A friend recently tried a few classes at one of Vancouver’s large, multi-branch yoga studios. While her main practice is Iyengar yoga, she was curious to see what else is out there. She found teaching quality quite variable, and she was amazed at the hordes of students.
“How big are the classes?” I asked.
“At least 30, maybe 40,” she said. “And when we exit the room, the line-up for the next class is just as long!”
I wasn’t surprised. In my own explorations, I’ve attended classes with 60+ students at large studios. Considering probable attrition rates, these studios must constantly attract scads of newbies.
Iyengar yoga, despite its worldwide influence, is comparatively slow-growing. Certainly, established Iyengar yoga teachers, especially those on the workshop circuit, can draw crowds. But most local teachers rarely see 30+ students lined up for class week after week. (I’m not advocating large classes. I’m just looking at popularity, demand, and box office.)
Why doesn’t Iyengar yoga attract the masses?
A few observations:
- “Not a workout” One of my students commented that her friends wouldn’t choose Iyengar yoga because it’s “not a workout.” Nowadays yoga is considered exercise, the sweatier, the better. While Iyengar yoga is strenuous (10-minute headstands followed by a million variations!) and encompasses very demanding poses (see Light on Yoga), classes are not usually taught in a fast-paced, aerobic manner.
- Conceptual learning Iyengar yoga instruction focuses on conceptual learning. Students learn “actions” that apply to the pose being studied, to other poses, and to overall posture. Home practice is somewhat assumed. In class, a student might wish to repeat a pose (“I’m not done with it yet!”) instead of moving on. But the teacher is leading the class elsewhere–and it’s up to the student to flesh out the concept independently at home.
- Readiness I met a young woman who did Iyengar yoga six years ago and then tried a “hatha” class at her city college. Back then, she embraced the freer, less-strict approach and even completed a yoga teacher-training program at the college. Recently, however, she began to appreciate her former Iyengar yoga teacher’s words–and she’s back to studying Iyengar yoga. One must be “ready” for the discipline of this method.
- Time commitment Iyengar yoga classes are typically 1.5 to 2 hours long. Drop-ins are allowed, but eventually commitment (to a series/session) is expected. Sessions are akin to those in school: 10 to 14 weeks long, which might seem like forever to casual students who prefer random attendance in a variety of classes.
- Money commitment Paying for a per-class series/session inevitably costs more than for a pass allowing “unlimited” classes. If attending three or more classes weekly (class = practice), it’s very economical to buy an unlimited monthly pass for $100. Such passes are atypical in Iyengar yoga.
- Luxurious setting For some, a luxurious spa setting, including such amenities as saunas and lounges, is appealing. In contrast, I’ve seen fantastically airy, spacious Iyengar yoga studios, but nothing resembling a spa. (Note: My formative yoga experience, which I loved, took place in an unheated basketball court at the UC Berkeley rec centre. While that’s too bare-bones for me now, I might always prefer simpler spaces.)
- Demographics I know I’m generalizing, but at large studios, most students are youngish and relatively fit. In contrast, a typical Iyengar yoga class includes a wider range of fitness levels and ages. Does the average 20-something seek the company of other 20-somethings? Do they flock to particular venues because their peers do? I know teens who once accompanied Mom to Iyengar yoga classes, but switch to hot yoga to join their friends.
- Levels Is Iyengar yoga “hard” or “easy”? (Egads, such divergent opinions!) Actually, Iyengar yoga can go either way: Teachers can safely accommodate (and make yoga “easier” for) those with limits–and rigorously guide (and make poses “harder” for) those with agile bodies. If people understand how individualized the Iyengar approach is, there might be fewer misconceptions.
- “Spiritual vibe” Some teachers read quotes and talk “yoga talk”–and those craving a “spiritual vibe” just lap it up! They probably won’t find such a vibe in Iyengar yoga classes, which might initially seem “technical” and not very spiritual. Especially in beginner classes, teachers generally don’t discuss the sutras or philosophy; they also don’t say things like “melt your heart” or “you are beautiful.” Students have to stick around to discover real spirituality.
For Iyengar yoga to attract the masses, must it change? Maybe. Should it?
Once, I had a student who regularly attended my classes for a year. She then thanked me, but admitted that she missed “flow” yoga. My first reaction: I could have taught her class more dynamic sequences; after all, in my own practice I do sun salutations almost daily! But I later concluded that I should never teach according to what students want. I must teach what’s best for them. In her case, occasional flowing sequences were appropriate, but she needed to work on fundamentals at least half the time.
Likewise, any change to the Iyengar method should be done because it’s effective, not because it’s a selling point.
