types of yoga


The “yoga foot” has been much studied, taught, debated, and photographed. But what about the “yoga hand”?

trikonasanaA few weeks ago, I was practicing yoga with my friend Sharmeen. She observed one of my standing poses and suddenly asked, “Why are your fingers spread apart like that?”

Surprised, I exited the pose. “You mean like this?” Imagine fingers spread as if for Downward Dog.

Since my formative years, yoga-wise, in late 1990s, I’ve typically spread my fingers in open-hand poses such as Urdhva Hastasana, Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana, and the Virabhadrasana family. The one pose for which I prefer closed fingers is Garudasana.

We all know that the “yoga hand” is straight, unlike the hands in ballet or flamenco. But what about the fingers? We first consulted Light on Yoga. BKS Iyengar’s hands are vigorously straight and firm, with fingers pressed together.

yoga-awakening-the-inner-bodyI wanted a contemporary example. “Let’s check Donald’s book,” I said, referring to Donald Moyer’s Yoga: Awakening the Inner BodyI want to see the hands of the book’s female model, Candace Satlak, whose quiet elegance I’ve always admired.

Her fingers, too, are quite close together. Curious, I later skimmed other yoga books, including the following:

Regarding feet, rarely, if ever, do we deliberately press the toes together. We cultivate a mobile, agile, activated foot with toes spread. I’d assumed that we likewise benefit from spread-open palms and fingers, which struck me as stronger and full of life.

But, for the next few weeks, I tried keeping my fingers closed. I even instructed my students to try “fingers together” to one side of a pose and “fingers open” to the other. Does it make a difference? Does it change the pose? Does either feel more appropriate for you and your body?

IMG_1384To my surprise, I found myself liking “fingers together.” I appreciate the neat precision of fingers side by side. If I’m feeling scattered, this hand position reins me in. The orderliness in my hands somehow aligns my mind.

(To non-Iyengar yogis, hand shape might seem trivial. But hands (including wrists and fingers) reveal a lot. If students are struggling and trying not to show it, their tense, misshapen hands often expose their stress.)

What do you think? Is there an optimal “yoga hand”?

Images: BKS Iyengar, Trikonasana, zagyoga.net; Yoga: Awakening the Inner BodyRodmell Press; Tadasana, The Woman’s Book of Yoga & Health

TheraBandIn early September, I chanced upon the New York Times article, “Train Like a German Soccer Star,” by Gretchen Reynolds. After seven weeks abroad, I’d just returned to Vancouver, still gloriously sunny. Rather than resuming my pre-trip routine, I decided to try something new.

Check out the eight warm-up exercises developed by Mark Verstegen, team trainer for the German national football team, which won the 2014 World Cup, and founder of EXOS, a Phoenix-based athletic training company. I substituted this routine for my yoga practice two mornings a week. I ramped it up to a workout by increasing the number of repetitions and sets–and lengthening the distance covered when skipping and running.

FmRW_Quads-2__201110DD_122147The exercises were spot-on for me. For example, the first two use a six-inch-diameter foam roller, which I acquired a decade ago, but which has mostly collected dust. Finally, a reason to haul it out! The “Mini Band Walking” resembles a physiotherapy exercise once prescribed to me. Some remind me of yoga poses, such as “Inverted Hamstring,” which is essentially dynamic, repeated Virabhadrasana III. Up and down, up and down, up and down. Such repeated entries and exits (like kicking up to handstand five times fast) complement the long holds typical in Iyengar yoga.

The “Lateral Lunge to Drop Lunge” is trickier than it looks. Rising from the side lunge is akin to doing a one-legged, rotating squat. But the learning curve is quick (there are only eight exercises, after all), and body and mind benefit from unfamiliarity. Even the skipping and sprinting were mini revelations. While I’m comfortable with aerobic exercise (moderate, steady pace), I had to adjust to anaerobic exercise (heart-racing bursts rarely done if not a professional athlete or under 10 years old).

In Pune, doing more yoga seemed to further my practice. “More” can be effective. But, since September, has doing less yoga set me back? Not a lot. Variety and novelty can be just as rewarding.

Iyengar yogis who dabble in other methods

While mixing it up (with diverse activities) is good, what about mixing yoga methods?

