types of yoga

Students seem either to be enthralled by Prashant Iyengar‘s manner of teaching–or not to relate to it. Either way, his classes are memorable because they are unique.

IMG_0508After four classes with Prashant in one week, I’ve found them both compelling and frustrating. I’m compelled by his attempt to go beyond asana: Prashant is trying to teach us why we do yoga, not how to do asana. A charismatic speaker, he has an impressive facility with the English language. To make a point, he uses imagery, analogy, simile, or metaphor. He can speak intelligently, off the top of his head, for hours (literally).

He often wraps up his points with a rapid-fire, “Do you follow?” But it’s a rhetorical question–and no one dares interrupt his flow of ideas. He does has a sense of humor, lightening the mood with a funny example (often involving his local students) or an amused expression.

That said, it can be frustrating to be crammed into a space with 150 or more students. If you’re not in front, Prashant’s low voice is hard to hear, especially when he names poses. He’ll call out two to four poses, and students pick one to do. Then we switch. If we’re the least bit slow in setting up, he booms, “Quick!” but otherwise external asana form is unimportant to him. It’s a madhouse as students scramble to find a spot. There’s no such thing as “my spot” or “my mat” (or my American-sized zone of personal space!)

prashantiji_prayersIn the first two or three classes, he focused on “what is taught” versus “what is learned.” What a student learns might not be what the teacher intends to teach. Further, even if a student learns what is intended, that learning is superficial, only a first step. In-class learning is to learn what we should be learning.

Once, he discussed why people do asana. Often it’s done for display or performance, to improve health or to cure medical conditions. These are not the right reasons. It is not done in front of a mirror; it is not a gym sport.

Regarding physical benefits, asana will improve your health regardless of whether you focus on it–so why make this the main goal? Medical reasons are also suspect; as soon as you solve one issue, another will crop up.

You can do asana for 10, 20, or 50 years (for the above reasons) and never go beyond. In asana you must go toward “becoming in being.”

Before the first 9am-12pm open practice, which follows his 7-9am class, he commented on what people do: Some start doing one pose (for example, twists) and then see another person doing (say, chair back arch). They then decide that they should do chair back arch. They’re like a child with a toy basket: all of the toys are outside the basket, and the child is playing with none of them.

During the practice that immediately followed, I noticed six or seven students adjacent to me–since they had formed a circle and were doing group practice. Everyone in Baddhakonasana, everyone in Upavistha Konasana, everyone in Vamadevasana prep. The next day, same thing. Picture the whole group in Eka Pada Sirsasana, their legs splayed like those of synchronized swimmers. I was surprised; Prashant’s ideas can be complex, but one thread–to do asana from within–was clear. (Maybe there was a language barrier since the students, with whom I later chatted, are from Italy. Or perhaps they cannot override their Italian sociability!)

Maybe Prashant’s ideas would sink in better in smaller groups, where there could be more interaction. Or maybe what he’s trying to teach ultimately can’t be taught.

Recommended reading: Interview with Prashant Iyengar, 2010, by Bobby Clennell and Richard Jonas

Image: Prashant Iyengar, IYNAUS

Prashant’s classes always leave me with indelible images. I jot them down at home, hours later. I know full well that recording any class is prohibited, so bear in mind that the following paraphrased statements are my interpretations.

  • Don’t do asana strictly for the body. Think of a fountain pen. Now, if there’s a fountain pen made of gold or covered with diamonds, suddenly it is not a pen anymore; it’s something else. In asana, if you go beyond the body, it also becomes about something else.
  • In a group, if there’s one person who works hard, sometimes the others will react by doing less. But sometimes, in the presence of hard-working person, the others follow and do more. This is the result of leadership. A good leader causes everyone to work better. In asana, the leader is the breath.
  • There are many reasons why people take a cup of tea. In the morning the reason is clear but during the rest of the day, there are many reasons: waste time, be social, procrastinate, avoid doing what you should be doing. In asana, there are also many reasons how and why people do it. Don’t assume that the way it’s taught in class is the only way. Don’t think that any reason is a good reason.
  • Yoga has become about teaching. Why is there certification for teachers, but no certification for students?
  • Don’t judge your asana on how well you can do a pose, but on how well you understand a pose. If you can do a pose, but have no understanding, that’s not yoga.
  • Each asana is a book. Ask: what is this book trying to teach?
  • If you put milk in a churn and stir it, you will definitely get butter. The quality depends on the milk you put in. In yoga, simply by practicing, simply by doing, you will likewise be transformed. But the quality also depends on the raw material, on what you bring to it.
  • Asana, if done only at the body level, is anti-yoga. You must first learn anti-yoga to learn yoga. Once you see that asana is anti-yoga, you can learn true yoga.