I appreciate your discussion about Iyengar classes, the how and why of what we do and the appeal of the moment for a yoga “workout” from other styles. It is valuable for students to understand what we as Iyengar teachers can offer to support people in so many ways over the years… from jumpings which are a real workout to carefully planned sequences for special needs.
Thoughtful piece. Thanks Lucie. At the 2013 Iyengar Yoga Association Conference we were encouraged as teachers to include more “jumpings,” Iyengar speak for flow/vinyasana in our classes when appropriate. It is definitely part of the Iyengar system.
Hello – Interesting – Yes, you look at Sr. teachers when they were young and they were all doing vigorous sequences. Who was the teacher who advocated for more jumpings?
Great comparison of Iyengar yoga with other more popular styles these days. I think the age difference is definitely part of why people choose certain classes – to be with others they can relate to. I always “warn” new students that my classes are “not a workout,” just in case they are looking for a vigorous, flow class. I think you did a good job of clarifying the uniqueness of Iyengar yoga.
Sheri, Mark, and Dana:
Thanks for your comments!
It must be further clarified that Iyengar yoga is not an aerobic workout, but it does build muscles (think of Chaturanga Dandasana) and coordination.
And while “not a workout,” Iyengar yoga is such a great complement to physical activity. If you run, cycle, climb, or play a sport, you are getting more aerobic exercise doing that than even the fastest-paced yoga flow would entail! I tell my students to continue their other activities; yoga is something else.
Readers, Dana herself is not only a yoga teacher and posture specialist, but a flamenco dancer!
Yes, exactly – Iyengar yoga does build muscles. I’ve enjoyed reading the comments on this blog post – lots of good points brought up. I know I’ve had issues with the attitude of some Iyengar teachers (some humility would be helpful, as well as more respect for their students).
And yes, I was a Flamenco dancer, but now I’m retired! I gave it up to focus much more on postural alignment, in the lineage of Noelle Perez-Christiaens, who also studied with Iyengar in the 1950s.
Congratulations on your Iyengar certification Lucy!
I am an Ashtanga teacher. I think we just have to do things on a smaller scale to keep teaching cost effective. Both types of yoga take a level of dedication that the average person is not ready for so the class sizes will most likely not be as big as a Vinyasa studio so the financial budget should mirror this reality.
Something that I do, that I have not experienced in the Iyengar classes in my area, is meeting the student where they are. For instance, traditionally, a beginner Ashtangi practicing Mysore style, only gets a few sun salutes, a few seated poses and they are sent home. If I did that to a Power Vinyasa student who is used to a long, fast and furious flow, they would never come back. They are very physical and goal oriented so I have to peak their interest. So I take them through the standing with some repeating to simulate “a workout” then I let them work on some fancy skill like helping them to “float” in sun salutes to give them some excitement. Is it buying into their ego a bit? Yes. But it is a compromise that still stays true to what Ashtanga is and possibly will result in some retention.
When I went to an Iyengar class, she taught me as if I had just started practicing yoga that day and I have a 10 year practice. She worked the class towards Pincha Mayurasana, forearm balance, which is something I can actually already do but she never actually gave us the go ahead or the instruction to lift up so I just followed the rest of the class and did like I was told. Basically, we just did a bunch of shoulder and chest openers. I had a great time and learned some good stuff but I never went back because I felt she didn’t see me. When I just want to work on preps, I tell me students, “Hey, even if you can actually do this pose, we are going to prep because of blah, blah blah”. She didn’t do that. She just taught with her prepared syllabus.
So if that is what happens in other Iyengar classes, than a change would be to meet your students where they are within the confines of the tradition.
Many thanks for your thoughtful comment.
Once, when out of town, I dropped in on a yoga class at an Iyengar institute (in the USA, city unnamed). It was level 1-4. The teacher did Sirsasana prep, but not full Sirsasana. I can do full headstand and, for a moment, lifted both legs up (instead of just one). She directed me to stay with the class. If the class had been listed a level 1, I’d have had no problem with doing only prep work (I still get something out of it). But to list a class as level 1-4 and not to individualize the experience for different students?
I can empathize with your Pincha Mayurasana experience. And, trust me, not all teachers hold you back. The excellent ones can juggle a room full of students and guide everyone individually. They do not stick to an agenda, but work with whom/what they see in the moment.
Thanks again. I really appreciate hearing from practitioners of other yoga methods.
Of course a teacher who only saw you once wouldn’t let you do pincha. You don’t have to teach very long to know that most or many cannot do it. If you committed to taking class regularly, a teacher would get to know your body and you could do ‘harder’ poses. Level 3 and 4 iyengar is plenty hard here in New York anyway. I think, as you said very well, it’s like ashtanga in that it requires more of a long term approach to appreciate. And, as an ashatngi, I’m sure you’ve had to put up with neophytes painting a broad brush about your practice.
