B.K.S. Iyengar

Making yoga accessible to all

B.K.S. Iyengar outside his home in Pune, India

On a crisp winter morning, only the sound of pranayama (slow, extended breathing) from 20 practitioners can be heard in a class at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York. Structured around a gradual intensification of backbends, this particular session, taught by James Murphy, director of Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York, resembles the escalation of a ballet barre. Like the progression of tendus, dégagés and grands battements that focuses on the legs, the backbend series, done with a chair, blankets and mats, attends to the spine. Iyengar Yoga can be a boon to dancers, says Murphy, who is a former dancer with Nikolais Dance Theatre. "I had a lot of tension from the stress of touring. Iyengar Yoga gave me insight into how to have a more balanced body-mind approach to living."

From The Juilliard School to California Institute of the Arts, dance departments across the country are offering yoga classes. After all, it develops strength, increases awareness of breath and creates muscular balance.

Ask a professional dancer if she has practiced yoga and a resounding "yes" will most likely follow. But what many dancers don't know is that the current popularity of yoga stems in great part from the work of B.K.S. Iyengar, who helped to bring the 3,000-year-old oral tradition and physical practice of yoga westward. He wrote the best-selling Light on Yoga in 1966, and a few years later, the establishment of his institute in Pune, India, helped proliferate his system, notable for its use of props and its systematic breakdown of asanas (yoga poses) into digestible steps.

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar was born in 1918 during the global influenza epidemic in Karnataka, India. Because of his subsequent bouts with malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis, doctors predicted Iyengar wouldn't see his 21st birthday. At age 16, Iyengar began studying yoga under the guidance of his sister's husband, and his intensive practice of asanas dramatically improved his health and outlook. Soon after, he began teaching and leading yoga demonstrations across India, and by 1943, he was practicing up to 10 hours a day.

In 1952, the renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin became his student. Crediting Iyengar's method with improving his playing, Menuhin introduced Iyengar to royalty and artists, and four years later, Iyengar visited the United States for the first time. No one was interested in yoga, Iyengar recalled in his 2005 book Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. But a seed had been planted, and when he visited the U.S. again, 10 years later, he was surprised to find hundreds of yoga practitioners greeting him, ready to learn.

One early yoga practitioner was Merce Cunningham. After injuring his back while performing for the Martha Graham Dance Company, Cunningham embarked on intensive yoga study. Today, Cunningham's codified warm-up can be seen as influenced by asanas, which articulate every part of the body. His choreography includes complex, asymmetrical balances, which bear relationship to yoga's standing poses.

Similar to a dance class, an instructor teaches an Iyengar Yoga class through demonstrations, verbal instructions and hands-on applications. And through repetition of the asanas, students learn about their bodies. "To the yogi," Iyengar writes, "the body is a laboratory for life, a field of experimentation and perpetual research." Iyengar's experimentation in yoga is most evident in his use of props, such as blankets, belts, ropes, chairs and blocks. Giving people support, freedom and safeguarding them from injury, the props Iyengar introduced helped make his method accessible to all.

While the practice of Iyengar Yoga is egalitarian, becoming an expert requires a major time commitment. There are 14 levels of certification, and even the most introductory level (in which the instructor is still referred to as a teacher-in-training) requires at least three years of intense training and an apprenticeship with a mentor before even applying. Then comes two years of teaching Iyengar Yoga, then testing. Although there are satellite Iyengar Yoga institutes in the U.S. and Europe, instructors and practitioners can only train with the master at his studio in Pune, India, after 10 years of study. Patricia Walden and Manouso Manos are the only instructors to hold senior advanced certificates in North America; their titles reflect their decades-long work with the guru.

During the 1990s, the yoga field became flooded with teachers who knew little about injury prevention and who promised tighter buns and abs. To maintain the integrity of Iyengar Yoga, the certification process is very rigorous. "Don't practice for cosmetic beauty," advised Iyengar, "practice for cosmic beauty."

Murphy finds that some students come to Iyengar Yoga for beautification, but in time, he says, they recognize that working their muscles is just the tip of the iceberg. "There is a balance between action and inaction," he says. "Iyengar Yoga is also about letting go, about how to work (and live) with less tension."

With this philosophy, Iyengar's teachings have hit a nerve among stressed urban professionals. Seeking a balanced body requires patience and unwavering practice. At 94, Iyengar is still practicing, and he continues to pass on his tradition at his home and institute in Pune. "The asanas," says Murphy, "are the beginning. A way to start to look at and understand your self, a way to develop and discover who you are." DT

Fast Facts:

  • - In June 2011, Iyengar traveled to China and instructed 1,400 people for more than three hours.
  • - In 2004, TIME magazine named Iyengar one of the top 100 icons of the year.
  • - He has written 14 books, the most influential being Light on Yoga (1966), which has been translated into 17 languages.
  • - The Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States has 12 regional chapters across the country. Visit www.iynaus.org for more information and to find a teacher near you.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:

Books by B.K.S. Iyengar

  • Light on Yoga, 1966, 1995
  • Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom, 2005
  • The Art of Yoga, 2001
  • Tree of Yoga, 1988, 2002
  • Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health, 2008

Videos

  • Yoga Journal Presents: Iyengar Intensive at Estes Park DVD Set, 2005
  • Iyengar Yoga With Gabriella, 2003
  • B.K.S. Iyengar, Yoga '93 - Six Standing Poses, 1993

Rachel Straus teaches dance history at The Juilliard School.

Photo: B.K.S. Iyengar, by Raya UD, courtesy of Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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