At a recent Iyengar teacher training session, we took turns performing and observing different asanas. In Iyengar yoga, being a keen observer is essential to being a good teacher. The great ones can practically intuit students’ weaknesses, habits, and blind spots.
I ended up performing Adho Mukha Vrksasana (arm balance or handstand) at a wall for the group of teachers and colleagues. I kicked up just fine; no flailing, no hesitation, no crashing into the wall. But Iyengar yoga goes beyond whether one can “do” a pose.
First, my mentor teacher, Louie, noticed that I’d placed my hands wider than my shoulders: too wide. So I tried again with a narrower stance, waiting for the usual feedback: Front ribcage in. Tailbone up. Lumbar spine straight. Side torso long.
By now I know enough—about yoga, about my body—to predict the comments I deserve. But sometimes unexpected tidbits are tossed my way.
The quality of a pose
My teacher observed that I do the pose with an attitude of “attack,” approaching the wall more horizontally than vertically. “Walk your feet in,” she advised. “Be upright, more on your arms, less on your feet.”
The notion of “attacking” the pose struck a chord. While I now enjoy inverted poses, they weren’t second nature to me when I first tried them over a dozen years ago. And I didn’t grow up walking on my hands or turning cartwheels. So my attitude can still harbor a touch of Boot Camp; I’m still trying to conquer Adho Mukha Vrksasana when I should embrace it instead.
While I can do the pose, I must rethink and refine its quality. This goes beyond the physical: Is a pose “earth,” “water,” “fire,” or “air”? Is it strong and vigorous? Is there softness and repose? And what is my attitude toward the pose?
The details of a pose
Another teacher, Nicola, noticed that I’d placed more weight on my right hand. “Ground through the left hand,” she instructed.
Wow. I was impressed. During Vancouver’s long, chilly winter-spring, I’d practiced Surya Namaskar B a lot, and my left wrist sometimes acts up during the transition from Chaturanga Dandasana to Urdhva Mukha Svanasana. In that handstand, my arms were equally straight. I wasn’t obviously favoring my right wrist, but whatever I did was enough for Nicola to notice.
Ultimately we figured out that my hands were placed too wide in Rod and Upward Dog poses, too. Maybe we solved my wrist issue. And so it goes in Iyengar yoga, where details matter.
Iyengar yoga certainly keeps me honest. My goal had been to balance without a wall. (I daresay that non-Iyengar teachers would have encouraged me in that direction.) Now I’m back to basics. I walked in with a decent handstand and walked out with a new prescription to find my true best pose.