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

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