Description of Iyengar Yoga by Gabriella Giubilaro
Importance of Alignment
Iyengar yoga is named after B.K.S. Iyengar, a modern day master of yoga.
Iyengar yoga is most famous for its emphasis on proper alignment. Alignment of the bones and joints leads to better balance with less work of the muscles. In this way we gain more stability in the asanas with less effort. Proper alignment improves circulation, creates inner space (literally in the joints), and brings a balanced flow of energy through the whole body, which leads to health and well being. Attention to alignment in yoga is much more than making a list of points to remember while performing asanas. It is about developing a body awareness that reaches into all aspects of life.
Beginner students disturb other parts of the body when they make adjustments. For example, beginners will often turn the head when they want to twist the spine. Mature practitioners develop a body awareness that is expressed in two ways. First, through an understanding of how everything is connected, they are able to make any adjustment without disturbing the rest of the body. Second, they are able to maintain adjustments as "body memory". Body awareness provides the means to open areas of the body that are blocked. This is one of the reasons why Iyengar yoga has been so successful in promoting wellness.
Through his teaching, Iyengar has shown us how to understand connections between the different parts of the body. He teaches that the spine receives the work of the legs and arms. This principle is so fundamental that it applies in all asanas. For example, in both standing and inverted poses action of the feet and legs can make the spine extend. Instead of working directly in one part of the body, which is often not effective, we instead need to understand connections. Iyengar has taught us that the yoga asanas are not just a set of postures developed long ago, but rather involve exploration, discovery, and mastery of connections attained through practice.
Action vs. Movement
When we practice Iyengar yoga, we discover the difference between action and movement. As a beginning practitioner, our attention is able to observe only the peripheral body and external movements. This is what is called physical movement. With refinement, we slowly come to understand a different way of practice. We learn how to use all the senses of perception to feel not only what is happening in our peripheral body, but also what is happening inside our body. It is then that we arrive at the point described by Iyengar "when the mind acts as a bridge between the muscular movements and the organs of perceptions, and introduces the intellect and connects it to every part of the body." We learn to discriminate with the mind and to analyze what we feel within our bodies. This is what is called action. Action is when we create internal stretch, a movement that is imperceptible to an outside observer, but that brings intelligence and wisdom to our poses.
Personalizing the Asanas
Through continuous practice and by being able to penetrate deeper and deeper within himself, Iyengar has gained much wisdom from yoga. Based on understanding of his own body, he has taught his students how to penetrate all levels of the body: the physical, the organic, and the mental. He teaches the importance of personalizing the asana practice by carefully choosing which asanas to practice, what sequence to arrange them in, and how to practice them (active or passive, unsupported or supported with props). This personalization of the asana practice allows us to meet personal needs according to changes in our physiology, psychology, and state of health.
Another aspect of Iyengar yoga is the use of different props, including blocks, blankets, belts, and benches. If a person would benefit from an asana -- at physical, organic, or mental levels -- but is unable to assume the pose because of lack of ability or strength, a prop can be used for support. With props, even a person who is disabled or very sick can benefit from the asanas. The props allow all students to remain in the poses longer. Staying in a pose only for a brief time primarily affects the physical body. By remaining in poses longer, the benefits penetrate deeper into organic and mental levels.
We, who are fortunate to study continuously with Iyengar, have experienced directly not only his words but also his energy, which has guided us to penetrate deeper into our asana and our own bodies. Each of us has learned how to give our best, to experience our limits, and to touch the unknown, something that is hard to do on our own. We have learned not only how to guide students with verbal explanations and demonstrations, but also how to teach and correct students with touch, and thus enable them to experience something that it would take years to attain without our help.
A Living Master
Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar is now 83 years old, yet he has lost none of his energy when he is practicing or teaching. His refinement of intelligence continues to expand. In his words: "I do not stretch the body today, which I used to do in my thirties, fifties, all these years, now I stretch my intelligence in my body, to expand it, so that it is the intelligence that stretches my body."