DSC_0317_2I know dedicated Iyengar yoga students who also buy passes at non-Iyengar mega studios. One reason is what I’ll call forced practice. “I can’t seem to practice at home,” one practitioner told me. “This way, I do yoga several times a week. My body needs it.”

A related reason is cost. “A typical Iyengar class costs as much as an unlimited weekly pass,” said another. “So, I go to [Iyengar studio] once a week and to [mega studio] whenever I can. I don’t expect to be adjusted or corrected, but it’s better than nothing.”

“Why not just practice on your own?” I asked. “That would be free!” Again, the obstacle was discipline. “I don’t know why, but I’m resistant to practicing at home,” she sighed.

DSC_0304Other methods might strike Iyengar yoga students almost as “not yoga” and thus not be confusing or contradictory. One of my regular students revealed that she began attending Kundalini classes at her neighborhood studio to round out her running, Iyengar yoga, and mindfulness meditation. “It’s not yoga the way I understand it in Iyengar yoga,” she said, describing the music, dim lighting, and large group. “We might do something repeatedly, like wave our arms in a circle while humming. I don’t know why, but I get something else from it.”

There’s a limit to “multidisciplinary”

I don’t begrudge any yoga practitioner for exploring beyond their primary method. In my first few years of yoga practice, I was committed to Iyengar yoga (perhaps subconsciously) but I sampled Ashtanga, Yin, Jivamukti, and even a Bikram class or two! Firsthand knowledge about other methods provides context. How can you critique other methods if you haven’t tried them? To me, that is not fair, scientific, or open minded.

I do take issue with too much fusion teaching. In one of my first blog posts, Naming Names, I highlighted the trend among yoga teachers to name dozens of famous “mentors” and the gamut of yoga methods taught. Seriously? To me, there’s a limit to multidisciplinary expertise in any field. If a lawyer says, “I do corporate and M&A, plus estates and trusts, also class action litigation, with some pro bono appellate work for death-row convicts,” he’d be considered a joke. While there’s more overlap among methods of yoga than among areas of law, it’s similarly unrealistic to be a master at everything.

Related links:

Images: resistance bands, TheraBand; Quadriceps release, TheraBand Academy; blocks and ropes at The Yoga Space

Note: This post continues my “self interview” about RIMYI. Read Part I first.

IMG_0603Was the student population diverse?

Based on my unscientific observations during August 2014, the biggest contingent was from Italy. I met dozens of Italians and many British and French. I met a handful each from the US, Canada, and Japan, and others from Germany, Australia, Spain, Russia, Hungary, Hong Kong, Israel, Mexico, Singapore, Chile, Colombia, and South Africa. The Indian students were local, i.e., Indian citizens, mostly Pune residents.

In terms of race/ethnicity, the majority of foreigners were Caucasian. There were some Asians and Hispanics; I saw no blacks or people of African descent.

The gender ratio was relatively balanced, with about a 60/40 ratio between women/men. There were students of all ages, from 20s to 70s or 80s.

Are all classes taught in English?

Yes (with a dash of loud Marathi thrown at the locals).

After meeting some non-English-speaking Italians, I wondered, “What can you gain from RIMYI and Iyengar yoga without language compatibility?” The teachings are highly verbal.

In one class, Raya repeatedly voiced instructions to “pink shirt,” a woman adjacent to me. She didn’t comply until he walked up to her. “Does she speak English?” he asked, and a fellow Italian translated. “What’s the point of coming here if you can’t speak English?” Raya muttered, rhetorically.

(Prashant’s class, which hinges on his words, must be an ordeal for non-English speakers!)

IMG_0511

Week by week, do asana classes follow a progressive order?

No. Perhaps because the women’s classes were taught by three different teachers, each class was a separate entity. One day Rajlaxmi did repeated backbends (Urdhva Dhanurasana and Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana, pushing up from the floor). The next class focused on deep, seated forward bends. Overall (and to my disappointment) we did more forward bends than backbends–at least in the first two-and-a-half weeks of August.

Can I modify poses on my own? What if I can’t hold rope Sirsasana for 10 minutes?

