Category Archives: BKS Iyengar

An early birthday recognition for Geeta Iyengar

Geeta Iyengar turns 72 in a few days. I would like to take a moment to recognize some of her many contributions to yoga.

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Being trained intensely by her father, BKS Iyengar, Geeta has helped in the development of a systematized curriculum for certified teachers. This has allowed for high standards to be maintained while utilizing an apprenticeship model mirrors how yoga has been traditionally taught for centuries.

Her book Yoga: A Gem For Women in an excellent companion to her father’s seminal work Light On Yoga. In reading this book for my certification and training, I have found it beautiful weaves philosophy with asana practice. She has also developed wonderful teaching materials in the Yoga in Action series which recently added an intermediate course.

gem-for-women

She has graciously taught many Western Iyengar instructors (including my own teachers) which has helped build the Iyengar method of yoga worldwide. She is still active in the certification process and has been signing diplomas of newly certified teachers since her father’s passing in 2014.

geeta-and-lois

She has developed many methods on treating issues specific to women’s needs through asana. She has also written many books aside from “Gem” about sensible practice for women at every stage of life. She now leads the medical classes at RIMYI in where people with specific medical conditions are given prop intensive asana treatments and sequences to help them manage their illness and conditions. She also trains teachers on the therapeutic Iyengar methods during these classes.

geeta teaching

In the past few years, her birthday celebration has been concurrent with the Yoganusasanam event in Pune where she and her niece Abhijata teach hundreds in a large badminton stadium.

geeta stadium

What is dear to my heart about Geeta is how she did much of the above while being a caregiver for her father during when he was ill. As a caregiver and yoga teacher, her example is an inspiration of what can be done as an ardent yoga practitioner. Happy birthday Geeta!

 

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Several approaches to the eight limbs of Yoga

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When one first reads the eight limbs in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra-s, there are many questions that arise. Are the eight limbs practiced sequentially, like rungs in a ladder, or are they practiced all together? That really depends upon your point of view and also which tradition you follow. This post assumes one has read the eight limbs. If not here is a link to review them. I will provide a few points of view from my training and personal practice on following the eight limbs.

Say like you are a sincere practitioner and want to follow the eight limbs sequentially like a staircase–not proceeding to the next limb until you have “mastered” the previous. Then you meet a formidable challenge like the Yamas. The first Yama is ahimsa (non-harming). On your way to your practice, you accidentally step on a bug, injuring it. Can you proceed to the next limb? What about telling the truth (satya), not stealing (asteya), staying sexually continent (brahmacharya), and not being greedy (aparigraha)? Then what about the Niyamas of saucha (internal and external cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (ardor for practice), svadhyaya (self study), and Ishvara pranidhana (complete surrender to God)? If you had to master one limb before proceeding to the next, it would most likely take several lifetimes to qualify for Asana!

We have to keep in mind that the aim of Yoga is to still the citta. So living in observance of these ethical guidelines is highly conducive for stilling the mind. Imagine doing the exact opposite. What if you harmed others, lied, steal from others, had multiple sex partners, and were stingy and greedy. Your mind would be all over the place.

My point of view is that the first four limbs of Yoga: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama are things one can do externally to still the citta. The next two limbs: pratyahara and dharana are things one can do internally to still the citta. The last two limbs: Dhyana and Samadhi are what Yoga does to the practitioner who correctly and steadfastly practices these concepts.

The first four limbs, Yama, Niyama, Asana, and Pranayama, are called the bahiranga (the pursuit of external purity), pratyahara (detachment form the senses), and dharana (concentration) are called the antaranga (the pursuit of internal purity), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (illumination) are called the antaratama (the pursuit of the Soul).

In the West we like “goals.” Rather than viewing the eight limbs as a goal with Samadhi being the prize, I like to view the eight limbs as a toolbox one can use to get the mind to quieten. If there are any sincere “goals” of yoga, they would be to practice daily, and not be attached to things of with the ego identifies itself (abhyasa and vairagyam).

What if you were not able to practice Asana? Your practice would be to follow the Yamas and Niyamas to create stillness in the mind. What if your mind was too busy to focus on Pranayama?  Your practice would be Asana. These are examples of slotting in and slotting out limbs like gathering tools from a toolbox to quiet the mind.

Can you practice several limbs at once? Of course! When doing a sincere pranayama practice, you are already following the Yamas and Niyamas easily. You are in supported Savasana or a seated position and are therefore practicing Asana. B.K.S. Iyengar used Asana as a focus point to amplify the other limbs, just as Gandhi used the Yamas of ahimsa and satya to liberate India from the West.