Class after class, I collect more gems. It’s almost too much. For me, one Prashant class is sufficient for a week’s contemplation (and we’re all enrolled in three or four Prashant classes per week). The fountain pen, the cup of tea, the book… might occupy me for months!

IMG_0427 I was curious to attend a class at the Iyengar Yogashraya in Lower Parel, Mumbai. So I ventured there last Monday for the 10:30am class. I had no idea who the teacher would be. (The webpage is spartan, with no teachers, levels, or prices listed.) Located on a busy street, the place is old and unfancy, but fully equipped, typical of an Iyengar studio.

The teacher was Amrish Mody, a middle-aged man with upright posture, fatherly authority, and a round belly. Students lined up along the two rope walls, some arriving well after class started and filling the gaps. There were 21 women and five men, a ratio similar to that in North America. Based on appearance, three of us were foreigners.

Classes are taught in English, so it was no problem following his instructions. I felt as if I were in familiar territory, such is the consistency of the teachings. Also, while Mr Mody expected full attention, he was not harsh, but even-tempered and approachable.

He focused on opening the body for pranayama, less the breathing techniques and more on the fundamental stability and openness in the body. Here’s a rundown of the main poses in his sequence:

  • Tadasana
  • Uttanasana in one rope
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana in one rope
  • Trikonasana
  • Supta Baddhakonasana, strapped pelvis and feet, legs unpropped
  • Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana in chair, crown supported
  • Pranayama and Savasana on low bolster

The poses were held long and fully explored. In Supta Baddhakonasana, he made it a point to demo the entry, abdomen deflating. He advised against grounding the legs, even if doable, if that would compromise the soft abdomen. “Don’t do the pose from your flexibility,” he said, instead making us raise our Baddhakonsana legs slightly

Ample time was reserved for Savasana. He showed us how to enter: lie down, activate legs (as in Tadasana and Sirsasana, which he noted are the akin to Savasana) and then let them roll open and slide apart only slightly. For contrast he splayed his legs wide and collapsed his body: “this is not Savasana, this is sleeping.” He then talked us through pranayama breath observation.

I felt good after the class. It was grounding rather than dynamic, and it was just what I needed. I paid 150 rupees (about US$2.45) for the class.

What do yoga teachers earn in Mumbai? My tour guide, Hemali, told me that she does private lessons with a young teacher twice a week. He was scouted in his home state of Uttar Pradesh, moved to Mumbai, and works for his sponsor at gyms and in private homes. Because he is poor, he lives way outside the city, waking at 4am to commute in and returning home past midnight. His fee for privates is US$10 per hour, and most of his earnings goes to his sponsor.

Maximum CityIn late February, I got the green light to go to Pune in August. (Among Iyengar yogis, “going to Pune” means going to study at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.) Five months to prepare. To me, this meant buying Lonely Planet India, finding an apartment in Pune, booking flights, getting vaccinations, avoiding injury, and reading up on India.

Five months is enough time to do it all–except the reading.

While I’m going to Pune primarily for yoga, I have a hunch that the Pune experience encompasses more than classes at the institute. I’ve never traveled to India, and I suspect that my yogic challenges will go beyond 10-minute headstands–and test my adaptability to a society starkly different from what I know.

Perhaps because I’m a travel writer, my instincts tell me to be independent, to avoid tourist stereotypes, to know something about my destination. I can’t help recalling my first job, waitressing one summer in my Hilo hometown, when a tourist complained, “Why are there so many Asians here? I didn’t expect this.” Surely he appreciated Hawaii’s beaches and sunshine; but he was clueless about Hawaii’s plantation history and culture. That type of tourist sees only the obvious, overlooking the reality of a place. I don’t want to be that type of tourist.

