One unique feature about Iyengar yoga is that beginning students are taught Uttishta Sthiti (standing poses) first before learning other clans of Asana-s. From a layperson’s perspective, this may sound counterintuitive. Shouldn’t beginners start with seated postures which require less physical effort? After a few years of practice, and a few more years of teaching, I am starting to see clearly why this is the optimal method for beginners to start.
Standing poses are the “donkey work” of Yoga as my mentoring teacher is fond of saying. They require tremendous energy when done properly. They correct defects in wobbly, weak legs and inflexible hamstrings. They safely teach “alignment” which is now becoming a much “maligned” term in the modern Yoga world.
For those beginners with stiff joints in the legs, seated poses can be a nightmare. Have you ever seen a beginning student with tight groins sit on the floor in Swastikasana? Knees are up and the sacrum is bulging out with a hunched back. To correct a student in this position takes much effort: they have to get up, get blankets, reposition.
This is not the case in standing poses. If a student has a hunched back in Utthita Trikonasana, give an instruction. If the instruction isn’t received, manually adjust, or add height via a block. Worst case, take them to a wall or tresler. Not much effort is needed.
Now that I am starting to revisit much of the philosophical teaching of yoga, namely the Panchamahabhutas (five elements), it is clear why we start with standing poses before attending to “advanced” Asana-s.
Standing poses correspond with element of Pritvhi, or Earth. They are “grounding.” They are solid. They build foundation. They are tangible. They can be held for long periods of time. In short, they teach discipline which is becoming rarer these days.
Correspondingly, the earth element absorbs unwanted qualities from the other elements: water, fire, air, and space. If this sounds too esoteric and new agey, just remember the last time you had do deal with someone who is “spacey” or has a “fiery” temper. The elemental tendencies are very real in people if we are not too much in our own head to “see.”
Standing poses slow the mind down and quiet it. You may not feel that way when doing Parivritta Parsvakonasana for more than 30 seconds, but wait for the after effect. I notice the quality of Savasana in my students is much more profound after standing poses then they are after restorative/pranayama.
On a deeper level, the earth element corresponds with the Muladhara Chakra, the root. To manage this Chakra properly, it is said one can build a platform of dispassion (vairagyam) to create stability on one’s yogic journey. It is advised that raw beginners do at least six month of daily standing poses before attempting inversions. That may sound harsh and dogmatic, but the standing poses teach the legs how to remain stable even when there is no earth underneath them as is the case with inversions.