Finding a meditative experience in an Iyengar class

The same student who sparked my prior post, “Criticism and praise in yoga classes,” asked another question about Iyengar yoga classes:

“I… love my vinyasa practice because of the familiar repetition and rhythm—you can lose yourself in the continual movement. Do you think you can ‘get’ that meditative experience in an Iyengar class? Maybe on a micro level (the specific postures)? Or is that more of a personal thing (not something you ‘get’ from a class). Do you know what I mean?”

Excellent question.

Here are three answers off the top of my head:

Pose by pose My student answered her own question. On a “micro level” in the “specific postures,” one can find stillness. At some point, after the aligning and fiddling, one should settle down, breathe, and find ease. The long holds in Iyengar yoga are conducive to this process. Regarding props, I, too, sometimes feel hassled by complicated setups and a hefty stack of blankets. But holding a pose like Salamba Sarvangasana for five to 10 minutes, properly propped (and upright), leads you much deeper into the experience. Try it!

Flow in Iyengar yoga In a classic Iyengar class, there are stops and starts: A teacher demonstrates an asana while students watch. Then students try to replicate the pose, observed by the teacher. A teacher might use a student demo to further emphasize a point. For beginners, this “learn by example” method lets students watch without simultaneously trying to perform.

That said, when working with experienced students, teachers need not demonstrate basic poses. So classes can be more “flowing.” I’ve done countless sun salutations and continuous standing-pose sequences in Iyengar classes. These dynamic (yet still alignment-based) classes can complement the classic approach.

Class time versus practice time Again, my student already had her answer: a meditative experience might “not be something you ‘get’ from a class.” In old-school Iyengar yoga, there is a distinction between class time and practice time. In class, you watch, listen, and apply the lessons to group asana. At home, you practice.

Of course, most students expect to practice in class. I give my students an invigorating class because most don’t practice at home. But, if one is seeking a meditative (or otherwise individualized) asana experience, one can always inject class ideas into home practice. With alignment in mind, go ahead and do 50 handstands or sit and chant. The practice then becomes one’s own.

Image: Yoga Cat painting by Carol Wolf

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12 thoughts on “Finding a meditative experience in an Iyengar class

  1. Jeesh, Yoga Spy, is there a “new school” Iyengar yoga? 🙂
    I think the distinction between class and practice is always there. It’s like a piano lesson, you practice to prepare for class, and take what you learned home to improve your practice.
    I wonder if “losing yourself in the continual movement” is really meditative.
    Perhaps this is just semantics, but aren’t we supposed to be finding ourselves in movement?
    I remember a moment in First There is a Mountain when the author has been away doing an Ashtanga flow practice and Iyengar demands that she show him her sun salutations and wants to know what her quality of awareness is in each movement.
    In the end, I’d say that home practice is where we come into a meditative experience, but for me, even in home practice, it’s almost always found in stillness.

  2. Hatha yoga as taught by Iyengar (which is what we mean by “Iyengar Yoga”, despite his admonition”) embraces the Sutras or Patanjali, and specifically, the Asht-anga and thus by definition is a process of meditation: focus and awareness through discipline and surrender.

    I have had several significant unique (!) meditative “peak” experiences — so distinctive that I can relate them years later as having been deep and enriching.

    I do not wish to be too specific as it may [rightly!] engender skepticism.

    One was in a simple seat a few moments after a vigorous — but sweet — vinyasa warm-up. Let me put it this way, I was just barely cooling down and I felt something so distinctive that my physical boundries were revelaed as illusion.

    One was a distinct physical — but non-anatomical — opening in my right neck and shoulder that remained problematic for several days but was then, in casual conversation, revealed to me to be a very early “warning” indicator of my spiritual/mental/emotional state, like a little idiot light on a dashboard. that was 4+ years ago and it still (infrequently) serves to lte me know to cool my jets — even when I didn’t see it happnening.

    I was in a level three Anusara class (one of very few I’ve been to) and a posture I didn’t –wouldn’t — believe I’d get into brought me to a state of consciousness that was Perfect. What it would feel like to be in God’s Presence. Though I was only able to sustain it for a few seconds, my consciousness was “toggled” to a glimpse of new awareness.