If I am teaching Pincha Mayurasana, and a student comes to my class who knows how to do Pincha Mayurasana, I am going to let them do Pincha Mayurasana. If they are doing something structurally wrong, I will stop them but I will definitely see what they can do.
If they come to my class and I am NOT teaching Pincha and they just jump into it, then no, I will tell them to wait until we get there and I explain why this is important.
Let me break it down in Ashtanga terms. A new student always does the last 3 poses in the closing sequence which includes Full Lotus which is a pretty challenging pose for most. Even if the student has never practiced Ashtanga or yoga before a day in their life, if they can do full lotus, I am not going to say, “this is your first class with me, so you have to just sit cross legged”. When we get to that pose, I tell the student, “Sit in full lotus. If you cannot sit in full lotus, sit in half lotus or cross your ankles.” If the student can sit in full lotus, I let them sit in full lotus.
Why would I just prep them for a pose that they already know how to do? As a teacher I know when a student is ready for a pose, even if this is just their first practice. I watch them do the poses that come before, if I know that they have done all the prep poses with flying colors, I am going to give them the option to go further. If a student is not challenged or growing they are not coming back to the class. They might as well just practice at home if they are going to do what they already know how to do.
The article was about if Iyengar needed to change a bit to appeal to the masses. I bought that up as just one little thing that I observed that may help. If a student can do a full version of a pose at the studio down the street but the Iyengar teacher won’t let them and they don’t get a clear reason why, then they will be discouraged from showing back up. Judging from the comments on the blog, this is not the norm. The teachers do let students go further if they can.
I was a certified Iyengar teacher. I ran an Iyengar studio for more than 10 years. I studied at RIMYI in Pune India on 4 occasions. I started a new way of meditating and that led to exploring a new way of practicing hatha yoga. At first I felt like I was breaking the law. My body was full of laws and rules and musts and I was gripped in pain. My new practice was liberating… it was conceptual (inner spiral, shoulder loop, etc), it was committed, yes, it was a lot younger than me. Mostly it was vastly more spiritual in its teaching method and students were respected. No-one was ever belittled or insulted. My body sighed with relief and I was encouraged to have the source of my body pains investigated… oh, unilateral sacralisation of L6, canal stenosis, what a surprise! Iyengar yoga had taught me for all those years that I was just doing it wrong and not trying hard enough. I left Iyengar behind and started to practice softly, with better alignment, and l started to love myself. Ten years further down the track, I am still teaching inner spirals, shoulder loops, and melt your heart. I explain the vocab and it takes students into a more intimate, loving and nourishing experience of their selves than they, or I, could ever dream of before. The commitment and dedication I learnt with Iyengar remains with me and it supports me every day.
Your article doesn’t mention the Iyengar associations around the world. In my experience they are hotbeds of control, bullying, and corruption. They are so completely certain that theirs is the only way, just like fundamentalists.
Thanks for listening. It’s a great topic.
I really appreciate your sharing your story.
While I began practicing yoga in the late 1990s, I’m a relatively new teacher and became certified as an Iyengar yoga teacher this year. So maybe my perspective is limited. But, here in Vancouver, BC, the teaching both respects the Iyengar “rules” and is creative and not rigid. I attended the Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada conference in Victoria, BC, in May 2013; having met teachers from across Canada and observed the higher-ups in the hierarchy, it seems that in this country there’s a lot of camaraderie and less in-fighting than I’ve observed in the USA (I’m American and will always feel American, by the way; and being from Hawaii/California, I definitely want nothing to do with any form of fundamentalism!).
Thanks for your contribution. It behooves us to know other points of view and the range of experiences. If I write a blog focused on Iyengar yoga and my readers are only Iyengar yogis, that’s not very interesting.
I’m in Australia. I was trying to say nicely that the insults and shaming comes by example from the top. The fundamentalism comes from the top. The belief that other forms of yoga aren’t up to the real yoga of Iyengar… it comes from the man himself. There’s a yoga for everyone. Certainly yoga in gyms offer a good stretch after a workout, but there are genuine spiritual practices that far exceed Iyengar teachings in different areas.
@JaneR As opposed to what came from the top in Anusara Yoga, which you refer to without naming? People living in glass houses…
I actually agree with one point though — Iyengar Yoga can do with plenty more positive reinforcement. There is no reason it couldn’t be taught every bit as rigorously while praising and encouraging students a little more.