In Prashant’s classes, there are always two or three poses going on simultaneously. You can always opt to repeat a pose. Prashant will bark out, “Now switch. Ladies, go to the ropes for Sirsasana.” But he ultimately doesn’t care which pose you do–if you are going deeper and deeper, further and further. Once, he commented that we could very well repeat the same pose, but he gives options because we’ve grown accustomed to the “workout” of a varied sequence.

In other classes, I wouldn’t modify poses with alternate props unless necessary. Of course, take care of yourself; you’re more or less on your own. (Note: don’t worry about super advanced poses or complicated set-ups: with 150 students, teachers stick to the basics.)

IMG_0930Did the teachings make sense? Did they confirm your existing understanding of Iyengar yoga?

Regarding “nuts and bolts” asana, the teachings closely paralleled my prior learning, from teachers in the US and Canada.

Contrasting Prashant’s teachings with the others’, I did ask myself: Are they contradictory? Prashant cares little about excellence in asana form; he instead prods us to cultivate breath sensitivity (and, ultimately, mind sensitivity). Once, he directed us into dynamic Urdhva Prasarita Padasana, “with the breath, by the breath, for the breath, through the breath, to the breath, from the breath…” How is the breath assisting the pose? How is it being assisted by the pose?

Then he commented, “Some of you are still striving for physical perfection. You are used to teachers who care about how you look. I don’t care. I’m not even looking.” Pause. “There’s not much to look at anyway.” (I really appreciated Prashant’s sense of humor.)

Going from his teachings to another class, in which people were corrected/adjusted/scolded for mediocre form, I wondered about the seeming contradiction. Here’s one way that I made sense of it:

For beginners, form is critical. Beginners must learn, step by step, the mechanics of the poses. Most beginners need a teacher. (Ultimately we are all beginners to some degree.)

For experienced students, the focus must eventually shift away from the body–at least with poses familiar and done proficiently. Here I agree with Prashant: this stage is inherently independent study and cannot be learned from a teacher (although it can be taught by a teacher).

Most of us need both types of teachings.

IMG_0609Did a month at RIMYI improve your yoga practice?

Before my trip, I’d heard people rave about Pune (even in recent years, well beyond the days of direct contact with BKS Iyengar): how intense it was, how hard they worked, how their poses opened in amazing ways.

I took such stories with a grain of salt. Regarding yoga, I’m pretty levelheaded. My practice is steady–in that I don’t do markedly “better” or “worse” based on setting or teacher. I didn’t go with expectations of breakthroughs and that type of thing.

To my surprise I did find my asana practice to be extra solid–due probably to the long practice sessions. Strangely, I found that I could consistently clasp in Marichyasana III; kick up into balancing Pincha Mayurasa; and, best of all, do Supta Padangusthasana with more ease (my hamstring injury was healing!).

If my practice improved simply from quantity, I could replicate that anywhere–in more inviting conditions. Wide open spaces! Ample wall space! Fresh air! No mosquitos! But, at home, I’m not a captive audience of my yoga practice.

While the women’s classes are more user-friendly than Prashant’s (partly because the teachers wear microphones), I found Prashant’s teachings a memorable departure from the norm. His teachings will stick with me. While he does repeat his message over and over, it’s a message I need to hear over and over. Am I exploring the breath? The mind? Am I stuck in the realm of the body? (While his message was constant, his clever imagery varied day by day. Stay tuned for more Prashant-isms!)

IMG_0932 Since flying home two weeks ago, my temporary life in Pune already feels distant–long ago, far away, a parallel world that words cannot quite describe. Once back, my mind switched to the here and now, the immediate stuff of life. Sooner than I probably realize, my memories of RIMYI and India will grow fuzzy, however vivid they once were. People will stop asking me about my trip; I’ll stop thinking about it. Time marches on.

So, before I forget, here’s a two-part post on “what it’s like” at RIMYI, dedicated to other first-timers. I’ll post the second half next week, so feel free to ask any burning questions before then.

What was your schedule at RIMYI?