    Peak “meditative” moments are wonderful and offer exciting (quite the paradox) glimpses of a little bit of Heaven, a dimension of which I’d otherwise hardly been aware — but it is the extended longditudinal commitment and disciplined practice that have lead me to iintegrate and incorporate yogic thought into my daily life, perhaps my instantaneious breath, and my routine personal and technical interactions. I am aware of the limbs of Ashtanga in my life as well — when truly, earnestly, attentively and devotedly attuned — in each and every asana and sometimes even during the transitions between.

    My life has been changed beyond any expectations; the only expectation I have now is that I allow my imagination to be fired beyond my imagination and Reality will still surpass my dreams.

    In retrospect, let me suggest that I took the “Raja Yoga” idea to heart: that study, karma, and devotion combine to bring one to ONE grand Union, and I attrtibute whatever gifts of progress and understanding I have received to that willingness and effort; and if it worked for me it can work for anyone.

    One last thing: If I sound pompous, TRUST me I’m just short of laughing as I write this, because everything I say here is 100% true, yet LEELA the cosmic dance of laughter and tears is making me laugh at my own profundity!

    Yoga is life. Yoga is its own reward.

  3. PS>> I just noticed that the student who inspired the question was actually asking the opposite of what I thought he asked!

  4. http://www.yogajournal.com/dailyinsight/yjnl_20101106.html?utm_source=homepage&utm_medium=site&utm_campaign=dailyinsight

    Since “meditation” is another word for practices that lead to “awareness”, it is good that YJ has an article today on Awareness practices.

    Once again, this is a discipline for the long term, not only because “results” can take awhile but because when one enters into the practice for a reason, the first thing that has to go is that reason!

  5. actually I would say that “losing oneself” is not the same thing as a “meditative experience.”

    Patricia Sullivan in Northern California is an Iyengar (with Mr. Iyengar himself) teacher whose practice is supremely informed by her Buddhism and mindfulness practice.

    1. Thanks Linda-Sama for referencing Patricia Sullivan — I read an interview with her & it got me thinking about Iyengar & mindfulness.

      My Buddhism teacher (who is also a yoga instructor) corrects me in seated meditation because I become overly preoccupied with the nuances of my physical posture. Is my spine long? My sit bones rooted? My hips open?

      She says this is a common habit for people who do lots of yoga. They’re so focussed on continually tweaking the body that they don’t rest & go within. (reminds me of yogaspy’s post about savasana.)

      Mind you, I can’t meditate properly if I haven’t done yoga that day. Yoga is the foreplay of meditation 🙂

  6. Well, I went away and thought about it. And had to come back. Clearly an interesting question.

    Iyengar famously describes his asana work as “meditation in action.”

    It struck me that there’s a bit of a language issue there, because most native English speakers will hear “action” and believe it is the same as “movement.”

    But there’s a big distinction between movement and action in Iyengar yoga.
    We usually perform the actions when the movement that creates the shape of the pose is complete.

    So the body is still, and the mind is absorbed in the actions. Is this the meditative experience in asana that Iyengar offers?

    1. But can one find meditation in movement, too? Even the Iyengars do sun salutations. And there are dynamic parts of asana, such as Sirsasana dropovers.

      That said, I agree that the “shape of the pose” is key. There must be value to the nitty-gritty of asana, otherwise we could fling our bodies into any pose in the name of yoga.

      Maybe one can find meditation in movement, but I suspect that most people get too caught up in their “performance” while moving. In other words, they are too self-conscious in movement. (Elite athletes, dancers, and musicians might be exceptions, of course.) By being still in body (whether holding a pose or sitting in meditation), one has more time to still the mind.

      Maybe we need to define “meditation.”

  7. I appreciate this blog because it helps bridge the gap between class & home practice.

    I find home practice intimidating, lonely, and austere — probably because we distrust our minds & bodies in the West.

    The Western approach to physical activity (competitiveness, aggression, and pride) colours my home practice. It’s scary to encounter that all on your own, without a teacher to guide you.

    I find that I spend the bulk of my practice encountering my own striving and judgments, and doing my best to soften them.

    That’s why I seek out classes for practice. It feels safer, and more enjoyable.

    Of course, to go deeper, you need to practice at home (so that you learn to trust your own inner teacher).

    Thanks YogaSpy for those 3 points (poses, flow, and home practice.) Lots to work with there — I’ve never held a pose for 10 minutes, or done 50 handstands! Sounds fun.

  8. Such a great discussion. Iyengar says in The Tree of Yoga, “Focusing on one point is concentration. Focusing on all points at the same time is meditation.” This is what we are doing in the poses, hopefully, that brings us this meditative experience.

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