Since February, here’s what I’ve read:

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity Katherine Boo This New Yorker writer follows the lives of several residents in Annawadi, a slum near the airport. Published in 2012, this is a consummate piece of journalism, written in a gripping, novelistic style. Couldn’t put it down!

The Age of Kali, William Dalrymple Researched throughout the 1990s, published in 1998, this set of essays introduced me to the caste struggles, political posturing, and irreversible changes of post-Partition India. Dalrymple, a British historian and writer, takes the reader around the subcontinent, presenting glimpses of its wildly varied regions. The best type of travel writing.

Ladies Coupe, Anita Nair I borrowed this 2004 paperback novel a friend who bought it in India. It’s well-done pop fiction, some might call it chick lit. Initially skeptical, I enjoyed this portrait of five women, strangers to one another, who share a train compartment and their life stories. A contemporary look at the social conventions expected of women–in India and everywhere.

Tales from Firozsha BaagTales of Firozsha Baag, Rohinton Mistry I read this 1987 collection of related short stories about 10 years ago. Rereading it, I was  even more impressed. Set in a middle-class Parsi neighborhood in Mumbai, the stories trace the lives of several characters, including a boy who, like Mistry, fulfills the ultimate dream of moving abroad, to London, to New York, or, in his case, to Toronto. A great read.

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta Mehta lived in Bombay until 1977, when he was about 14, left for two decades, and then returned for two years in the late 1990s. His 2004 account of that return combines memoir, investigative journalism, travel writing, and history. Through his eyes and ears, we go behind the scenes in Mumbai, glimpsing the world of gangsters, cops, dancing bar girls, Bollywood, and a Jain family that renounces their worldly lives. Very memorable to me are his mini essays, “Country of the No” and “Adjust,” both which seize on Indian personality quirks from an insider’s point of view. A must if traveling to Bombay/Mumbai.

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri Set in 1960s Calcutta and in Rhode Island, this 2013 novel of two brothers and their intertwined lives is a page turner. Based on her first two books, I’ve considered Lahiri a better short-story writer than novelist, but here I found the characters emotionally convincing. As in the prior two books listed, this novel deals with Indian protagonists who leave the country–and must somehow negotiate between worlds old and new.

An Area of DarknessI’m now reading An Area of Darkness, VS Naipaul, published in 1964 and masterfully written. I’ve had to stop and reread sentences and paragraphs: they are perfect. As an Indian who grew up in Trinidad, he is neither an insider nor an outsider; perhaps this gave him an ideal perspective for sharp, objective, heartfelt observations.

These books span some fifty years, covering different eras and giving me context. No one book can apply to all of India (or all of Mumbai or all of any group).

On my reading list:

  • A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
  • Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  • Calcutta, Amit Chaudhuri
  • Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure, Sarah Macdonald
  • Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

Acknowledgment: Thanks to K Yarker for excellent advice on books and India. A true adventurer, she traveled solo around India for one year.

MG23_520x400A few months ago, one of my original yoga teachers, Donald Moyer, observed my Tadasana. Under his scrutiny, I tried extra hard to perfect my pose. To my surprise, he said, “You’re tucking your pelvis.”

What? If left to its own devices, my body is overly mobile in the lumbar spine. I am a natural pelvic “tilter.” I typically get corrected for too much anterior tilt. Was I overcorrecting?

Donald observed that I was clenching the gluteus maximus, i.e., buttocks, and the external hip rotators. He advised me to soften and spread instead–to correct excess tilt by lifting through the anterior vertebrae. (An aside: “buttocks” must be among the top 10 most frequently used words in any given Iyengar yoga class, don’t you think?)