“Your article doesn’t mention the Iyengar associations around the world. In my experience they are hotbeds of control, bullying, and corruption. They are so completely certain that theirs is the only way, just like fundamentalists.”
Thank you Jane. Exactly!
……ah yes, Jane, the point you make in the last paragraph is the one that jumps out.
Iyengar himself is quick to point out that the term IYENGAR YOGA is not of his design when pressed on the matter. And in Light on Life he describes himself as an innovator, so why would he discourage innovation in others? He was never describing what he taught as Krishnamacharya Yoga after all. Neither were most of Krishnamacharya’s other (famous) students I believe. So why all this insistance on dogma and orthodoxy now? Don’t we have enough of all this nonsense from religions in general without bringing it to the world of yoga? When I see the examination board of IY A with their clipboards and serious faces assessing others for certification I sometimes wonder if there might not be another way that’s better than the same old dreary system that’s been plugged by every hierarchy since the beginning of hierarchies as the standard model for an organisation. Maybe not. And if in any doubt about the negative influence of dogma and orthodoxy, maybe we should ask why it was that the Pope (I forget which one) who had asked Iyengar for some instruction in yoga and to which he had agreed… but not on the condition of lying about the matter if asked about it later on… finally cancelled his appointment with Iyengar. In my opinion it would have been fear of the opinions of the dogma and orthodoxy enforcers in his own Vatican. Or something similar. In any case, history has already shown the futility and negative consequences that flow naturally out of both dogma and orthodoxy in whatever field they are taken to heart. I always understood that yoga was different in that its appeal is to the intelligence. Maybe it’s time for some open mindedness in the theater of yoga.
Sadly, but how true the sentence is: “In my experience they are hotbeds of control, bullying, and corruption.” Even more, a lot of them forgot what being humble means and tend to criticise other Iyengar teachers. Also, most of them got so much into the discipline of the method that forgot how to smile (just come to London if you don’t believe). Thanks God for Iyengar yoga teachers from India who are more relaxed, cheerful, and playful.
I do practice Iyengar myself and have been doing it for few years, but I’m lucky not to have the typical Iyengar teacher’s attitude. She has never said that this method is the best and the only way; is respectful and humble, what most seniors Iyengar teacher lack. It’s so so sad, as BKS Iyengar did so much work to make this method popular and his old followers (senior teachers) do everything to destroy his hard work.
Everything depends on teacher attitude and approach. I know countries where the practice is led in a more dynamic way, as BKS Iyengar was practising when he was younger (yes yes he was young at some stage of his life), the teachers are still open minded (not in UK), and the majority of students are in their 20s and 30s. So it’s possible to attract wider range of people.
Last, my osteopath told me to do something more vigorous, as my body doesn’t release tension in such a slow and calm practice. He said that I can stick to it when I turn 50. Being honest, two physiotherapists said the same.
Interesting article, some valid points were made. In Southern California, people are turned away from Iyengar yoga because of the culture of violence and harassment. I have an open restraining order on my former Iyengar instructor. I have met many people who have similar stories to mine.
Ah the Iyengar method of yoga… I have been a student of yoga since 1984 and though I have tried many variations I always return to Iyengar and use that for my everyday home practice as well as the classes I choose to attend. I am certified to teach the Iyengar method and have done so in the past, but have no current students. I continue to try other schools of yoga, my most recent experience was with Bikram… I got hot! and fogged the windshield and windows of my car on the way home, but was not satisfied with my yoga experience. In my opinion yoga is not an exercise routine but a practice; while I get exercise out of my practice, and build muscles and strength, I do other activities for exercise. Asana is a beginning to a much larger pracitice regimen that may not be obvious to the random Iyengar class attendee.
Very interesting article! I am a researcher, based in Australia, with an exercise physiology background conducting research into preventing falls in older age. I have recently conducted a study into the benefits of Iyengar yoga for improving balance and mobility in older people- link to recently published paper is here for those who are interested:
Not only did the 12 week program of yoga result in significant improvements in functional abilities related to everyday activities such as getting up out of a chair and walking fast, but the older participants enjoyed the classes and found other health related benefits such as improved sleep and feeling of calmness. Attendance at the classes was higher than most other exercise interventions that have been evaluated for older people.
Prior to conducting this research I had very little experience with any form of yoga, apart from the very occassional attendance at classes many years ago. I think the potential for yoga to improve health, particularly in older age is huge, especially considering it’s rising popularity. More work to be done getting the scientific evidence though, then we will have more of the medical community to support its use. Exciting times!
Iyengar yoga practitioners can “feel” how yoga improves balance and mobility, but of course scientific proof is needed to affect medicine and the general public. Thanks for sharing your research, which I might discuss in another post (readers might miss your comment)! Congratulations on getting your study published in a top, peer-reviewed journal.