The take home message here is whenever the mind is not quiet, Patanjali says you have access to many tools to make it quiet. Then you can see your true self and all your splendorous radiance.

Have a great weekend!

The spiritual import of Pranayama

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By the time you have gotten to the point of practicing Pranayama regularly, you take your practice seriously. Pranayama is the end of the line of the physical practice. Like approaching the end of the high dive board, this is where the practitioner takes the “plunge” from the known physical practice, to unknown internal practice. In short, Pranayama is the most spiritual physical practice one can do.

Sutra 1.34 says: pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyām vā prāṇasya, or the exhale and retention (rechaka and bahya kumbhaka) are a means to cease citta vritti (mind chatter). As you may remember from Sutra I.2 stopping the mind chatter the main aim of Yoga practice. B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Pranayama (1999 ed.) takes this Sutra’s concept a step further:

Exhalation is the process by which the energy of the body gradually unites with that of the mind, merges into to soul of the sadhaka and dissolves into cosmic energy. It is the path of return from the peripheries of the body towards the source of consciousness know as the path of renunciation (nivritti marga). (Page 100)  and Bahya Kumbhaka (retention on the exhale) is the state in which the yogi surrenders his very self, in the form of his breath, to the Lord and merges with the Universal Breath. It is the noblest form of surrender, as the yogi’s identity is totally merged with the Lord. (Page 106).

Here, Iyengar may be referring to the “fourth” type of pranayama found in Sutra II.51. This “fourth” type of pranayama “surpasses the limits of the internal and external.” Then uncovers the thin veil between ignorance and illumination. Then the practitioner is qualified for Dharana (paraphrasing Sutras II.52-53).

In short, these Sutras are telling us that Pranayama is a destroyer of Karma which is a fundamental “goal” of the serious yoga practitioner. And like Pranayama cannot be commenced until Asana is mastered, the Sutras are suggesting that one must be proficient in Pranayama before intensive concentration (Dharana) can be undertaken.

I am very far from this level of progression in my personal practice. But the reason I am posting this is that it seems most Yoga we see and read about are just addressing Asana for Asana’s sake. In other words, “30 days to master scorpion pose” which we see ubiquitously on the Yoga news feeds of Facebook and WordPress. Perhaps this post will show that there is a progression along the eight limbs, and that each rung, like a peak of a mountain, must be ascended with much preparation and awareness. That in itself is an extremely spiritual undertaking.

Approaching the victorious path of Pranayama (Part 1)

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To further refine one’s home practice, Pranayama is essential. It is not a practice one approaches in a standard one-size-fits-all format as everyone has their own cardiovascular and respiratory rhythms. But certain fundamentals must be learned before one tries on their own. The Iyengars and the Hatha Yoga Pratipika warn that Pranayama practiced unskillfully can have damaging effects on the nervous system. In short, Pranayama is not merely “breathing exercises.” Pranayama is just as the name implies: management of the body’s “pranic” or energetic system.

B.K.S. Iyengar warned that one must not approach Pranayama casually and mechanically. Just as there are refinements in Asana, there are extremely subtle refinements in Pranayama. Again, these cannot be seen easily if at all by the teacher, so it is up to the practitioner to understand what needs to be refined.

One’s mental state cannot be agitated before doing or while in Pranayama. If that is the case, the practitioner must go back to Asana until the mental state is calmed. As a mental health care professional, this took me years to figure out. As a counselor, a common “coping skill” to teach for one who has anxiety is to “take deep breaths.” That has had mixed results in my counseling profession especially of for those who smoke daily and have respiratory problems. Breathing deeply has actually made them panic more! Through the years I have found teaching my clients Tadasana and supported Adho Mukha Svanasana as much more valuable technique of addressing anxiety than “breathing deeply.”

In the hierarchy of practice, Asana must be mastered before one can commence Pranayama.  That does not mean one has to execute Asanas in the back of Light On Yoga to qualify.  But the quality of the asanas you do have to have Sthira and Sukham (steadiness and well being). The aim of Pranayama isn’t merely to get out of an agitated state. The aim is to cultivate Pratyahara, or detachment from the senses.

