By Timothy Grundy
Iyengar yoga is an alignment focused practice meant to facilitate the body’s connectedness to physical, mental, and emotional sensations.
Iyengar Yoga is named for B. K. S. Iyengar (1918—2014). While this form of Hatha Yoga certainly is a form of exercise, it is as much a physical as it is a mental and spiritual practice. The four characteristic aspects it is known for are: precision, timing, sequencing, and props. One of the most remarkable aspects of Iyengar’s encyclopedic book, Light on Yoga (1966), is the precision with which he described each pose. Not only did he discuss their names and beneficial effects, he gave detailed instructions on how to enter, sustain, and come out of them. He carefully set out the precise alignment for each pose, breaking them down into intermediary stages.
However, he did not enlist this precision to achieve external perfection, but as a way to facilitate careful attention to the alignment of our bodies and its connections to our physical, mental, and emotional sensations. By studying our alignment, we study ourselves and increasingly gain access to deeper layers of understanding, leading to greater physical as well as, ultimately, greater mental freedom.
As we practice yoga, our mind, like a child, is constantly racing ahead of our body. But a deeper understanding of yoga requires the careful, physical experience of the poses: how do we feel and what changes as we adjust and refine our alignment in a pose and how do the effects change? These changes can register on a physical level as relief from muscle pain or joint ache, but they can also appear on a deeper level as the “knot” of anxiety in our stomach unravels, the dullness of a general depression lifts, or the tension caused by anger and injustice eases. But such reflections require time both in how long we practice and in how long we spend in a specific pose. While some poses yield their beneficial effects from a short hold, others require a longer duration to make their effects felt. Certain poses can have one effect when briefly held and another when sustained for a long time. An Iyengar Yoga class makes full use of timing to achieve a wealth of experiences.
Iyengar understood not only the effects of the different poses, he also detailed how they affected and interacted with each other. He associated the practice of yoga poses arranged in a deliberate sequence as a way to progress from fixating on outward, physical elements to internal mental aspects of the practice. The mind of the practitioner is drawn inward, away from everyday distractions to a state of uninterrupted and undivided calm. Iyengar also used sequencing to balance effort and ease, active exertion and quiet contemplation: while the one drives us towards some distant goal, the other grants us awareness of our progress free from attachment to that goal.
Finally, perhaps the most obvious aspect of Iyengar Yoga is its use of props: blocks, belts, straps, blankets, and chairs, to name just the most common. And while props can certainly help practitioners to come into a pose with greater ease, they also—and perhaps more importantly—allow us to practice a pose with greater precision, hold it for longer, and gain a greater understanding of its place within a sequence than would otherwise be possible. Indeed, far from making the practice of yoga somehow “easier,” props confer a richness, a depth, and complexity to our practice of yoga. In short, they help us achieve that balance of effort and ease, between the dedicated practice driving us forward and the discriminative intelligence that allows us to understand our progress, that which Iyengar himself considered a hallmark of this practice.