Great discussion. Iyengar yoga definitely should not change to appeal to the masses, but it has evolved and will continue to do so. The styles of teaching in Guruji’s own family vary dramatically, and I have heard Geeta Iyengar several times encourage teachers to develop their own style and personality and not try to mimic their teachers. Geeta’s niece, Abhi, is warm and encouraging, and she’s perhaps the next big thing in our method. And our senior teachers are very different from each other and hold a vast amount of knowkedge and experience. At its core, the Iyengar method is really about detailed instruction on an ancient art form and philosophy. That’s just not for everyone. As for other styles, I believe all yoga is good and can lead to many positive things, and I’m thankful for all the students and teachers on this path.
We all have something to learn from each other.
(I’m a long time Iyengar student, have studied at RIMYI, etc., and have enjoyed my limited exposure to other styles.)
“But I later concluded that I should never teach according to what students want. I must teach what’s best for them.”
You are more grounded when this happened to you. When the local studio here changed ownership, I denied to myself how the change is affecting the studio, the practitioners, me. I listened and heeded their whines. My classes became a workout. Fast and furious! I killed them. I killed Iyengar’s concepts. I killed my own practice. I killed myself.
It was a good wake up call though. Funny how you think you are making people happy only makes you lose your own happiness. Authenticity should never be sacrificed when only to please others.
Thank you for this post. I adore the comparison. Namaste! =)
Well if you been around the Iyengar world for even a little bit, you would know that the teachers are really not the most pleasant people to be around. There is a nastiness there that only rivals Bikram teachers. I think both styles will lose students over time now that the concept of bullies has entered everyone’s consciousness.
It is true that a number of the Iyengar Yoga teachers are dogmatic and “nasty,” but my teachers are not, and I’m guessing that the majority are not. I’m also a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, and I can’t imagine being mean or bullying to my students. For one thing, that’s just not my personality. My students would leave if I yelled at them or belittled them. They progress very well, even with my “niceness” 🙂
Some of the higher level, long-time Iyengar Yoga teachers who used to be more belittling and prone to scolding (in my opinion) have figured this out, and they are changing their behavior and attitudes. Others have not, and I have no interest in taking classes from those teachers again.
None of the certified Iyengar Yoga teachers in my community (and we have many) are mean or bullying. I’m sorry for those of you who’ve had the experience of irritable Iyengar Yoga teachers. We’re not all like that!
Your readiness point resonates most with me. Unfortunately arriving at readiness for Iyengar yoga may happen after a student has an injury. Iyengar provides a fantastic, self-aware method through which one can heal. To this and other (well-known) points, a student also has to have a bit of a thick skin. Warmth and encouragement are wonderful, but somewhere along the line a student who practices Iyengar deeply recognizes that properly taking care of one’s body and mind under the guidance of a very knowledgable teacher equates to self compassion, the ultimate warmth and encouragement. The teachers can really see what you are doing–wrong usually 🙂 –and will help you address it; you gotta be open to correction and change! It’s for you! Being willing to let the spiritual side come in with time is another revelation about the method; you can find a deeply personal spiritual journey that is not driven from the surface of language. All this said, it wouldn’t kill some Iyengar teachers to lighten up, let’s face it! And we love the cues, but depending on the day, less can be more. Still…. the good far outweighs. My fellow students and I love our teacher because she kicks our butts, very safely and individually, and we laugh about it.
I was gonna say… All my teachers are great people. I have no idea who you people are talking about.
Karen, I’m really glad that you wrote in! I had read so many negative things on the web about Iyengar yoga that I was very hesitant to try a class. On the advice of a much trusted friend I finally did about a year ago.
I had been studying with Anusara teachers for a few years and I had gotten the idea that Anusara was the Iyengar method refined and improved! (Gee, I wonder where *that* idea came from!! But that idea is all over the web.) Then we students together with our teachers experienced the Anusara empire crumble as the true colors of its founder were first suddenly revealed, and then confirmed over time.
It was during that time of crumbling that I took that first Iyengar class. It took me some weeks (or maybe months) to adjust to the new culture. I loved what my teacher was teaching but I worried that I wasn’t good enough and that she didn’t like me. However, her teaching is like fresh water and I am a thirsty person, so I continued. I’m so glad that I did. I am now very aware that she supports me and my development in all the aspects of Yoga. She corrects me but she does not sit in judgement. I was the one that was sitting in judgement of myself. If I don’t have the skill to immediately do (or even understand) what she asks she supports my efforts.