  • Monday: 7-9am Prashant class; 9am-12pm practice; 5-6pm pranayama class
  • Tuesday: 7-9am Prashant class; 9am-12pm practice
  • Wednesday: 9:30-11:30am Gulnaaz/Abhijata class; 4-5:45pm practice
  • Thursday: 7-9am Prashant class; 9am-12pm practice
  • Friday: 9am-12pm practice
  • Saturday: 7-9am Prashant class (optional); 9:30-11:30am Rajlaxmi class; 4-5:45pm practice

I developed a habit of waking at 5am, either to my iPhone alarm or to roosters cock-a-doodle-dooing. That gave me enough time for tea and breakfast. If you want a prime spot in any class, arrive at least 20 minutes early. (Half the time I just missed that window, but still found a spot.) I juggled my schedule to try a few intermediate classes (geared for local Indian students) because I was curious to see other teachers, such as Raya.

IMG_0705Are classes doable if you have an injury?

Yes, if you take care of yourself. Those with injuries or special practices gather in a designated area, use the trestle for standing poses, etc. I went to Pune with a lingering hamstring strain, too minor to report, but needing extra care.

During my first class with Rajlaxmi, she taught standing poses, such as Trikonasana, without props. My block must’ve stood out. “Who’s block is that?” she demanded. (I took her silence after my one-sentence answer as permission to use it.)

Are there any poses that should be second nature before you go?

Strong inversions are essential. In Sirsasana poses, you’ll be surrounded (closer than usual) by others. And who knows how long you’ll hold headstands, so if you have any doubts, find a wall spot (quick!). Sarvangasana poses were not held too long, but in the teeming hall it’s like The Amazing Race to set up. Often the foam mats were gone by the time I elbowed my way to the front of the line. I actually preferred using my own blanket set-up, but at least one teacher (Rajlaxmi) disliked alternate set-ups. IMG_0704

Poses are often taught with few or no props, e.g. standing poses without blocks, forward bends without straps. One day, we did dropovers from Salamba Savangasana to Setu Bandha Sarvangasana–on a bare mat.

Finally, in Prashant’s classes, expect long holds in rope Sirsasana, either from ceiling ropes (about a dozen spots) or wall ropes (about half a dozen). If such holds are contraindicated, I would repeat the alternate pose(s) because it’s awkward to exit the pose before he calls time.

Do classmates really “steal” your props?

Yes. In a group numbering 120 to 150, it’s perhaps inevitable that props not obviously claimed are fair game. So, if you gather props for class or practice, place them within sight. Otherwise you might turn around and find nothing there!

Did you get dressed down?

No. (No one gets hit either, contrary to myths and legends about RIMYI.)  Prashant does yell if students dillydally (in his eyes). But it’s a momentary lashing, nothing personal. The next moment, he might make a wry joke. Early in the month, Prashant rattled off the options for our final pose. I heard “Setu Bandha” and set myself in the supported version using a block. Prashant, who was standing nearby, saw me. “No!” he said, loudly. “No Setu Bandha on a brick! I said Setu Bandha on a bench… or Janu Sirsasana, Viparita Karani, Chair Sarvangasana…”

Another time, I joined a group at the rope wall for a standing chest opener. To accommodate more users, each ring has two ropes attached. I erroneously grabbed a rope set (from two rings), thus inadvertently taking an extra spot. Prashant walked over, handed me the right pair, and said quietly, almost gently, “Hold these two.”

IMG_0498Any comments about the hall in general?

The hall is semi-circular, which means that there are no right angles and perpendicular lines. I often felt crooked because I couldn’t align myself the way I do in a square or rectangular room. Very disconcerting!

While most men wore shirts, some always went shirtless during practice. Considering the heat and/or humidity, I hated to imagine their blankets and bolsters soaking with sweat. How about if everyone wears shirts for hygiene and prop maintenance?

Was the restroom clean?

Believe it or not, not once did I set foot in the restroom. (Where is the restroom?) From 6:30am to noon, I didn’t leave the main hall. I managed my fluid intake and trained my body to need infrequent restroom breaks. Why? Well, it’s common knowledge that restrooms in India are less than immaculate, so I avoided public restrooms to the extent possible. At RIMYI, I could always walk to my apartment, a few minutes away, in a pinch.

Go to Part II

IMG_0930RIMYI is closed until September. No more classes for us August students. Suddenly, the purpose of my trip, yoga, was gone–at least in the way I’d expected.

At first I agreed to join my Canadian colleagues on a three-night trip to Ellora and Ajanta. That wasn’t my first inclination. I wanted still to practice daily, to be solitary, to go inward. I didn’t feel like embarking on a five-hour road trip twice in three days. I also wanted to head to Mumbai sooner, definitely before Ganesh Chaturthi. Still, I figured that I “should” go and see the caves.

