Iyengar yoga is a form of hatha yoga developed by B.K.S. Iyengar (1918–2014), a native of India. Iyengar yoga is known for its use of such props as straps, chairs, or blocks in enabling students to achieve the traditional asanas, or body postures. The Iyengar approach is credited with the present popularity of yoga in the West, as its founder began to teach yoga to Westerners in the early 1950s.
The purpose of Iyengar yoga is to help individuals in all age groups improve strength and flexibility, and work toward greater integration of soul and body as well as better physical health. Iyengar yoga can also be used as a complementary therapy for such disorders as osteoarthritis, lower back pain, depression, chronic headaches, high blood pressure, and asthma.
According to the Yoga Journal, about 8.4% of Americans who practice yoga on a regular basis study with Iyengar instructors. Iyengar yoga is considered suitable for all age groups, although the children's version of this style of yoga is gentle so as to not damage the spine. Iyengar himself pioneered the introduction of yoga at the elementary school level in India.
Iyengar yoga is primarily an adult practice in the West. It is widely taught in the physical education departments on many college campuses in the United States and Canada. It is also becoming a favorite approach to yoga among middle-aged and older adults whether or not they have ever practiced other styles of yoga. The emphasis on safety during yoga practice, the high degree of training required of Iyengar instructors, and the use of props to help students learn the postures is reassuring to older adults who may feel self-conscious about their appearance or concerned about their problems with stiff joints or loss of muscular strength. A 2008 study conducted by the Yoga Journal reported that of the 15.8 million Americans who practice yoga on a regular basis, 19% are 55 or older.
Iyengar yoga traces its origins back to Patanjali, a guru (teacher) in ancient India around 150 BCE who compiled the Yoga Sutras, considered the foundational text of the philosophy underlying classical yoga. One of Iyengar's earliest books, Light on Yoga (1966), is an exposition for Westerners of Patanjali's thought.
Iyengar himself was born in Karnataka, India, in 1918 and moved to Pune in 1937 to teach yoga. Iyengar had been a sickly and malnourished child who discovered in adolescence that yoga was beneficial to his health. As a teacher of yoga, Iyengar began to experiment with various innovations in his teaching method, including the use of props to help students master the asanas. He gained a reputation as an excellent instructor, began to learn English, and married his wife Ramamani in 1943. Iyengar's introduction to the West began with his friendship with the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, whom he met in 1952. Menuhin arranged for Iyengar to teach yoga in England and western Europe, and these classes contributed to the growing interest in yoga in the West. It was the 1966 publication of Light on Yoga that is credited with stimulating interest in yoga around the world. The book has been translated into 17 languages and is sometimes called “the Bible of yoga.”
Iyengar retired from active teaching in 1984 following the death of his wife, but still travelled occasionally to teach master classes in various countries. He offered a master class in the United States in 2005. Iyengar's daughter Geeta and son Prashant are continuing their father's work as master teachers of Iyengar yoga.
The most distinctive aspects of Iyengar yoga are its emphasis on technique, pose sequence, and the length of time the poses are held. Iyengar yoga is focused on the proper alignment of the body as the key to greater vitality and better health. Students are expected to learn a pose as well as they possibly can; Iyengar instructors are very much involved with students, observing them closely and correcting their poses or overall body alignment as often as necessary. The use of such props as chairs, rolled blankets, straps, ropes, blocks, and similar items is intended to help students gain self-confidence in their practice as well as to offer support to tired or physically limited students as they learn the poses.
In terms of sequencing, introductory Iyengar yoga begins with standing poses to build strong legs, improve circulation, aid the student's sense of balance, and prepare for more advanced poses. One pose that students learn as soon as they are ready is the shoulder stand. At the intermediate or advanced levels, students are introduced to forward bends and back bends, twists, inversions, and restorative poses. They are also introduced to pranayama, or yogic breathing exercises, at the intermediate level.