Since then I’ve changed the way I align my pelvis–by lifting through the core, not by contracting the large, strong hip muscles. Here are a few actions that work for me:

  • Scoop the navel in and up
  • Slide the anterior face of the sacrum up
  • Raise the front hip bones (ASIS)
  • Pull the crown of the head up, as if hanging from it
  • Draw the shield of L5 in and up (Caveat: don’t try this unless you’re in a class with Donald Moyer)

While I’m correcting my pelvic tilt with a lighter touch now, body workers (such as massage therapists) sometimes still advise me to let my sacrum tilt more. Hmm…

A few thoughts: In poses that instigate lumbar overarching (such as Bhujangasana), I must continue to elongate the lumbar spine and, yes, firmly roll the buttocks down. But in neutral poses such as Tadasana, I should relax the glutes, lift through the core, and be less wary of my natural pelvic tilt.

Image: Kikkerland

Last month, I stumbled upon a yoga presentation by Patricia Walden on her 60th birthday. Wow. Her backbends are awesome and need no comment. But it got me thinking about yoga videos, performances, and “demonstrations.”

Bear in mind, I’m talking not about instructional videos. I’m focusing on displays done silently or, more likely, accompanied by music. Some are professionally shot, such as the Briohny Smyth video for Equinox that went viral. Most are self-shot videos posted on websites, on Facebook, on YouTube–followed by lots of likes and “you go, girl!” type comments.

DSC_0315What is the point of yoga displays? To inspire? To share? To instruct without instructions? To advertise? To embrace the new media age? To claim a few Warholian minutes of fame?

I’m not against such videos as a rule, but I wonder if and how they sync with yoga philosophy. How is showcasing oneself congruent with loss of ego? Instructional videos are one thing, but pure performance?

That said, I was unbothered by Patricia Walden’s backbend show (and the ensuing video), perhaps because it was done for a reason, her birthday celebration. Or perhaps because the grainy video was obviously not uploaded for fame or an ego boost. (As a senior-level teacher, among BKS Iyengar’s foremost students, already world famous through her Gaiam videos and long career, she doesn’t need to promote herself.)

Generally, yoga videos are uncommon among Iyengar yogis, who tend to be less “out there” in the way they practice. Once, I complimented Yves, an Iyengar yoga teacher based in Austin, on the elegantly shot portraits on his website. He thanked me almost apologetically, mentioning the need to do some Internet publicity nowadays. I could relate to his dilemma. Creating an Internet presence is expected, but it can feel awkward and showy.

DSC_0317_2Actually, BKS Iyengar himself was a big proponent of the yoga “demonstration.” In his day, yoga was esoteric and he performed in Europe and elsewhere to introduce the practice to non-yogis. Then and now, people are generally first drawn to yoga by its physical feats.

Maybe, simply by seeing a pose, people learn. After all, a good visual can be more effective than words to guide one into a pose. Watching BKS Iyengar practicing (at any age) and Patricia Walden dropping back (and standing up) changes us, doesn’t it?

DSC_0304Perhaps my reaction to yoga performances depends on the practitioner’s attitude (or my perception of their attitude). A few years ago, I taught at a general studio (mostly power/flow yoga); I was the only Iyengar yoga teacher there. When leaving, I’d sometimes see the next teacher doing handstands in the middle of the room before starting his class. It was a large drop-in class of casual students not ready for handstand balance. Why demonstrate a pose you’re not teaching? What was the point of that pre-class performance?

It is a tricky subject. I know serious, deep practitioners who have also performed yoga in a dance troupe. I also know professional dancers who prefer to keep their dance (public/outward) separate from their yoga (private/inward). What about yoga competitions? While much criticized as antithetical to the crux of yoga philosophy, proponents say that being judged onstage motivates them to dig deeper and to develop courage, poise, and other positive traits

I have one general conclusion: We cannot let ourselves get too fixated on asana, the bodily aspect of yoga.  Asana was my introduction to yoga and I love it! But a video or photo or demo cannot quite capture the invisible aspects of yoga.

urdhva-mukha-svanasanaEver been injured in a yoga class? Chances are, we’ve all felt a twinge in one class or another. So, who’s at fault? The teacher? The student? Or are occasional tweaks simply part of being active and exploring our limits?

