I’ll never forget my first introduction to yoga. I was just a kid, and although I remember that it left quite an impression on me, it might not be the impression you’d expect.
My parents were self-proclaimed hippies, my mom a massage therapist and my dad a musician. They were very social and known for their parties– regular occurrences that introduced me to some pretty colorful people and also gifted me with an extended family of their many hippie friends. One evening during one of these parties, a friend of theirs brought over a book.
I walked into the room to see all of these adults standing around in a circle trying to clasp their hands together behind their shoulder-blades in an arm position I now know as gomukhasana. One of their friends was boasting that he could do it and everyone seemed thoroughly impressed. The bar had been set and everyone was trying to reach it– going red in the face and laughing themselves silly.
I walked into the center of this silly display and got my first look at the book laid out before them. A seemingly innocent paperback, upon closer inspection, revealed within its pages the strangest collection of pictures I’d ever seen. The pictures were black and white and, to my very young eyes, might as well have been 100 years old. A lean man, wearing nothing but his underpants (which I couldn’t help but notice looked suspiciously like a diaper, this connection causing my brow to crease in a disapproving way), was contorting his body into all sorts of bizarre shapes.
I found the whole display to be disconcerting and offensive (increasing the depth of the disapproving crease in my brow) and wondered why all of these adults were going so ga-ga over some old pictures of an acrobatic contortionist who felt the need to prance around in his underpants. Why were they so drawn to this book? Why did they crowd around it like children at a circus, and why did I get the feeling that it had to do with something more than acrobatic display?
After (secretly) trying to clasp my own hands behind my back in this way and failing (something I still can’t do without the help of a yoga strap), I turned and walked away from the book (and the ridiculous adult-children), raising my eyebrows into a more appropriate haughty and openly judgmental expression to make sure everyone knew how I felt. (I was a little dramatic, but I later learned to channel that into acting so it turned out alright…)
The book, I now know, was Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, the foremost pioneer of the transference of yoga to the Western World. The man in the pictures? It was Iyengar himself, demonstrating some very challenging asana (poses) which he’d been practicing since he was just a boy.
The honorable Mr. Iyengar passed away this past week at the age of 95. Yoga had given him the gift of health and longevity after a sickly childhood and he had spent his life teaching it to others and bringing them similar gifts of wellness and vitality.
Yoga as we know it in the Western Hemisphere, could arguably not be what it is today were it not for the influence and teaching of B.K.S. Iyengar. These days, his teachings can be found in almost every classroom that practices asana (yoga poses), regardless of what style of yoga they claim to be teaching.
My own yoga training was not in the style of Iyengar yoga, but- like most current Western yoga teacher trainings- could not have been created without the foundations set by Mr. Iyengar. In fact, some of what I now consider to be the most integral pieces of Treetrunkwise Yoga, can be traced back through the yoga family tree to this man and what he singularly brought to the art of teaching yoga.
Here are a few of those pieces:
1) Yoga can be practiced by absolutely anyone.
As he himself had been a very sickly and physically weak child, Mr. Iyengar knew first-hand that yoga was not just for those who were already strong. Yoga is about beginning where you are, tuning in to the subtleties of the body, and practicing in a way that allows you to move toward the poses, rather than letting the ego push you towards perfection.
In fact, one of my favorite teachers, Matthew Sanford, is paralyzed from the waist down and teaches from his wheelchair. He credits Iyengar Yoga for helping him reconnect with the parts of his body that no longer have nerve feeling. He also teaches yoga to people of all abilities, from seasoned yogis to quadriplegics.
2) Poses are most beneficial when built on good alignment.
If there is one thing the school of Iyengar Yoga is probably the most famous for, it’s an intense focus on alignment. According to some teachers and students of Iyengar Yoga, one could spend an entire class focusing on and fine-tuning the subtle alignment of a single pose.
While I like my classes to have a bit more variety, I do believe that poses are most beneficial- and safest- when built on good alignment. I enjoy helping my students tune into the subtleties of the physical body and bringing awareness to the ease and strength that can be found just by paying attention. This is a practice in and of itself and I’m always happy to make time for it as a means of more fully appreciating each pose.
3) Props, Props, Props!
Yoga props that is. B.K.S. Iyengar is credited as being the first teacher to use objects to assist his students’ practice. Now commonplace in most Western yoga studios, yoga props like blocks, straps, blankets, and sometimes the famous Iyengar folding chair, are available to assist students during their practices. In my own practice I regularly use props and I encourage my students to use them as well. Props can offer a sense of ease and support in challenging poses, they can help you experience the feeling of a pose whose “full expression” is beyond your reach (literally), they can fine-tune alignment in a pose so that you build on integrity and avoid unnecessary injury.
Some people get the wrong idea about props. The let their ego take over and think, “They make me look weak”, “They make me seem less advanced”, or simply, “I don’t need that; I can do this without a prop! See?!” Well, if you haven’t experienced a yoga practice with props, you are missing out! Props are magical things that can do the unthinkable: lengthen your arms, straighten your spine, give you support, give you lift, help you reach things, help you hold and deepen poses, and avoid injury. Students who use yoga props for the first time in their practice have been known to make statements to the effect of, “Wow, that feels totally different!”, “My God, this feels so good!”, “Wow, I’ve never been able to do this pose before!”, and “Aaaaaaahhh…”
On behalf of myself and all of these happy yogis, I give Mr. Iyengar mad props.
Treetrunkwise Yoga would not be what it is (and may indeed not even exist!) if it weren’t for the light and teachings of Yogi Iyengar. I’m sure many other teachers and students of yoga join me in extending my deepest gratitude and respect to the man who shared the gifts of yoga with such open invitation.
“The Light that yoga shines on Life is something special. It is transformative. It does not just change the way we see things. It transforms the person who sees.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
Yoga is meant to invite you in, not to exclude you. Now that I’ve learned to allow my body to practice yoga in the way that my body can practice it, now that I’ve learned how to recognize impatience and judgement in myself before they get the best of me, now that I’m older and maybe a little wiser, I think back on that group of adults, crowded around Mr. Iyengar’s book, trying to wrench their arms and shoulders into gomukhasana, and I see something different.
I think of those adults as my first encounter with a room full of yoga students. The disapproving crease in my brow melts away and I have to smile. If only I’d known about yoga straps back then.
Thanks for reading! Share your thoughts and replies in the comments below. – xo