No false praise in Iyengar yoga

BKS DhanurasanaSkimming through an issue of Common Ground, a Bay Area “consciousness” magazine, I spotted a photo of a slim young woman in Dhanurasana. Her pose was all wrong, painfully so, with a collapsed chest, convex thoracic spine, and widely splayed knees. The image accompanied a woman’s essay on surviving depression and addiction with the help of yoga. Incredibly, the image must have been considered presentable, perhaps illustrating a strong and inspiring pose. I was fixated on her egregious form.

If this woman were in one of my classes, I’d immediately tell her to exit the pose–and to do a modified or propped version. First, she is inviting injury. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually she could wreck her knees and crunch her lumbar spine. Second, she is not “getting” the pose, a backbend and chest opener. She is only attempting the superficial form of the pose, by catching her ankles with her hands. She is missing the essence of the pose.

Yoga Anatomy DhanurasanaI’ve attended non-Iyengar yoga classes in which students are minimally, rarely, or never corrected. The woman’s misguided Dhanurasana would be perfectly acceptable. Maybe the teacher would even throw in a few “Beautiful!” cheers.

Sometimes students are taken aback when they are corrected and told to “do less” in an Iyengar yoga class. But most students, once they viscerally experience a truly aligned pose, are grateful.

What’s acceptable in Iyengar yoga has nothing to do with ability or level or beauty, but on understanding the essence of a pose.

Check out the assortment of Dhanurasana images from a Google search. While some bodies are obviously more limber and able to perform deeper backbends, students of any level can understand the appropriate actions–open chest, concave thoracic spine, elongated hip flexors and quadriceps, relaxed face and neck.

BKS Parsva DhanurasanaDuring a class earlier this fall, I taught Dhanurasana and Parsva Dhanurasana. These poses are included in lower-level syllabi (Intro II and Intermediate Junior I), but they’re challenging for many because they require lifting one’s body weight against gravity. When we came to Parsva Dhanurasana, one student asked, “What’s the purpose of doing this?”

Off the top of my head, I explained that rolling to the side requires a good understanding of the basic pose, Dhanurasana, since the backbend must be maintained throughout. Also, the dynamic movement teaches coordination, to shift one’s center of balance. Later, I grabbed my Light On Yoga for BKS Iyengar’s statement on the poses effects: Parsva Dhanurasana massages the abdominal organs.

Now, while the pose might develop kinesthetic awareness and coordination and maybe even benefit the organs, maybe we do some poses partly just because they’re possible. If we climb mountains just because they’re there, maybe we do some poses simply for the challenge, to feel alive.

Images: BKS Iyengar in Dhanurasana, Kat Saks; in Parsva Dhanurasana, Kat Saks; anatomical drawing of woman in Dhanurasana, YogaAnatomy.net

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3 thoughts on “No false praise in Iyengar yoga

  1. Thanks for articulating this well Luci! We are now in an era where if you correct a student it is considered “bullying.” This is damaging yoga’s credibility as many are getting seriously injured. There is an article currently on Elephant Journal where a teacher laments that students in her vinyasa-led class are “doing their own thing” and not following the teacher. I commented with the question “who is liable if the said renegade students injures themselves?” Another commenter said “waiver.” Is this what yoga has come to? Caveat emptor? There are a lot of really, really poorly taught and executed asana in the world right now. It is a difficult mountain to overcome for Iyengar teachers.

  2. It really takes a yoga expert to know if a pose is done correctly. It is very important for practitioners to correctly execute poses to achieve its full benefits and avoid injuries that may come because of wrong practices. Thank you for sharing this useful info.

  3. You ever notice how bloated the upper body is of most of the Iyengar family and many long time/intense Iyengar practitioners? That is because practicing in this fashion creates a lot of pressure on the internal organs due to a variety of factor including pumping open the front of the chest in this manner. One needs to be careful about claiming they know the “right” way to do a pose or the “essence” of the pose when in fact all you have are some superficial memorized instructions and images of what you think is the “correct” version of the pose. In fact Krishnamacharya scoffed when LOY first came out since he did not feel it appropriate to give so much technical information for various reasons.

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