It is recommended that people don’t start doing Pranayama until they have had regular and steady Asana practice for six months. This not to be snobby, but it is because the body needs to attain a basic sense of proper alignment before any effective work on the extremely subtle pranic system can be done. If you are new to Yoga, please see my tabs on Asana and Yoga Sequences and practice these with the help of a Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor in your area. It is highly advisable to obtain a copy of Light on Pranayama by B.K.S. Iyengar as he goes into tremendous detail of what I will cover briefly in these posts. With all of that, let us start to explore how to approach Pranayama.

Ideally, Pranayama is practiced separate from Asana. If you practice Asanas first, allow 30 minutes before commencing Pranayama practice. As Pranayama tries to cultivate Pratyahara, there should be no music playing and of course electronic devices should be silenced. It is very jarring to the nervous system to hear a cell phone go off while you are concentrating on the subtle body.

The four parts of the breath

To understand the basic structure of the breath, one needs to know at least the corresponding references in Sanskrit. The exhale is called Rechaka. The retention at the end of the exhale is called Bhaya Kumbhaka. The inhale is called Puraka. The retention at the end of the inhale is called Antara Kumbhaka. Kumbha means “pot” or “vessel” and the retention refers to the encapsulation of the Prana in the vessel. Eventually, the Kumbhakas increase in time duration according to the aim and skill of the practitioner.

Study these concepts, and in future posts I will show how to position the body for pranayama give basic instructions for UJjayi I and II Pranayama-s.

Many blessings!

 

Asanas are 1% of Yoga: Patanjali

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I write a great deal about Asana in my blog. One could argue that my blog is only about Asana and that I have not even come close to touching the other limbs. That would be a valid argument. I have been fortunate enough lately to devote much time to reading and studying the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s. After hearing an interview with scholar Edwin Bryant, the idea has crystalized that has been inside of for much time: since Asanas are so powerful and profoundly life changing by themselves, the entire practice of Yoga is light years more powerful and transformative.

There are only three Yoga Sutra-s that address Asana: sthira sukham asanam (the seat/pose steadies and brings about comfort for the aspirant’s consciousness), prayatna-śaithilya-ananta-samāpatti-bhyām (mastery in the Asana is accomplished when the aspirant has a state of effortless effort in the body and in the consciousness), and tato dvaṅdva-an-abhighātaḥ (from then on the aspirant is not vexed by the dualities that exist between the pure consciousness and the perceived world.)

As Bryant points out, reference to Asana only encompasses 12 words in a 1200 word text, or 1 percent. But rather dismissing Asana as unimportant because of its brief “cameo” in the Sutra-s, reflect on how powerful Asana has been in your life. For many of my readers, Asana is only what they have practiced. That is not a bad thing, as Asana as Bryant describes is “plugged in” to a larger system of total transformation.

Now imagine how powerful it would be to practice daily and uninterruptedly a concept like telling the truth, or keeping yourself clean, or not being greedy. Just practicing those concepts for one day would be life changing to many. Then one only begins to gather how difficult and how deep the whole of the Yoga Sutra-s are in what they are trying to impart to the reader.

By all means don’t give up your Asana practice! B.K.S. Iyengar taught that all limbs can be practiced in Asana and has proved it in how he changed the world’s view of Yoga.

Gandhi liberated India with concepts in the Yoga Sutra-s like Satya (truth) and Ahimsa (non-violence) and inspired Martin Luther King, Jr. to duplicate these principles to create civil rights in the US. Similarly, the Patanjali Yoga Sutra-s teach how to emancipate ourselves not only from sorrows, but from all the Karmic and Samskaric imprints we have inherited.

 

 

 

 

On the art of straightening the leg in Iyengar yoga

 

It is said much recently that a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is its refinement on inversions. After years of practice, I will have to say another hallmark of Iyengar Yoga is the quality of the straight legs in Iyengar practitioners.

Straight legs are not something that happens overnight. Very much like that tear jerking scene in Forrest Gump when the young Forrest is bound by a confining leg brace, and then chased by bad kids, he finds his “real” legs and off he goes into an almost superhuman ability to run fast.

The same struggle, then liberation can be said of the years of practice it takes to truly straighten the legs in Iyengar Yoga. How many of you who have been to a bona fide Iyengar class for the first time heard “straighten your leg!” only to look down to your version of straight legs and wonder if the teacher is talking to someone else? That was my first 10 years of practice (with occasional relapses if I let my strong tamasic nature take over).

Let me show you a comparison of  “straight legs”  vs. “Iyengar straight legs” in a Padangusthasana (big toe pose), a forward bend.

uttanasana bent

This woman is flexible enough to touch her toes. But look at the angle behind the knee joint. It may appear to the untrained eye that her legs are straight, but her legs are not a straight as they can be.

