Tag Archives: Light on Yoga

Required reading for the student who is new to Yoga

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I was watching a video of B.K.S. Iyengar during the 2013 Guru Poornima, which is an annual observance and celebration of all of our teachers. In the address, he showed two books that were recently pressed from the Institute. He commented that when he started Yoga, there was no written material on the subject of Asana. Now it has gone the other way. There is now so much information about Asana on the internet and in books, that a new comer to yoga may be easily overwhelmed.

I often reflect on the reading materials that I first encountered when I came to Yoga and what continues to guide me on my path. The clear text would be introduction in LIght On Yoga. It is not just written well, it draws from a series of classical Yoga texts and digests it into an easy to understand essay coupled with Iyengar’s experience.

One does not need to be an practitioner of the Iyengar style to appreciate this text. Renowned Ashtanga Yoga practitioner Chuck Miller writes:

One day in 1974, I was in a bookstore and picked up a copy of Light on Yoga. A girl whom I’ve never seen before just looked over and said, “That’s the book.” I took it as a sign from above and bought the book. I went home that night and read the introduction, fifty-five pages, and it blew my mind. It changed my life. I felt I had my hand on the operating manual for the human being.  – From Iyengar, The Yoga Master 2007 Kofi Busia Shalamba Publications, Inc.

One of the gists of the text that I remember every day is that he views the ability to work as a gift. He draws this concept from the Bhagavad Gita, and links it wonderfully to how we integrate our daily practice as our dharma.

He also gives a brief overview of the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (the classical eight limbs from Patanjali Yoga Sutras). In subsequent texts, The Iyengar family asserts that Ashtanga Yoga is the ABCs of Yoga, and that the other forms like Hatha, Laya, Jnana etc. need a firm rooting in Asthanga Yoga before other forms can successfully be commenced.

In Light on Yoga, Iyengar also gives a brief overview of the obstacles on the path and how to overcome them based on the Patanjali Yoga Sutras. Iyengar had many obstacles that he overcame in his lifetime including childhood diseases, poverty, the early death of his wife, and two auto accidents just to name a few. He practiced Yoga up until he passed away last year at 95 years old.

Keep in mind that Iyengar Yoga style was not my first choice when I started Yoga. I went though many of the different systems until I have decided to pursue Iyengar as my path. Perhaps you may have another system of preference. But there is one common agreement among many practitioners is that the introduction of Light On Yoga is one of the classic passages.

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.

Why Sirsasana is done before Sarvangasana in the Iyengar system

Iyengar nirlamba sirsasana

My good friend and fellow blogger Irish Ashtangi brought up an excellent question: is headstand (Salamba Sirsasana) done before or after shoulder stand (Salmaba Sarvangasana)? As this question is a bit more complex than it seems, I am dedicating a blog entry address the question.

First full disclosure. I practiced Ashtanga for a brief period of six months should not be considered anywhere near an expert authority on the Asthanga system. I have experienced the First Series a few score times so at least I have some reference point to write from.

That being said, I later became certified in the Iyengar system. In my training, I was taught that Salmba Sirsasana (supported head pose) is unequivocally sequenced before Salamba Sarvangasana (Supported All Limbs of the Body pose, or shoulder stand).

First, we have to view these two asanas in terms of temperature. Salamba Sirsasana (I’ll refer to it as headstand from here to simplify) is a “heating” pose as it stimulates the nervous system. Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) is a “cooling” pose which pacifies the nervous system. Here are Guruji’s words on the subject from Light On Yoga:

Sirsasana and its cycle should always be followed by Sarvangasana and its cycle. It has been observed that people who devote themselves to Sirsasana alone without doing the Sarvangasana poses are apt to lose their temper over trifling things and become irritated quickly. (Light On Yoga page 189)

If you consider the eight limbs in logical progression, they go from the external to the internal. From this perspective, it makes sense to a practice a less stimulating pose like Sarvangasana near the end of  the practice to prepare for Savasana, then Pranayama to experience Pratyahara.

In defense of the Ashtanga system, which has Sarvangasana practiced before Sirsasana, the poses are only held for a short period of time compared to the Iyengar system. In the Iyengar system, one builds time in Sirsasana to 10 plus minutes and Sarvangasana a bit longer. From my brief practice of Asthanga, I recall the poses being held for a few breaths lasting no longer than 2 minutes. Please correct me if I am wrong as I am not an authority of the Asthanga/Jois system.

In my training, we are instructed to teach beginners Salamba Sarvangasna before we teach them Salamba Sirsasana. This is because students learn the required movements of the shoulders and the chest in Salamba Sarvangasna that they will take to Salamba Sirsasana when it is later introduced.

One last note about the sequences in the back of Light On Yoga. Most all of them start with the first pose being Salmaba Sirsasana. This has gradually changed in his later teachings, but Sirsasana still tends to show up early in contemporary Iyengar sequences. Also, inversions are more prevalent in an evening practice than a morning one. There are always exceptions to the rule depending on which “effect” you want from the practice. Thank you Irish Ashtangi for asking this question. He is an ardent practitioner and has a very inspiring blog chronicling his yogic journey.

guruji pali II

As a commemorative note, today marks the 13th day after Iyengar’s passing. The 13th day after death is considered an auspicious time. In your practice today, please keep Iyengar in your thoughts.

Getting started on a home practice

Congratulations! You have made the commitment to starting a home practice. Eventually you will start acquiring props as needed. Start with these essential props:

1)Sticky mat

2)Blocks

3) A strap,

4) A chair

5) 4 Mexican style blankets

Any chair will do, but eventually you want to get an “Iyengar Chair” with the back taken out as seen in photo. You can go to any office supply store and by a folding chair, and get a welder friend to cut the back out for you.

propage

Essential props

You will find these books helpful:

Light On Yoga, by BKS Iyengar

Yoga, A Gem For Women, by Geeta Iyengar

Preliminary Course, by Geeta Iyengar,

Yoga The Iyengar Way, by Mira Metha

You can obtain these books through Iynaus.org and Amazon.

In my blog I will give the Sanskrit name of the pose and the English translation. It is helpful for students to learn the Sanskrit name because it is the original language of yoga. When you learn the names you will be able to attend any Iyengar class worldwide and understand the gist of the teachings even if you do not speak the language.

You will see the word “asana” as a suffix for many of the poses. Asana means “meditation seat” as the original “asanas” were sitting cross legged positions used for mediation.

BKS Iyengar, the founder of this method, began yoga in 1934 when he was 15. He will turn 95 next week and still practices daily in Pune India.

Here is Mr. Iyengar practicing as a teen

Here is Mr. Iyengar practicing in his later years.

I hope you find these inspiring enough to start practicing today.