On second thought, however, I forfeited my share of the vehicle fee–to do what I initially intended. I regretted not following my gut instincts.

Practicing, Prashant style

I was reminded of Prashant’s teachings of yoga practice. For him, yoga is all about going inward: body to breath, breath to mind. If your yoga is always in class, following a teacher, that is not “yog,” but just superficial physical exercise. “After class,” he says, “forget what the teacher says. In class, you don’t learn; you’re only taught what you must learn on your own.”

IMG_0933This was a good opportunity to practice in solitary confinement–to try to apply Prasant’s ideas. But did I really want to spend a few days in Pune? Back home in Kitsilano, home confinement would be a joy. Space, light, clean air and water, leafy sidewalks, crosswalks and cars that stop! Here, there are power outages for hours at a time. (Without lights, fans, and wifi, life in my cavernous apartment is rather grim.) And don’t get me started on the noise.

But it felt right to stay. In my mind, Prashant’s admonition to cultivate our own understanding of yoga applies to life in general. Don’t do what seems normal and sensible, but rather what’s right for me.

Readjusting to practice

During the first half of August, I’d established an early routine: wake by 5am, sleep by 9:30pm (10pm was late!). When RIMYI closed, my schedule was thrown off. I tried to practice for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. But without a set schedule, it’s been hit or miss.

IMG_0923I miss the open practice time. Yes, it was mat-to-mat crowded, but I almost always got my favorite spot, at the first or second pillar from the props. (If Mr Iyengar had been practicing by the trestle, I would have opted for the farther second pillar, of course!) I’d practice for two or more hours, covering a variety of poses and always including Supta Padangusthasana variations and Pincha Mayurasana balance.

It was clear that serious Iyengar yogis do independent practice, for everyone was focused on his/her work. Poses were wide ranging, but they all somehow rang out “Iyengar yoga,” if you know what I mean.

At home I’m still practicing, but due to my shopping and sightseeing outings with Nana, the gallant English-speaking rickshaw driver loved by Canadians and Americans, my schedule has been erratic. Again, India is forcing me to accept change, to catch time and space when I can, and to “adjust.”

A flame burns at RIMYI

There are no classes, but the office and bookstore are open. In the morning, I stopped by, chatted with Raya’s father in the bookstore, and then walked upstairs into the hall. It was still and silent, the scent of incense in the air. On the stage, a small shrine featured a large photo of Mr Iyengar, along with flowers, incense, traditional objects unfamiliar to me, and a glowing lantern.

IMG_0932Foam mats were laid out for visitors. Usha Devi was sitting by a pillar; a few students came to pay respects and left. I sat on a mat for a while. The hall felt familiar, although I’d never seen it so empty, so serene.

Late in the day, I stopped by again to see the basement library, site of legendary encounters with Mr Iyengar. Until today I hadn’t ventured there, somewhat deterred by puddles of water from leakage on the stairway. Today I forged ahead. It was closed, but the librarian let me look around.

Hundreds, even thousands, of books and reams of printed matter. It’s a small, simple space, with a long table for visitors, plus a desk and chair, which I assume was where Mr Iyengar spent hours.

Upstairs in the hall, Usha Devi was again there–or still there–tending the shrine. Again I sat in the empty hall, breathing the incense, taking it in.

Guruji_nov2012Walking toward RIMYI just after noon, I saw a crowd blocking the street. Just outside the gate, an ambulance was parked. Soon I heard chanting, and five or six men, draped in white cloth, came carrying the body of BKS Iyengar, adorned with flowers, high on a stretcher.

I went alone, not knowing what to expect. Suddenly I was swept along with seven Brits, riding to the cremation ground in an Iyengar family friend’s spacious, air-conditioned SUV. I’m still amazed at this man’s generosity: inviting eight strangers to squeeze into his VIP vehicle. (We had to catch rickshaws back; he had to transport Prashant.)

Hindu funeral rites are very unfamiliar to Western eyes. I couldn’t see much, standing behind dozens of others. Some were holding camera or cell phones above their heads. I, too, wanted to memorialize the day, but couldn’t bring myself to take pictures.