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This may not be a fair comparison, but look at Guruji’s pose during his prime. Very little angle behind the knee and the front of his legs are “poker straight” as he often described them.

So how does the aspirant get the legs of Iyengar? In addition to daily uninterrupted practice, there are ways in which you can start to address the tamasic nature of the strong and lazy legs.

For my basic students, I often have them do Pasrvottanasana (intense stretch of the side body pose) with one heel against the wall and with a chair.

parsvottanasna with chair

 

If there is a mantra in Iyengar Yoga, it would be that “contact is intelligence.” The contact with the back heel pressing hard on the wall cultures the leg to work properly as a “straight’ leg. Many are shocked at how difficult it is do this even though they are lithe and flexible.

Another exercise to straighten the leg is Supta Padangusthasana I with belt around the big toe mound.

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Now the leg is in the air and doesn’t have the earth to press down on. The belt acts as a gauge to which degree you can press against. I like to use the metaphor of using a gas pedal where you slowly accelerate like you are trying to maintain a constant but slow speed like you are driving in a school zone. By pressing the big toe mound into the strap, one notices the effect on the knee and how the more your press, the more the kneecap recedes into the socket. Don’t completely plantar flex the foot like a ballerina. You have to temper that by extending up from the back of the ankle toward the ceiling. The proper foot in an inversion is partially dorsi flexed and partially plantar flexed.

Straight legs are a necessary element for inversions. Without the firmness in the legs the weight sinks on the the neck and head in Salamba Sirsasana. Notice the quality of the legs in Guruji’s Salamba Sirsasana and notice the corresponding lift in his shoulders.

sirsasana iyengar

 

The contraindication for this exercise is for those who hyperextend their knees. The instruction would be for those practitioners to learn where they are pushing too hard in the back of their knee and decrease the effort to preserve the joint over years of practice. For more on that, see this blog post.

To come full circle, inversions are an a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga. But you cannot have proper inversions until you have straight legs. Now “straighten your legs!!!”

The pranic body revisited

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Artwork by Alex Grey

 

B.K.S. Iyengar was a genius. At the time he reinvigorated Yoga as a legitimate system, he eschewed talk of chakras, nadis, vayus, and other aspects of esoteric Yoga anatomy. Iyengar saved Yoga from becoming an antiquated esoteric practice by putting it into contemporary terms using the physical body as a starting point.

That is not to say that his system stopped using terms referring to esoteric anatomy, it is just not used for students who cannot comprehend them. What Iyengar did was to instruct movements of the physical body to facilitate movement in the esoteric body. For example, instead of calling it a “jalandhara bandha” to the raw beginner, Iyengar instructors teach the student to move the sternum toward the chin to get the “action” of Jalandara Bandha. Instead of basing instructions from the different vayus, instructors teach movement from tangible body parts to create an effect in those areas.

jalandara bandha

I learned a very important lesson recently: because of the gross movements in asana, the subtle body is also receiving the benefit. Let me try to explain from my limited perspective.

First we turn to artwork to see the subtle body. I am a big fan of Alex Grey’s artwork. In his artwork, he successfully fuses the physical anatomy with the esoteric anatomy described in yogic texts. In his Sacred Mirrors series, the viewer quickly understands that there is a physical body and a subtle, energetic body.

sacred mirrors

Artwork by Alex Grey

 

Recently in my practice I have been reflecting on the Earth Element as I am looking for more stability in my life. While in my poses, I recite the sound form “LAM” which corresponds to the Muladhara Chakra which corresponds to the Earth Element. When I breathe out the sound form, I notice a distinct awareness in the areas of the pose that make up the base.  Furthermore, I have noticed after my practices lately, I feel more “grounded.”

muladhara chakra

Muladhara Chakra

 

Is this hocus pocus? Some may think so. But practicing Yoga for me lately has been more of a laboratory, where I am integrating concepts from my readings into my practice. My experiences are perhaps too subtle to describe in this blog post. Although I am not in an authoritative position to describe my experiences accurately, I do notice a difference in my Asana practice when I do the sound forms versus not doing them.

I don’t always practice with the sound forms. Most times I just do the bread and butter practice to address my physical issues that come from driving in Honolulu traffic all day. Sometimes I just go to classes to learn more about Asana (which I have much much more to learn). I may even be overstepping my bounds by practicing with esoteric concepts. But after 16 years of practice, I am always seeking methods to move toward evolution. The practice of Yoga is so deep, I have not even scratched the surface.

LAM