Flirting with Iyengar

Since TT I’ve been reflecting simultaneously on how I proudly recognise how much I have learned and understood about yoga as well as humbly how little I know and how limited my experience is. If I want to teach, this will limit what I can offer. And as I try to explore the limits of my own desires and/or confidence in my practice, maybe I want more for myself too.

How to proceed? Some of my fellow TT grads talk about signing up for other training programmes, more intensives, and are looking for ways to advance their physical practice (whatever that means — but I suspect it involves more hand balances and inversions…). I’m looking in the opposite direction. How like me to be perverse! Instead of looking up to greater heights, I’ve looked down towards the fundamentals. I was inspired by one of the unglamourously helpful things we did in TT: a homework task of examining some small number of poses, to write instructions for taking students into them, some further cues for refining actions within the pose, and a consideration of risks and benefits. This simple task showed me how I might structure my learning and start to build up my own understanding of the basic asanas. So I’ve started an asana reference notebook and I try to add to it regularly from reading and from physically exploring — notes, ideas, questions. It’s very much work in progress but I hope I’ll maintain it in the years to come as my understanding evolves. I hope it doesn’t make me laugh too much in future when I look back at the early thoughts!

iyengar-institute1So to supplement the understanding I get of these poses through class and my home practice (which is after all largely inspired by the teachings in class) I’ve turned away from vinyasa towards Iyengar. It’s a tradition that’s renowned for careful alignment and building up methodically. I’m signed up to 6 weekly introductory classes at the Institute in London. It’s proving really interesting. The ways of entering a pose, a different emphasis on modifications and use of props (simultaneously more and less than I’m used to), sometimes a different expression of a familiar shape. I find my body going further than usual in some of this (despite the muscle-freezing temperatures of the Iyengar studio compared to the sweaty heat of my home studio) and it’s interesting to consider why and how this occurs.

On the train ride home each week my head is full of thoughts and my feet shift on the floor as I take an asana in my head and try to recall the sensations in my body, working through the poses even as I sit in my seat. I’m sure the concentrating look on my face is priceless for the other passengers! 🙂

iyengar membership card.jpgBut some of the differences in instruction between my usual teacher and the iyengar teacher are baffling me. Confusion rather than curiosity. I play at home, trying to feel the truth in my body. I read and research. And I fessed up to my teacher that I’m doing this Iyengar course. I wondered if he’d think I was criticising what he offered, but he was suprisingly enthusiastic, uncharacteristically offering a (positive) judgement on my chosen course of action. So I’ve asked him a few questions trying to figure out why some instructions differ so much between him and the Iyengar teacher. It’s fascinating to hear why my teacher offers what he does — how he balances the needs of a group, the constraints of the class environment etc with what he really wants to say, what he understands deeply in his own body.

This week I plucked up courage to approach my confusion from the opposite end and ask the Iyengar teacher some questions. This too told me more about his teaching methods than about the anatomy of the asanas I was interested in. I asked about his Vṛkśāsana instruction to hook the heel of the foot above the knee joint of the standing leg, having been taught this could be bad for the knee joint. He was seeking an instruction that would make the pose more accessible for the beginner group. He rejected the modification I’ve been taught of bringing the foot to the calf — he agreeed, in this position it’s more difficult to open the hip — instead he wondered if he might in future instruct rather to place the ball of the foot above the knee. So there we stood in the foyer, beside the bronze statue of Iyengar, both in tree pose talking through the actions in the standing leg and the lifted leg. I was grinning inside, this was too much. And the teacher even thanked me for the helpful discussion!iyengar-institute2

Feeling reassured that questions were ok, I asked about seated forward folds also — what is the recommended position of the pelvis, the shape of the lower back, the action in the legs: he was not very explicit during class. He gently brushed off my questions and told me to seek an intermediate teacher, carefully writing down for me the name of someone in France! I’m not sure my level of understanding requires me to seek an expert so far away! But then he couldn’t grasp where I was coming from. He interpreted my ‘vinyasa’ background as meaning I was an ashtangi. And he couldn’t accept that I hadn’t trained with Pattabhi Jois! If not with Jois, then at Mysore. If not Mysore, then somewhere else in India!?!

No, I’m just a flaky, fashionable vinyasa girl, home-grown in UK.

I’d like to think maybe my body has taken in some of my teacher’s careful alignment cues and that’s what he saw in me.

Who knows, it was an odd conversation.

6 thoughts on “Flirting with Iyengar

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  1. Wow! You’re going to Maida Vale. Outside of Pune, that is probably one of a handful of best places in the world for Iyengar instruction. Those guys are very formal. If you have any questions that you are afraid to ask, ask me and I’ll see if I can answer them for you to the best of my knowledge. I’m sure you will get first class instruction. Many blessings!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. ok so now you and fnyogi are making me really nervous! it’s only introductory classes I’m going to before we’re allowed to attend the beginner classes. I guess that counts as formal!
      It’s so very kind of you to offer some answers to my questions. Perhaps by email rather than in comments? you could reach me on if you were happy for a conversation.
      I don’t think I would have thought of exploring the iyengar tradition if it wasn’t for meeting you in your blog, and reading Sonia’s amazing experiences. Thank you — all! — for your inspiration and support x


  2. odd conversation indeed… sometime Iyengar yogis are such nerds! don’t be afraid of always asking anyways.. Just as Michael proposed I can try and help you figure out if you need 🙂
    BTW, who was this french teacher he meant?

    Liked by 2 people

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