While the same subjects come up repeatedly in class she never treats them in exactly the same way. So our understanding becomes deeper and more well rounded every time we approach the same thing with her. She gives us varying approaches and teaches us to understand and evaluate our own experiences. In this way, she actually shows us how to learn!
Even though I’ve been studying Iyengar Yoga for only a year, I can see that the founder of Anusara made up a “straw man” Iyengar method to “improve” on. And then many other people repeated his claims, possibly without knowing very much about Iyengar Yoga in the first place.
So I came into Iyengar yoga thinking that I would have to learn an impossibly large number of discrete points of alignment for every asana. Instead, I’m finding aspects that are shared by various asanas. As I become more aware, stronger, and more flexible, more things tie in together. To my astonishment, I found that Anusara’s “Universal Principals” aren’t universal and I had to unlearn some of that. (Although some it does hold true, at least sometimes.)
I had also heard that Iyengar teachers will insist on asking impossibilities for your body in the name of good alignment. Instead, my teacher works with my limitations and proportions (without judging me, as I wrote earlier).
And I had also feared that Iyengar study would mean constantly being burdened with dreary old props. (In how many places on the web do you read “Would you like to do Yoga using lots and lots of props? Then Iyengar yoga is for you!”) I found that the point isn’t to “use props” but to have a better practice! Supta Padangustana? Strap please! (Until that day when I can do all that without one!)
I hope that the students in the studios like the one described by Lucy’s friend will someday know that Iyengar Yoga is an alternative well worth trying. I’m sure that studios like that lose students who think that yoga isn’t for them — and some of those are the students who would really like Iyengar yoga!
It’s important we distinguish own unfolding from the teaching method/s we choose. The style we choose will take us in its intended direction. We are on a path of self transformation therefore we should expect to change. It is our duty to regularly appraise the direction we are taking and determine whether it is still suits us. And we should change direction if and when a change looks like a good idea.
Quite a few leading Iyengar teachers from the USA left in the early 1990s when they saw misuse of power. You won’t have to look far to find out who they are because they are still leaders. And this has happened in a zillion various ways in every yoga tradition… it is the nature of the practice. Don’t imagine John Friend or any other fallen teacher is special. It can happen to you.
I understand that yoga helps us to unite with the divine… to recognise our own innate gifts and to express them, to bow our head and honour our highest power. This need for goodness is a basic human quality, whether students who show up to our yoga classes have consciously recognised it already or not. It’s our duty as yoga teachers to teach it. We choose asana as our tool, and the way we use that tool – inner spiral or cut the inner thigh back – are our teaching skills, and also our style of yoga.
The question is not whether the teachers are nice people… most people are nice. The question is whether they are teaching yoga in such a way that guides students to experience their own goodness. When physical technique gets in the way of this enlightenment, the classes become turgid and the teacher runs the risk of emphasising what is not happening. We recite the invocation at the beginning, say Namaste at the end and criticise in the middle… (This is commonly known as a sh*t sandwich.)
Big yoga classes can be inspiring. Everyone feels ‘seen.’ They go home feeling good about themselves, and they tell their friends. Good luck to everyone ❤
Iyengar is like the organic foods movement. There will be a tipping point where people ‘understand’ the deeper relevance of why it is important… then it will grow. Cost or physicality will be less important and wholistic and holistic well-being will become more important.
Being a fairly traditional Ashtanga teacher and stylized Vinyasa teacher I agree with you about the traditional and strict aspect of our styles which can turn students off. I find that it is more the aspect of “I want to feel good about myself” which seems to be paramount for most students these days. Precise instruction and conceptualization is not what students are looking for because somehow it makes some feel “less than”. It sounds like criticism and doesn’t add the students’ narcissistic vanity of “how good I am for being here”.
I have found that these days having a good sweat is not enough. The classes have to appeal to the aspect of personal power. So the more the challenging postures in the class that are for advanced students the better. I tend to balance my classes with a style of teaching which challenges and at the same time, I do not introduce postures like some arm balances or things like the splits, etc., unless I see that the majority of students are a little more seasoned and I’ve taught them for a while and gotten to know them. I have witnessed classes where teachers will put beginners into some poses at risk of injury without any concern and the students just love it. Conversely, I have challenged those who just wanted to really do a restorative class (wasn’t even advertised as one but they expected it (?)) and gotten my head chewed off because of it.
There really isn’t any way to predict students’ preferences and I just say Iyengar must stay as Iyengar as possible. Otherwise it starts to get confused. I have taught Ashtanga for years now and have trained in it extensively. I know some “Ashtanga” teachers who do not practice it and therefore do not know the practice as a practice. They do not know the intricacies of it. These teachers bow to the pressures of students’ to add postures which do not belong in the series and let go of the rhythm of the class to appease those who just want to “feel good about myself” to the detriment of Ashtanga. I have had great difficulty teaching Ashtanga after these teachers because students are not being educated in it.
