The Iyengar method is rigid … not!

Those unfamiliar with Iyengar yoga often assume that the method is rigid. At the micro level, they’re somewhat right. In Iyengar yoga, precise form is essential. Initially this form is physical, from head to toe. But, over time, ideal physical form works with the breath to affect your physiological, mental, and spiritual state.

So, an Iyengar teacher is guaranteed to nail you for floppy arms, lazy arches, collapsed chests, and the list goes on (and on). You might think you’re in a deep backbend but, no, an Iyengar teacher will notice that you’re relying too much on that overly bend-y lumbar spine of yours. Analyzed pose by pose, Iyengar yoga might be considered rigid by some.

But, at the macro level, analyzed class by class, Iyengar yoga is remarkably dynamic. Teachers almost never repeat the same class sequence. I cannot recall my longtime teachers ever teaching the same class twice. Ever. Sometimes I even want them exactly to repeat a class, but they never do. They might repeat the same theme (such as hip opening or an advanced family of poses) but their sequences evolve. They’re always exploring and experimenting, and they revise on the fly, to accommodate the students at hand.

Ironically, vinyasa/flow classes (or generic “hatha” classes, discussed in a prior post) seem more rigid than Iyengar classes. Pose-by-pose alignment is certainly less strict, giving the impression of freedom and an “ahh” quality. I occasionally enjoy such classes, which build body heat with constant movement (and allow me to zone out, which is not a bad thing). The constantly moving sequences seem dance-like, loose, and liberating.

But most vinyasa/flow sequences also remind me of prepared speeches. Teachers whip out an iPod player, set the mood with Putamayo instrumentals, and then monologue for an hour. In such classes, there is no improvisation, nary a question asked, absolutely no interruptions. Rigid? Not intentionally. But classes are fixed by default.

(Note: Bikram classes are off-the-scale in rigidity. Teachers call out the same set of poses, forbidden from veering off the menu even if they were inclined to do so. They can merely say, “Change!” and students jump. A bold kindergartener could run a Bikram class.)

Iyengar teachers, by the nature of the method, must deal with unpredictability, a real give-and-take with students. It’s a juggling act: they’re teaching a prepared themed sequence, revising on the fly, demonstrating to (and on) students, answering questions, recommending modifications, directing students of varying levels. Unless they have a group of students eerily docile and flawless in form, they cannot follow a set routine.

Pardon the rant in defense of Iyengar yoga. I truly appreciate all methods and constantly try new classes, studios, and the gamut of teachers. I discovered yoga at a university gym, where I met my first mentor (who blended Iyengar fundamentals with Ashtanga vigor in an appealingly straightforward, un-New-Age-y style), so I have no uppityness about the “right” place for yoga. But, among the major lineages, Iyengar yoga is the one least known to the general public (even Anusara Yoga, created by Iyengar disciple John Friend, is rising as the go-to method for alignment), when it might be the most universally doable form.

10 thoughts on “The Iyengar method is rigid … not!

  1. Thanks for this overview, Yogaspy. I enjoy learning more about every type of Yoga, and your blog helps me a lot.

    For what it’s worth, I thought your explanation is far better reasoned and persuasive than the video. You explain why it’s good for you, whereas John seems to be mostly focused on establishing his authority based, based on an almost legalistic theory of contract.

    As a thinking person, I like your approach better. Harsh is “do it because I’m the boss” = John’s approach. More effective for adults and less harsh is “Here’s why it’s better to do it this way.” I imagine both of these are acceptable in Iyengar.

    Bob Weisenberg

  2. I’m in agreement with Bob here. I took classes with John and found him an arrogant bore who thrives on an ego driven legacy of practice with BKS. The guy is a wasted blow hard who enjoys having an entourage around him as they sat nam before him. Interesting to see him in the video all self righteous while I experienced him abusing students in my classes. John is an idiot who really should have a day job to see what the rest of us go thought day by day and try to find some peace in yoga.

