Iyengar Yoga: Is It Right For Me?

shutterstock_59845732If you are new to yoga, or are looking for a change up to your usual yoga practices, you might have run across several mentions of a form of yoga called Iyengar.  When looking for different forms of yoga, there are dozens of approaches, each with their own merits and challenges, and sussing out which one might be best for you can be a little confusing or overwhelming.  Part of the reason you have seen Iyengar yoga mentioned so frequently is because of its popularity with beginners, and with those looking to perfect the poses they already know.  Do not mistake this class for “easy”, however.  While it’s meticulous approach to each individual pose is extremely helpful for those just starting out, it is also a means of gaining vast improvement, even in those who have been practicing for years.

Iyengar Yoga is names after its founder B.K.S. Iyengar.  He was born in India in 1918, and began teaching yoga in 1936.  His interest in yoga practice came about after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and realized he needed to seek the ultimate in health in order to help overcome his illness.  Considering he is still alive today, I would say he succeeded.  The trick to his method of practice is the use of several tools and props to help support your body while attempting poses.  His theory implies that even if you need a strap, a block, or a sturdy wall to assist you, if in the end, you are able to stretch further, balance longer, and breathe deeper, then you are gaining more benefit from each pose.  If this sounds like something you might be interested in, keep reading..

What Makes Iyengar Yoga Different?

In the typical yoga class, it’s you, your mat, a bottle of water, and your instructor.  This is really all you need for the typical yoga class, and you can indeed reap wonderful benefits from it.  Still, there are those among us who are nursing sports injuries, or who are extremely unfamiliar with each pose, and could therefore benefit from a little extra attention, and a little extra support.  That is where the brilliance of Iyengar yoga will shine through.

By making use of supportive “props” such as yoga blocks, straps, blankets, pillows and even chairs, students are able to focus primarily on their physical alignment, without having to fret too much about losing balance, or stretching far enough.  Since many of these prop-assisted poses can be considered “modified”, they are especially ideal for those looking to work around an injury.

For example, look at the woman in this picture:


As you can see, while she may not be able to touch hands behind her back, she is still gaining the benefits of her stretch with the help of that strap.  Since she is not struggling to touch hands, that no longer becomes the focus of the exercise, and she is instead able to focus on holding her arms properly.

Likewise, the woman in this picture:


She is able to maintain a more aligned and proper pose, without having to worry about whether or not her lower hand can reach the ground.

What Are Some Other Benefits of Iyengar Yoga?

Proper alignment of the body is extremely important when practicing Iyengar yoga.  Even though these are the same poses found in other types of yoga, you will begin to realize that there is no progression, or “flow” between the poses.  Rather than transitioning from one pose to the next, students are brought back down to “child’s pose,” (pictured below) to help you relax and recenter between each new pose.

The continual return to child’s pose means that Iyengar yoga is not a cardio workout, and can therefore be attempted by those who have been advised to avoid such activities (although always clear new exercise with your doctor first!)

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What About Breathing Techniques and Meditation?

One of the more common challenges some practitioners face when in yoga class is the difficulty of “timing” the breath along with the movements.  This can be especially true when the flow of the movements transitions the workout into more of a cardio experience.  When your body is working hard, it can be very taxing to only inhale or exhale in counts of four.  Students may become frustrated, or begin to feel that they are somehow doing something “wrong”, taking their focus off of the class, and costing them the benefits of a relaxing practice.

Since Iyengar yoga is so metered in its approach, students are more free to explore these breathing techniques without struggling.  Remember that this practice was founded by a man suffering from tuberculosis, so being able to catch your breath is extremely important in Iyengar practice.  After some time learning to breathe properly without the added duress, your lung capacity will improve to the point where you can begin to push yourself harder.

Another benefit of being able to fall into a more natural breathing rhythm, is that is then becomes easier to meditate.  The benefits of meditation are well known – the stress relief, the mental clarity, the more positive outlook – and those benefits are very important in Iyengar yoga.

What Can I Expect in an Iyengar Class?

You can expect to have a great practice.  You will likely see a good mix of both beginners and more seasoned practitioners, all looking for a better understanding of each pose.  You should arrive with an open mind, and a desire to strive towards perfecting each pose.  Avoid overly lose or baggy clothing, because the instructor will want to be able to gauge your body’s alignment.  You may be surprised at how many ways a single pose can be modified in order to get the most benefit out of the stretch, but try the modifications, and see which gives you the most benefit.  Remember that everyone in the class is learning, even the instructor, so there is no need to compete with anyone but yourself.  Yoga is a personal journey.