The third distinctive feature of Iyengar yoga is the timing of the poses. Rather than rushing through the various asanas during a class session, students are encouraged to move slowly into a pose until they feel steady and secure in it, and then hold the pose for some time. Iyengar instructors believe that this slow-motion approach to the asanas yields benefits in the form of deeper spiritual awareness as well as better understanding of one's body.
Most Iyengar classes taught in the United States and Canada run between 90 minutes and 2 hours in length. Average fees range between US$15 and US$25 per class. Individual instruction fees typically run about US$150 per hour. There are usually four levels of class instruction offered:
Some Iyengar studios in larger cities offer classes for specific groups of people:
Iyengar yoga has been studied by medical researchers more than any other style of yoga, partly because it has been practiced in the West longer than some other yoga traditions, and partly because Iyengar \ developed specific programs for applying his style of yoga to such conditions as high blood pressure, depression, insomnia, back problems, and menopause. He worked personally with survivors of heart attacks.
People attending an Iyengar yoga class should wear shorts or footless tights and a sleeveless or tank top or leotard that allows them to move easily and allows the teacher to observe the position of their limbs. They should avoid wearing strong perfume or aftershave and remove heavy jewelry before class.
Iyengar yoga should be practiced on an empty or nearly empty stomach. It is best to wait two to three hours after a heavy meal and an hour after a light snack before taking a class.
Iyengar yoga is less risky for beginners or people with physical limitations because the instructors are trained to tailor the asanas and breathing exercises to individual needs. In addition, the use of props helps students relax and gain self-confidence, thus reducing the risk of falls or overstraining the body while attempting to perform an asana.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recommends that anyone considering any form of yoga practice should consult their health care provider before starting the program. They should not use yoga as a substitute for conventional medical treatment and they should not postpone seeing a doctor about any health problem they already have. Lastly, they should ask the instructors at a yoga studio about their training and certification, and about the physical demands of the type of yoga taught in the studio.
Primary care physicians (and in some cases, specialists in fields like orthopedic surgery, cardiology, sports medicine, or physical therapy) may be consulted by patients for a health evaluation before starting a Iyengar yoga program. Children interested in this form of yoga should be checked by their pediatrician.
Persons who have not studied yoga before or who have studied another style of yoga are advised to begin Iyengar yoga classes at the introductory level. Those with health concerns or limitations should consult the instructor beforehand so that he or she can modify the various asanas and breathing exercises (or suggest alternatives) so that the student can practice safely. In addition, certain asanas are not considered suitable for pregnant or menstruating women; Iyengar instructors provide alternatives for these women to use during a class.
Individuals considering this form of yoga should consult their doctor first, make sure they are studying with a qualified instructor, and be aware of any potential health risks.
Most students of Iyengar yoga find that this style of yoga improves balance, coordination, flexibility, and stamina. As people progress beyond the beginner level, they usually find themselves relaxing more deeply and improving their powers of mental concentration in addition to physical strength and range of motion.
Another common reaction on the part of persons who practice Iyengar yoga is that they gradually move into deeper forms of meditation and self-awareness. The integration of the physical and spiritual dimensions of human life is an important benefit of this approach to yoga for many practitioners.
There appears to be a growing consensus that Iyengar yoga is beneficial in relieving the depressed mood and physical pain associated with many chronic health conditions, as well as improving patients' flexibility, ease of movement, and overall energy level. Several groups of researchers have noted that Iyengar yoga appears to be a particularly useful approach in treating patients who have never studied yoga, are obese, or have other conditions that require modifications of, or alternatives to, some of the asanas.
Most persons who take Iyengar yoga classes for specific physical disorders find that their conditions improve.
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B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga, 1107 B/1 Hare Krishna Mandir Rd., Model Colony, Shivaji Nagar, Pune, 411 016, Maharashtra, India, 9120-2565 6134, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.bksiyengar.com .
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Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, PO Box 538, Seattle, WA, 98111, (206) 623-3562, http://www.iynaus.org .
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD