a “mean” teacher? Don’t confuse “strict” for “mean.”

Iyengar coconut water

Misconception #3: Your first Iyengar class will tell you everything there is to know about this style.

In our studio, we have a five week cycle of classes. Week 1 is standing poses, week 2 is forward bends, week 3 is backbends, week 4 is miscellaneous which usually covers twists, and arm balances, and week 5 is restorative and pranayama. For the person who just shows up one time on restorative week, they will think all Iyengar yoga is about is lying around and breathing. Conversely if they come only on standing pose or backbend week, they will think we are too physical. It will take a student about three months of regular practice just to understand the basic underpinnings of the system. In our fast food Yelp culture, three months is too long. We demand results now! Iyengar yoga is quite subversive to Western culture. It requires discipline. It requires time…like years not days or months.

Misconception #4: Iyengar yoga is for old people.

I will admit that there tends to be more older people in Iyengar classes than in other styles. Early in the US yoga craze, there was a studio who would send all of its prospective teachers to  an Iyengar teacher who taught in the same area. All the prospective teachers were young and lithe and new to yoga. I would hear them all complain that there were too many “old” people in the class. When it was time for Sarvangasna, the younger students all had a banana shape, whereas the “old” students had straight spines and were not as jittery in the pose. Many of the prospective teachers did not return. What they did not know is that many of the “old” students had been practicing since their 20s or 30s and were well into their 50s and 60s.

Older people are drawn to this style for several reasons. The first is that it is safe. Teachers take great pains to learn how to get students safely in and out of poses and to make modifications for those who cannot attain the pose. Secondly, it is a discipline. It takes the patience of a mature practitioner to understand the depth of this style. As mentioned before, this does not come overnight. Lastly, the “old” people in class are the ones with the best poses. In Light On Yoga, Guruji is in his 50s.

That being said, our studio has a “yoga for kids” class. There is also a famous class at RIMYI on Sundays that caters to children only.  In my instruction to my nieces who are 3 and 8, I have found that they love to use the props and find the practice challenging.

Sasha ropes

Misconception #5: Iyengar classes are for injured people

There is a part of our practice that deals with therapeutics. We have many sequences to address particular ailments. There is even a “medical class” taught at RIMYI. In a sense, that has clouded the perception that this style is for injured people. I find it sad that this is the only way people find this style of yoga. The reality is that asanas when done properly are healing. But the teachings show us to get beyond that and venture to the inner work of the parts of us that are beyond injury: the breath the mind and the soul.

Misconception #6: Iyengar yoga is slow and boring

Iyengar yoga, when taught properly, is more instructional than experiential. The idea behind this style is eventually the practitioner will do a home practice to further what was learned in class. That is when you truly experience the beauty in this teaching. In an era of power vinyasa yoga, our classes appear slow. There is a part of our practice where Surya Namaskar is done, it’s just not every class. As seen above, there are many areas of this style. Some are faster than others.

This style is anything but boring. I have over 60 posts and have not even scratched the surface of this subject. The famous late teacher Mary Dunn would comment that the learning curve for Iyengar yoga is always straight up. There are no plateaus to the depth of this teaching.

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38 thoughts on “Clearing up a few misconceptions about Iyengar yoga

  1. freejeanie

    Great summary! Most popular misconception i have faced that it’s not as challenging as other styles. A lot of people seem to be attracted to the McDonaldisation of yoga in the west.

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    1. Judith Richards

      I like your phrase, McDonaldisation! People looking for yoga ‘fast food’ are too challenged by Iyengar yoga. It’s much too demanding of your attention and mental presence – and it takes a long time to build up knowledge and understanding – Michelin 5-star, I would say!

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  2. yogibattle Post author

    Thanks freejeanie! Kofi Busia once did an hour long tadasana, then an hour long dandasna. That was probably the most challenging class I’ve ever done. Challenging does not equal fancy poses, challenging equals doing basic poses correctly.

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  3. marycbridge

    Great post to learn more about this type of Yoga which is indeed perceived of as cobtroversial. I’ve only practiced Hatha Yoga so far but I’ve been eager to learn more facts. 🙂

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  4. yogibattle Post author

    I think the “controversial” perception comes from other schools who are trying to capitalize on yoga for it’s commercial appeal. Sad that others bad talk us.

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    1. Deborah

      I began to study / practice Iyengar Yoga around 1986 in Asheville NC. At the time there were a handful of yoga teachers in town and, possibly two handfuls of students. People are surprised when they learn that I am 64 years old. Genetics and a healthy lifestyle that includes yoga contribute to a youthful appearance. Our community leads the national trends for yoga and some who practice disdain the Iyengar approach. One thirty-something friend seems to cycle injury and rehabilitation in her devotion to “hot yoga”. Rather than risk offending her, I encourage her to reconsider Iyengar. The age demographics of certified instructors at One Center Yoga include vibrant young people and classes run the gamut according to students’ proficiency. Ahimsa is key.

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  5. Abbey Hope

    This is a good article, but I believe you are over-simplifying how props are used. Yes, they can help us stay longer, but props can also be used to bring intelligence to a body part or help us feel, to make a pose more accessible, to open the body (think of the setu banda bench) or, as in the case of the blankets under shoulders for sarvangasana, which is used almost all the time in that pose, to make the pose safe.

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks Abbey. There is indeed a wide ranging use for props to increase intelligence in the actions of the pose an I did mention the use blankets for Sarvangasana. My point of this post was to show that there are other parts of the Iyengar system and dispel the perception that props are all Iyengar yoga is about. I always cringe when I read summaries of different yoga styles in yoga magazines and see the word “prop” soon after the name “Iyengar” and nothing else is mentioned.

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  6. Frank Finnerty

    After many, many years of violent physical labor, I embraced iyengar yoga in my early 60’s as a way to heal the damage to my body. Presently, I need the props very much to enable me to attain a greater physical benefit from the poses. however, I also found that the deeper I sunk into the poses, with their aid, the more profound the level of serenity and contemplation became. there’s the rub.

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  7. HJ Cotton

    In my experience, the superb sequencing of Iyengar yoga is hard to beat. there is no style of yoga that can lead a practioner to perform advanced asanas safely and with ease like Iyengar yoga. In my opinion, Iyengar yoga is the least boring of all the styles of yoga especially if one’s practice is at the intermediate advanced levels. I find the intermediate advanced classes harder than vinyasa. My experience in taking classes and workshops with Iyengar teachers was a mixed lot, some were wonderful and inspiring while others were rude, sanctimonious and yell at students all the time. The latter type of teachers is what is turning younger students away from Iyengar yoga.

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  8. Sally

    Good post. I first practiced Iyengar yoga 35 years ago and the only prop used was a blanket, and it wasn’t considered a prop. So it disturbs me to read articles that describe Iyengar yoga as using props. I think of Iyengar yoga as being about precision. Move into a particular asana the best you can and the instructor will help you refine the pose and your alignment. Maybe that is where the reputation for being mean comes from.

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  9. KnewFan

    Thank you for a wonderful post. I am incredibly grateful to this method. But it took me awhile to understand its wisdom. After practicing this method with a great teacher over 2 years, I finally get it. It is a great system for waking up the total body in a balanced way (with a preference for a lifted chest, imo). The precision really is about energy and the energy moves more freely with an aligned body. It seems to me that talking about asana in this way is often avoided by Iyengar teachers, although, when I read transcripts from trainings by Geeta Iyengar or Mr. Iyengar, I think the energetics drive every instruction. Maybe, one “downside” of this method is that it takes incredible experience to teach it well so there are not a lot of young teachers who can really channel it. At least, that has been my (albeit limited) experience. I have had great teachers in this tradition and they share openly and freely. It is gift. But, in a small way, it is maybe not fair to say that it is a misconception to say that Iyengar teachers are mean. It is likely that many students have experienced many teachers that way. In a way, it is a shame teachers (or the system) attempt to imitate Mr. Iyengar’s teaching style if they can not also imitate at least some of his depth of awareness.

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  10. Yogaressa

    Thanks for showing people another perspective to Iyengar Yoga. Although I teach and practice a hybrid of several “styles” of yoga, I am so grateful for my solid foundation of alignment awareness, through the teachings of Mr B K S Iyengar.

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  13. Anuj Choksey

    Iyenger Yoga teaching is attributed to attain highest quality of Physical awareness eventually for connecting the body with our soul through awakening our chakras.
    We at our practice are guided by Guruji Siddharth a Third generation student of Shri B.K.S Iyenger who is 2 decades younger to me.
    All our fellow students are proud to be associated with the preachings & practices by this great legend Shri Iyenger.
    With love Anuj Choksey student of Siddharth Bangera from Bandra – W, Mumbai – 50, India.

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  16. higherlearninggirl

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.
    Your love and great regard for your teacher and practice is beautiful.
    Lately I wonder a lot about yoga’s therapeutic nature in our modern culture. Our postural habits have become so compromised due to lifestyle choices, technology. I have studied for years alignment based systems as well as explored other styles that have different focal points.. There’s beauty and value to them all… My main inquiry now is thinking about how iyengar might look at just our own natural posture and perhaps evolve some of the classic poses to more aptly address the reason everyday people suffer with pain.
    so perhaps rather than thinking of “mastering this pose or “getting into this pose” – perhaps we first look at whether the architectural blueprint of our bodies (curves, rather than stacked lines) are currently the healthiest ways to address our bodies needs. Postural consciousness? Versus pose chasing? Even with the greatest alignment system i believe we should be more investigatory about asanas therapeutic nature overall
    It’s an art form like dance… And that body is a profoundly complex system

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  17. Andrea Robinson

    I am one of the “old people” that have been practicing Iyengar yoga for 17 years. I have tried a couple of other methods of yoga and found them to be “sloppy” as you quickly transition from pose to pose. Definitely not for me as I like to get into a pose and stay in it, perfecting it as much as possible, making the connection of mind and body! I can see these new fast flowing yoga classes leading to incorrect postures and injuries, at least in aging bodies. One false move…

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  18. Rachel Leshaw

    I’ve only been to about 10 Iyengar classes in my life. The most recent one was recommended by a friend. Drop-in was $23 and I handed the teacher $25. She just put it in the drawer and went about her business without offering me any change! I was scared of her demeanor (volume, tone of voice, expression) so I didn’t say anything. Of course I don’t hold her behavior against the Iyengar style. I just found it so hilariously obnoxious to charge so much for class and not offer the proper change! I’ll never go back to my town’s Iyengar studio.

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Funny. I had a similar experience with a flow teacher. I realized that there are other teachers who practice the same style who are not so obnoxious. Glad I checked them out before writing off the whole system 🙂

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