On a recent trip to the Bay Area, I visited the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco (IYISF) for the first time. Tucked in a nondescript building at Taraval and 27th Avenue in the sleepy Sunset District, it’s the headquarters for formal Iyengar yoga study in Northern California. It’s also a troubled and financially strapped organization, perhaps due to its affiliation with (and control by) the Iyengar Yoga Association of Northern California (IYANC).
The Institute’s summer special, five classes for $55, gave me the opportunity to try a bunch of their teachers. My favorite turned out to be a fellow who is leaving IYISF after 20 years, due to clashes with the IYANC board of directors and, it seems, lack of cohesion among the faculty.
The journalist in me was curious about the power struggles and inside scoops but ultimately I preferred to ignore it. Same with yoga gossip, yoga celebrities, yoga fashion… Amusing diversions, but only for a moment. Focus on the yoga.
It was fascinating to meet four different teachers in the span of a workweek. Why does one teacher stand out, while another grate on my nerves? You might think that those trained in the same method (especially one so structured as the Iyengar system) would teach similarly. Not true. Much of teaching is personality.
Tall and ascetically lean, with ponytailed long hair, Joe Naudzunas has strong opinions and a slightly exasperated (is that mock exasperation?) demeanor. He calls people on their errors and might seem rather severe if not for his dry humor and personal storytelling. His students seem quite deferential; I heard back talk and few questions in the two classes that I attended; it is obvious that his students were loyal and earnest learners. Naudzunas’s voice sounds oddly robotic at first, especially his oms and invocation to Patanjali, but it grew less so during class.
I quickly knew that I could learn a thing or two from this teacher. He is a straight talker, spouting no trite yogic platitudes but real-life anecdotes and real wisdom. I like the way he weaves philosophy into his asana teaching. His corrections are opinionated and picky, but that’s Iyengar yoga for you. He is fair; no one is singled out or harangued. I have always preferred strict teachers to accommodating ones; their own high standards have tended to raise my own.
Here are some interesting Naudzunas points:
- If your form is off, question why your body is acting that way; don’t just follow the instruction blindly. If your leg is externally rotating in three-legged dog and your teacher corrects you, analyze why your leg moves that way.
- The question is not “what should I be doing?” but “what am I doing?” Most students can describe a correct pose. That’s the easy part. The hard part is to be conscious of what you are actually doing.
- While doing an asana, your internal state is as important as your external; if you can do a perfect handstand but you are grimacing or distracted or angry inside, that is not yoga; that is calisthenics.
- Keep your body (your joints, your cartilage, your tendons and ligaments) clean and smoothly functioning at all times. You can do a big housecleaning every so often, or you can be efficient and keep things clean all the time. (Same with your closets or your car.)
NOTE: IYISF has an excellent in-store and online yoga bookstore.
For other books, try this North Beach legend. Say no to Amazon, otherwise they’ll all go the way of Berkeley’s iconic Black Oak Books, which now operates only an online presence.