Besides, I won’t forget the informal gathering, so unlike the hushed, orderly funerals that I’ve attended. Within the family circle, rituals are sacred and specific, while the larger gathering is spontaneous and open to the public. Traditionally women aren’t permitted to attend the ceremony, but Geeta apparently modified this rule.

The cremation ground was simple and exemplified Pune: open air, cement and dirt, covered by a corrugated metal roof. Where I was standing, there were several pyre pits, some still ashy, in a row–and we had to be careful not to fall in.

It was witheringly humid, the air so damp that I was dripping just standing there. The crowd, comprising a mix of locals and visiting students, was large, but modest for a man of Mr Iyengar’s stature. That’s perhaps due to the immediacy of Hindu cremation; those from afar can’t make it on time.

When the pyre was lit, the smell of smoke filled the covered structure–another unforgettable experience that cannot be captured on film. Eventually Geeta, dressed in white, was helped out by teachers Raya and Uday and then her sisters, wearing colors. The fire burned bigger and brighter, by the time the crowd was dispersing.

I rode a rickshaw home with a familiar Italian classmate I’ll call Stefano. Before his first trip to RIMYI, his father, who had a wild white mane just like Mr Iyengar, passed away. When Stefano first arrived, he saw Mr Iyengar from the back. When he turned around, Stefano saw his father in Mr Iyengar.

He commented that I’m lucky: to have seen Mr Iyengar alive; to be here on his death. “It’s synchronicity,” he said. “It’s once in a lifetime, to see this celebration.” He repeatedly called the funeral a “celebration”; I wondered if he meant “ceremony.” But maybe it was intentional.

Maybe I am lucky. Of course, I still wish that I’d come to Pune sooner. Why wait? A day’s delay turns to weeks, months, and years. Time flies. Even 95 years.

IMG_0703In August 2012, I was chatting with a few friends about travel. Where are we going? Where do we want to go? I mentioned that I hope to go to India while BKS Iyengar is still alive.

“How old is he?” Doug asked.

“Ninety-four in December,” I said.

When I explained the application process, which entails a waiting time of up to two years, Doug said, “Shouldn’t you be applying now?”

His mom is elderly, and he knew I had no time to spare.

IMG_0739Two years later, I finally made it here. And I might be unlucky in my timing. Mr Iyengar recently took ill, and he hasn’t been well enough to practice in the hall. In today’s Times of India, I read that he was hospitalized this week. See here for another article.

Earlier in August, I was lucky enough to see Mr Iyengar a couple times. Exiting the institute around noon, we’d immediately notice him sitting on his front porch, directly facing the institute. Abhijata Sridhar, his granddaughter, would sit beside him. Some students approached with a bow and namaste; a few prostrated themselves and touched the ground below him. Most politely gave him space and privacy.

IMG_0700Yesterday Abhijata taught the Wednesday women’s class, which is packed to the rafters since men are allowed to attend. With great energy and clarity, she led the class through basic poses–Tadasana, Sirsasana, Trikonasana, Ardha Chandrasana–that suddenly demanded full attention. I found her remarkably poised and articulate; nothing fazes her. She is commanding without arrogance. Her teachings combine precise asana instructions with straightforward yoga philosophy, and they are peppered with anecdotes of her grandfather.

She initially asked, “Did you come here to learn, or did you come here to do?” It’s an excellent question to ask yourself before any class.

Later, before Sirsasana, she talked about doing asana with sensitivity. About eight years ago, she set a timer for her headstand, aiming to hold the pose for 20+ minutes. The first few minutes were easy, and then one thing or another began hurting. As the minutes ticked by, she felt sweaty, itchy, and distracted, but forced herself to continue. At 20 minutes she came down and proudly announced her feat to her grandfather.

IMG_0702He asked, “What did you do in the pose?”

She had no answer. “I was just doing the pose. I was doing… nothing in the pose.”

“Then you wasted your time,” he said.

We then rose into our own Sirsasana, which we held for almost 11 minutes!

With neither Mr Iyengar nor Geeta around, I can’t help wishing I’d applied sooner. But some of the other teachers, such as Gulnaaz Dashti, are excellent. And if Abhijata is the next generation, Iyengar yoga has a promising future.

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