But teachers will try anything including risking the injury of their students because for some reason we have decided in this culture that yoga is about popularity and money instead of teaching simply and with humility.
It is the teacher’s role to teach their students about the practice beyond the ego-ic need to be appeased and catered to (Spa-like). The most essential teaching for us as teachers and for our students: It is not the practice that makes you feel bad nor it it the teacher’s responsibility. Feeling good about yourself is an inner conflict and that learning comes with practice. The teacher must teach the practice as it is because the practice is beyond the teacher and the student. It is bigger than them.
I absolutely love Iyengar yoga! However, I have found it to be extremely difficult to find a truly compassionate and challenging Iyengar teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. Moreover what I experience in classes are slow paced gentle yoga aimed at older students that need relaxing poses made to give them the idea of yoga without going too deep into their bodies. My first Iyengar teacher had our class in headstands (a gymnastics setting class with students already comfortable with advanced poses) towards the end of the class. I felt challenged and wanted more. Now what I find is trouble not falling asleep in classes. My instructor for Iyengar yoga moved back to Russia about 7 years ago and since I have found that every Iyengar instructor here has either too gentle of teaching style or just plain mean to the students and not even qualified to teach to any level. Where did all the good Iyengar instructors go???
Great article. But I think pondering whether or not Iyengar can attract the masses is the wrong question. We should be focused on bringing Iyengar yoga to as many people as possible not because we need to have 40 people in a class so we can compete with other studios but instead because it is a part of our mission as Iyengar yoga teachers. On one hand as people seeking enlightenment or spiritual liberation which is at the core of yoga we have to protect what is sacred but as teachers of a spiritual practice it is our duty to extend the fruit of that treasure to all. In Buddhism it is called being a ‘Bodhisattva’. Bodhisattva(s) work on the human realm to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment. They are on the path of the greater vehicle, Mahayana. I believe that this should be fundamental to operating as a yoga teacher. And what I think is holding some Iyengar teachers back from this is that there is a tendency toward hoarding the precious information that is accumulated working within this method. However, there is nothing wrong with a self contained practice. Not everyone who teaches yoga has as their ‘modus operandi’ the salvation of all beings. In Buddhism it is called Hinayana, or the lesser vehicle. It is where we all begin. Ultimately though, the more one becomes engrossed with the practice of yoga it is hard not to arrive at the next level of interaction which is wanting to engage more universally with the world extending the benefits of yoga to all sentient beings. I believe that this needs to be our intention and when in contact with the ‘masses’ our actions will be calibrated to a spiritual end that you can never go wrong with.
I was so grateful where towards the end of this series of comments, people chimed in about the attitude of SOME Iyengar teachers that is shame-based and “nasty”. My first Yoga teachers in 1988 were (and still are) Iyengar teachers. They were mentors to me in Yoga and other aspects of life as well (I was a struggling 20-something). For that I am eternally grateful. I was so taken aback when I started taking Iyengar from other teachers who were quite the opposite and wondered how they got away with all the public shaming. I then learned that many people joked that BKS stands for “beat, kick and slap”. With that said, having been a Yoga teacher myself for 22 years, it gave me a clear contrast of how NOT to be with my students, and my classes have always been relatively full. Also, it should be noted that my Iyengar-trained students have the most uniform poses I have ever seen and are really quite beautiful to look at from a symmetrical standpoint.
It’s concerning to me to see that some people feel Iyengar teachers are not compassionate or empathetic, or that they ‘shame’ or are ‘nasty’ to their students. I teach Iyengar yoga and specifically chose this method because in my experience it attracts the least egos, and I have never felt in a class that I had to ‘compete’ (something that should be intrinsic to yoga, it’s not competitive). I know that some teachers ask students to demonstrate asanas, and then point out how they can improve their work in the asana – I have very often been that student used to show ‘what is going wrong’ and ‘how this can be improved’… but I don’t believe that’s shaming. I found it extremely useful to understand my own practice, and to learn from others as well. I never felt this was in any way mean, I took it as part of learning and progressing together as a class. Every one, even the most experienced practitioner, can make improvements.
Perhaps what people are referring to here is something very different to that, but I wonder whether students discuss with their teacher what’s causing them to feel this way? Many of my students tell me they came to Iyengar yoga after trying other classes where they felt uncomfortable and as if they were being judged because they were beginners or stiff. It worries me to hear that others feel the opposite. The classes I attend have always been welcoming, friendly, and in many cases have become like a second family to me.