  3. Gee, YogaDawg. Why can’t you just skip all the pleasantries and tell us how you really feel?

    I want to make it clear that I was only commenting on the video above, and have personally had no other contact with John.

    Bob W.

  4. Having tried a lot of styles of yoga, included Iyengar, it’s been my experience that the teacher tends to be more important, in terms of tone, rigidity, etc., than the nominal style. (Bikram, which I’ve never tried, might be an exception to that, though the impression I get from people I know who do it is that the infamous drill sergeant approach is far from universal). Currently, I attend classes with a number of teachers, some of whom are quite strict about alignment, which is useful, while others aren’t, which provides a very different, as you say liberating, experience. Overall, I like the combination of different approaches…

  5. If you’d like to see the lighter side of Iyengar teachers (this always reminds me of the old Sears commercials), I recommend taking a workshop with George Purvis. You’ll not only learn alignment and all that good stuff, but you’ll laugh ’till your stomach hurts.

  6. First, while I have not taken a class from an “Iyengar Instructor”, I have taken classes from instructors who teach in the Iyengar tradition. I can see how the lineage would come across as both rigid, and yet, flexible. I experience the same thing as yoga spy – where I was craving a class that repeated a particular instruction just because it resonated with me.

    I practice and lead classes in vinyasa and Ashtanga, and I would actually add Ashtanga right up there with Bikram classes for rigidity – especially any Ashtanga session taught in the pure traditional form or Mysore style. There is almost NO accomodation for different body types. You can either do the pose, or you stop the sequence right there, do your closing postures and keep coming back to “that” pose until you have it mastered enough to move on.

    But I do have to politely disagree with the YogaSpy’s opinion that “…most vinyasa/flow sequences also remind me of prepared speeches. Teachers whip out an iPod player, set the mood with Putamayo instrumentals, and then monologue for an hour. In such classes, there is no improvisation, nary a question asked, absolutely no interruptions. Rigid? Not intentionally. But classes are fixed by default.”

    Some of the concepts behind the flow class are similar to that of an Ashtanga class, to follow the ujjayi breath and make it a moving meditation. If you are stopping class, it disrupts the meditative state one is working on acheiving. By adding the bandhas with the breath one is building extra heat while moving to keep the body warm and burn off toxins. It all becomes like a strand of mala beads, the postures (beads) are all interlinked by the breath (string). The flow aspect allows people to find their own way into the posture, rather than being told “you have to do it this way” so it becomes more accomodating to different body types. (I would hope…)

    As for improvisation, speaking for myself, 90% of my classes are improvised. Not infrequently a class is tailored to accomodate who shows up for the evening and each session is leveled to account for different abilities and injuries.

    I think what a class comes down to, is how you resonate with that particular teacher.

    Intersting post. Thanks.

  7. I was a student in the Iyengar method for many years and I agree with your post. Nevertheless i switched to ashtanga even though i am an older student. The reason for switching was mainly because of the maddening pauses in the Iyengar classes here in the U.S. You pay for a 1.5 hour class but actually do only 0.5 hours of yoga.
    There is this kind of ethic that if one person in the class is not doing the pose correctly everyone is stopped to gather round, and then the time to wait for everyone to get and replace their props. This pedagogy might be okay for a workshop but not for a regular class.

  8. As someone who *was* certified in Iyengar it is definitely over-cerebral which blocks deeper unfolding of prana. You do not understand vinyasa based movements or their purpose either and they have nothing to do with zoning out or predictability. Giving a familiar structure to work within allows one to pay attention to finer details and takes the ego out of the equation, something which many Iyengar instructors have way too much of since they are constantly fiddling with sequence options. Traditional systems are actually quite simple. Once the body is free of energetic blockages you do LESS movement and poses as you can then circulate your prana efficiently without need for movement. Sadly, most Iyengar people get stuck messing around with the body endlessly their whole lives and have pretty much no knowledge of prana but instead stressed internal organs and jacked up nervous systems more than anything. Ultimately one needs a balance of all this and Iyengar is not the “proper” or “authentic” way to do yoga, despite many of its adherents stifling other approaches constantly.

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