Born in 1918, B.K.S. Iyengar began teaching yoga in 1936, after studying with the yoga guru Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India, in an effort to improve his health while suffering from tuberculosis. He continues to practice and teach today, assisted by his son Prashant and daughter Geeta, at his Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India. His methods are also taught at Iyengar institutes throughout the world, and at many yoga centers. In addition to developing and popularizing his style of practice, Iyengar's books are highly respected and have become classic yoga texts. Chief among them is Light on Yoga, first published in 1966, which describes and illustrates hundreds of yoga poses and many breathing techniques. His other important books include Light on Pranayama, which focuses on breath work, and Light on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is a translation and interpretation of the ancient Yoga Sutras, from which Iyengar drew the philosophical groundwork for his method of yoga. His most recent book, Light on Life, addresses the mental and spiritual aspects of yoga.
What is the Iyengar Method?
Iyengar's method, a form of hatha yoga, is based on giving primacy to the physical alignment of the body in the poses. In the this school, it is taught that there is a correct way to do each pose, and that every student will one day be able to attain perfect poses through consistent practice. Once this balance is created in the body, it will be reflected in the mind. One of Iyengar's major innovations is in the use of props. Today it is quite common to see blankets, blocks, straps, pillows, chairs, and bolsters being used in yoga studios. The use of these props is comparatively new in the history of yoga and comes directly from Iyengar. The purpose of the props is to assist the student in attaining ideal alignment, even if the body is not yet open enough.
An Example of How to Use Props in the Iyengar Tradition:
As an example, let's look at extended side angle pose - utthita parsvakonasana.
To come into the pose from downward facing dog:
1. Bring the right foot forward next to the right hand.
2. Drop the left heel down to the floor.
3. Bend the right knee so the calf and thigh are at a right angle with the thigh parallel to the floor.
4. Bring the right hand inside or outside the right foot and the left arm up toward the ceiling, opening the chest and stacking the left shoulder on top of the right.
5. If the right hand doesn't reach the floor because of tightness in the body, take a block under the right hand (see photo above).
If you do not use the block, the opening of the chest, which is one of the main purposes of the pose, will be compromised. In Iyengar's view, the alignment of the left shoulder over the right should be facilitated by the use of a block under the right hand until the body becomes open enough that the block is no longer needed. This is one of the ways in which Iyengar's method makes yoga more accessible to a wide range of people. The props are used the adapt the body to the correct alignment, and can be used according to the student's own needs.
More About Iyengar's Method: No Flow
Vinyasa flow is a term used in yoga to describe the fluid transition from one pose to the next in conjunction with either an inhale or exhale of breath. Iyengar-style yoga includes very little vinyasa flow. Instead, poses are held for longer durations while the alignment is perfected. Between poses, students rest in child's pose or corpse pose. Therefore, Iyengar yoga is not as intense a cardiovascular experience as a more flowing style such as Ashtanga. Holding the poses, however, is strenuous, builds strength, and is excellent for increasing flexibility. The absence of vinyasa flow is another reason why the Iyengar method brings yoga within reach of a broad population. It's a great place to start for people who are not physically fit enough to do a flowing style practice. This includes people who are ill, elderly, and overweight. Iyengar is one of the most popular styles of yoga worldwide.
Is Iyengar Yoga for You?
Don't get the idea that an Iyengar class will be easy, even though the style of practice is adaptable to different levels. Iyengar is also very appealing to more advanced yogis who want to work on their alignment. People who are very meticulous, technical, have an interest in anatomy, and an appreciation of subtle movements in the body may enjoy Iyengar-style practice. Even if you never take an Iyengar class, his influence is so prevalent today you will surely encounter it in the way poses are taught and props are used across the yoga spectrum.