You simply have been very lucky with your teachers. I have met a lot arrogant and full of themselves Iyengar teachers and, yes, I discussed this with my regular teacher, also Iyengar, and a few more who agree that this how it is in this community. So it isn’t just my subjective experience:-(
Every yoga style has its blind side. With Anusara it was flattery, with Iyengar it is shaming. I am still ashamed I sat silently watching Iyengar himself declare my friend to be “a disconnected woman” in front of 400 of his most experienced teachers from around the world. Apparently she was looking at him out of the top of her eyelids so he called her onto the stage and described her features in the most humiliating manner, while she stood in tadasana looking straight ahead (Pune, January 2000). My friend was so wounded by his attack that she couldn’t lift herself from her bed for three days. I am still ashamed I didn’t speak up for her. I’m still ashamed I didn’t ask my fellow teachers why they remain silent. I believe the answer I would have got to that question is that they were relieved they weren’t in his firing line. But no-one came to her room to check she was ok either…. some mud always sticks.
Some believe you have to be tough, you have to grow the ‘wiring’ to take such humiliation, and they wear it with pride as though it makes it apparent to people that they are indeed closer to the leader.
The attitude at the top influences every teacher, every student, every supporter. It’s up to each individual to choose the down side they can live with. I decided the shaming was creating a separating silence in me and in all the teachers I knew. I decided it was not helping me and I started a painful process to distance myself.
Then I found Anusara and decided that I could live with flattery and at great personal cost, I switched. Others have found themselves overwhelmed with disappointed rage when they discovered the extent of flattery, and yet I wondered why they never saw it before. Every human is different.
Shaming and flattery both create separation. It is our own responsibility to call each human weakness for what it is and choose our path accordingly.
Pretending a weakness doesn’t exist is a recipe for putting consciousness to sleep… in asana as in everything.
Blessing to everyone
I very much liked this article and the discussion, thanks Yoga Spy. I am a student of many styles/methods of yoga, and they are all offering great things of value, and they all have their limitations and their liabilities. I appreciate your clear thinking and thoughtful approach, thank you!
I love Iyengar yoga and i established the foundation of my practice. I wish it were more widely available as I appreciate the attention to detail and the therapeutic benefits. It’s nice to balance Iyengar with other flow classes for a great overall practice!
Thanks Noah I found this article very useful. You helped me to understand through your yoga fundamentals that yoga is about personal transformation.
I started the first four years my yoga journey in the Iyengar tradition, and I was fortunate that I was placed as an intermendiate student because of my natural flexibility. The sequencing of the classes was superb and no 2 classes were the same, and there was always a balance between different classes of asanas. My teacher always encouraged us to play our edge. I moved to a state that does not have a single Iyengar teacher, and the vinyasa teachers are mediocre with little training. I mainly practice at home and take yoga workshop 4 to 6 times a year.
As a student, I took workshops with several senior Iyengar teachers and they were a mixed lot. Some were superb and other were arrogant and santimonious with a sense of superiority that turn students off. However, if one probes deeply, every yoga school has its own share of problems. Look at the scandals that has besotted so many hallowed yoga systems in the last two years.
My intitial yoga training in the Iyengar system enabled me to sail through other yoga styles such as Anusara and Astanga because of my solid foundation. I miss living in a town with good Iyengar Studio. There is nothing like an intermediate advanced Iyengar practice.
We are all indebted to those teachers who, before us had the courage to pass on as much as learn a difficult subject, like yoga. Every person has a degree to which they are falable. The perspective that I would like to share is about letting it go.
So many students mostly those in the West come with all their issues, and some teachers are trained to be strong as one student easily interupts class for the rest. This is my experience and good fortune to find a strong experienced teacher, one that was unwilling to kowtow to the individual. Self entitlments of those decrying willing individuals, with enough courage to stand in front of the rest, show no moral compass. Yoga as a whole is experiencing its growing pains, poor teaching and even more student egoism. Asana is not yoga, yoga is not asana. Sufferance is a human condition, we seek many of us, a discipline that will help us feel connected that little I know. For me the continuity of example, from an experienced standard , an experienced teacher with their own rigour is helpful. Above all it is thru my own perserverence to let the failures fade and by the remainder lift me that I may come to help others by that example.
this is an awesome post!I love Iyengar yoga.this article very useful.thanks for sharing.
Yeah, yoga is totally starting to reach the masses IMO, I mean it has been doing that for years already obviously in countries like India, it’s birthplace.
The western world needs more ways to connect to the present and stay grounded, and you can tell that people need Yoga. So it’s only going to get more popular IMO.