From the ashrams of India to the studio down the street, yoga has been gaining popularity in every corner of the world. As with any evolving art, different schools of practice, or subsets, emerge. Different cultures and philosophies affect yoga and an ancient art becomes contemporary and reflective of the modern way of life.
Iyengar Yoga is a form of hatha yoga that uses props as aids in performing asana (poses). When he created this form of yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar wanted to make the asana of hatha yoga accessible for all practitioners, young and old. Using belts, blankets, cushions, benches, straps, sandbags, and blocks help students develop strength, mobility, and stability while reducing the risks of injury. Iyengar has classified and categorized over 200 asana and 14 pranayama (breathing techniques) into a linear progression so that beginners can advance to more challenging asana and pranayama in a safe way. The progression allows students to steadily gain flexibility and confidence, as well as sensitivity in the mind, body, and spirit. Inyengar yoga has a reputation for improving aches and pains, improving posture, and even treating serious medical conditions.
In practicing asana, Iyengar yoga focuses on the detail and preciseness of body alignment. Using the props, beginners may experience asana more easily and fully as if they have had years of practice. Elderly or injured students can enjoy the benefits of asana while being fully supported by the props and not having to put forth as much muscular effort. There is also an emphasis on correct sequencing, based on the theory that asana are more effective when in a particular order. Timing is another aspect that is important in Iyengar yoga. Letting the effects of the asana impact the student in a deeper way by holding the poses for a longer length of time is thought to help improve the relationship between the practitioner and the practice.
The most popular asana in Iyengar yoga are standing poses. He insists that they build strong legs, increase vitality, and improve circulation, coordination, and balance. They form a firm foundation for advancing to more challenging poses.
Pranayama also play a substantial role in Iyengar yoga. After a firm foundation in the asana, students add them into their Iyengar routines. Physically, they are required to show they have the alignment, flexibility, lung capacity, and training necessary to sit and breathe correctly while practicing. Once they move on to studying pranayama, they may enjoy the physical benefits of improved circulatory, digestive, nervous, and respiratory functions, as well as feelings of calmness and internal energy. Pranayama are the next step toward effective meditation.
Iyengar yoga offers a slight alternative to the traditional hatha form of meditation. ‘Meditation in action’ is meditating on the pose being performed, rather than on an external object or subject. This allows the mind to become more aware of different parts of the body. At first, students may experience a fragmented focus, with the mind moving from one part of the body to the next while in the pose. However, with training they can absorb all the parts of the body evenly. The mind becomes trained to penetrate deeper into the awareness of the asana for the highest level of comfort and efficacy.
Traditional hatha classes may emphasize a more independent approach for students to develop their own way to asana by imitating the teacher. However, Iyengar classes are very verbal and precise with teachers that actively correct improper alignment. In order to earn an introductory certification to teach Iyengar yoga, teachers must pass a rigorous two-year training course. Higher levels of certification can require over ten years of training.
B.K.S. Iyengar has applied his practice to addressing various ailments, diseases, and disorders. Many clinics, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals have incorporated Iyengar yoga into their recovery programs and physical therapy. Chronic backache, immunodeficiency, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, and menopause all have specific Iyengar yoga programs associated with them (that is, particular Iyengar yoga sequences, timing, and techniques all developed specifically for the physical and emotional symptoms of these ailments). Generally, Iyengar yoga is useful in physical therapy because it helps with the manipulation of inflexible or injured areas of the body.
One of the reasons that Iyengar is so effective in the medical world is that the asana can be adjusted based on each patient’s stage of recovery. Individual relationships with asana, pranayama, and meditation are emphasized so that each patient can make the most out of his or her yoga recovery program.
Medical studies are also being conducted in using Iyengar yoga to help with more serious mental illnesses, such as major uni-polar depression. So far, results typically yield reduced depression, anxiety, and anger. Many medical professionals also insist that yoga is a cost-effective and easy way to produce many positive emotional, psychological, behavioral, and biological effects in patients.
Most of the medicinal Iyengar yoga programs are developed at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India. This is the most advanced and comprehensive location for the advancement and practice of Iyengar yoga.