Since William Broad began writing about yoga injuries in the New York Times, most fingers have been pointed at unqualified yoga teachers. Michaelle Edwards, founder of YogAlign, goes further, claiming that yoga injuries are prevalent because many poses are anatomically incompatible with the human body. This is a complex issue, too long for a blog post. A few thoughts for starters:

utthita-trikonasanaPain versus strong sensation

In February, a few weeks into winter session, a new student politely told me, “Last week my back hurt the day after class.”

What?! “How long did it hurt?” I asked her. “Did you feel pain during class?” I couldn’t imagine any intro poses injuring this healthy 20-year-old university student.

It turned out that her muscles were temporarily sore from holding an upright posture instead of her habitual slouch. Sometimes beginners mistake post-class “delayed onset muscle soreness” for injury. Or, during class, they stop as soon as lactic acid builds up. Over time, they must learn to distinguish between injurious pain and strong sensation, which is essential to progress.

parivrtta-parsva-konasanaAccidents happen

Experienced students are probably more likely to sustain injuries since they do trickier poses, including deep backbends and long inversions. Interestingly, among Iyengar yoga students anyway, longtime practitioners are less likely (I’d say unlikely) to “blame” the teacher.

Once, a decades-long student broke her humerus doing a strapped version of Parivrtta Parsvakonasana in a class taught by a highly respected senior teacher who knew her well. “I toppled over,” she said, shrugging and smiling. Not once did she imply that the teacher was at fault. Clearly her bone density must have been compromised, and she knew it.

Her injury was unexpectedly severe, but anyone can strain a muscle going too far or holding too long. The question is whether the teacher’s instructions were… reasonable.

Reasonable person standard

One of the few things I remember from law school is the “reasonable person standard,” a common law doctrine that determines negligence. Legendary US District Court Judge Learned Hand wrote that one’s duty to prevent injury is a function of three variables (paraphrased big-time here):

  • Is it likely that an accident will happen?
  • How serious would the resulting injury be?
  • What is the cost/burden of taking adequate precautions?

Applied to yoga, we might ask whether a teacher acted according to a “reasonable yoga teacher standard” (or a “reasonable Iyengar yoga teacher standard”).

If I teach Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), is it likely that students will hurt themselves? If they do, how serious would their injuries be? What could I do to prevent such injuries? Here, the answer is clear: Most would hyper-flex their necks doing perpendicular shoulderstands on the floor. That would cause major damage. The precaution is the classic modification: Use a stack of blankets to raise shoulders and protect cervical vertebrae.

parsvottanasanaVerbal versus manual correction

The issue of fault is slipperier when there is “touching” involved. It’s one thing verbally to direct a student to twist further or bend lower. It’s another thing altogether manually to push a student deeper.

Recently a yoga colleague (also a teacher) injured a wrist when a well-regarded yoga teacher adjusted her hands in Paschima Namaskarasana in Parsvottanasana during a workshop that I also attended. It was a “big adjustment” that sent shooting pain along her outer wrist; months later she was still in distress and seeing an orthopedic surgeon. She noted that the teacher was unaware of her shoulder restriction on that side–and thus didn’t blame the teacher.

Was that a reasonable adjustment? Was it likely that a student might be vulnerable? What was the potential for major injury? How else could a teacher guide a student into a deeper pose?

Personally I’ve always appreciated hands-on adjustments, perhaps because my original teachers were firm yet careful in their touch. I’ve heard of the life-changing, forceful adjustments that BKS Iyengar would give: a sharp prod, a hard slap. Well, all I can say is that most teachers should not try those.

parivrittijanusirsasana-backBe in charge of your body

Ultimately we are in charge of our own bodies. Years ago, one of my first teachers, Mary Lou Weprin, instructed me to do something, say, straighten my leg or turn my ribcage. I complied with such alacrity that Mary Lou said, “Whoa, slow down. Don’t move so fast.”

She warned that I might hurt myself; I should check in with my body, from the inside, not instantly jump to perform a teacher’s instructions. That stuck with me. When we step into a yoga class, we must accept responsibility for our bodies.While a huge manual adjustment might take us by surprise, we can certainly avoid causing harm ourselves.

Images: Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff

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