What is Iyengar Yoga?
You know you are in an Iyengar Yoga studio by the blankets. There is a pile of them. They are stacked in the studio on a shelf that is the precise size the shelf needs to be to hold the stack of blankets. Each blanket is folded the same way, neat side out. Usually, there is a small sign or notice near the stack explaining the right way to fold the blankets and politely asking you to comply.
You know you are an Iyengar Yoga student if you find yourself refolding blankets that have been folded incorrectly, or if you notice and rectify messy ends. You find yourself doing this quietly, while you are waiting for other instructions or while you are preparing to enter a pose.
You know you are practicing Iyengar Yoga because you care about the blankets. You care about the blocks, the bolsters and the belts. The chairs. The ropes. The setu-bunda bench and the backbenger. You care about these things because they change the way you understand the asana and your experience of the asana. They allow you in to yoga, no matter what your starting point was when you began all those years ago, or when you began your practice today.
It is these props that most often define Iyengar yoga in the eyes of the novice, or the broader yoga world. People see Iyengar and think props, or see props and think Iyengar. And while it is true that BKS Iyengar's use and development of props was innovative, for him, they served a greater purpose. They helped make the true features of yoga accessible for all.
But there is more to the Iyengar system than props. As Mr Iyengar said, yoga is a about creating ultimate freedom. He was referring to freedom of the body, the mind and of the self. These freedoms are like layers of understanding, each leading to a deeper knowledge. In the same way the body itself has layers of skin, muscle, tendon, bone, and organs, so these layers (or sheaths, in the yoga language), allow us to delve deeper into our mind, and our consciousness, with the starting point, or the outer layer, being the body.
So, what have blankets to do with freedom of consciousness?
I can only talk from my own experience. Before I began practicing yoga, I was highly strung, stressed, and running mostly on adrenalin. Past trauma meant that I was mostly dissociated, which means I didn't inhabit my body. I was so absent from my physical experience that I used to get mystery bruises from bumping into furniture without knowing I had done so.
My first yoga class happened to be at an Iyengar school, but this was merely a coincidence (or not!), as I didn't expressly choose Iyengar. I think now that if I hadn't gone to an Iyengar class I may not have become a student of yoga. My first teacher, Justin Herold, was quiet and deliberate in his movements and his teaching. Every class began the same way, with supta virasana, and I experienced and observed his same questions of every new student. Sit between your feet. Do you have pain in your ankles or knees? Get two blankets and a bolster. Lie back. Sit up. Get two blocks and another blanket. And on it would go, until he was satisfied the student had the right props to begin their experience of their first asana.
This experience of the asana, no matter what the physical abilities, is the doorway to freedom in the body. For me, it was the doorway to my body. The attention to precision and to technique invited me to consider my inner heel, or the bridge of my nose – to notice that I even had an inner heel was a transformation. Not just consider, but to ponder, to contemplate, and to explore.
Gradually, then, I began to inhabit my body. My initial introduction to the inner heel gave way to deeper understandings of muscles, ligaments, bones. Of action and counteraction, of balance and stability. The Iyengar system's emphasis on alignment and technique keeps each asana fresh, as the asana are never fully mastered. The props support alignment, which create knowledge about how the asana are to be experienced. Props, too, allow different experiences of the asana. Parivrtta Parsvakonasana is understood differently against the wall, or on a chair, or with bricks. These experiences invite the engagement of intelligence: "what happens when I lift my collarbone?"
Other aspects of the Iyengar system extend the freedom of the body to the freedom of the mind. Timing is another important feature. Lengthy holds promote experience on the physical level, but also promotes mental freedom. Sometimes this is first experienced as a lack of freedom. I remember my first experience of resistance. Of anger at my teacher for making me hold a pose for a ridiculously long period of time (probably 30 seconds); for not seeing that I was suffering and for banging on about the inner heel or something stupid! Then, one day, my teacher starting telling the class what we were thinking, that we were mad at her for not releasing us, or we felt abandoned by her because she hadn't told us to put our arms down, or that our sudden "need to pee" right when she was about to take us in to Virabradasana I was an old tape, played by every student since the dawn of time. With this gentle humour, she invited us to consider how we reacted to our practice, and how we react to other things in our life that make us uncomfortable.
After a while, I began to notice that discomfort was merely discomfort. It didn't need fixing. It could be just experienced. That some days I hated yoga and some days I loved it, and so it was with my life. I began to learn about patience, and acceptance. I began to breath in traffic rather than bellow. As Mr Iyengar once said, I began to "bring my mind and my intelligence to stretch as my muscles stretch, and to contract as my muscles contract."
Even though, so far, my experience of Iyengar yoga has largely been of the asanas, I am beginning to understand how this practice can ultimately lead to freedom of the self. How the ability to be fully present to our own experience, and connected to a tradition of wisdom that dates back thousands of years, can allow me to free myself from today's knee pain or petty frustrations.
And the blankets? In a totally different context, I once met a teacher who said, "how you do one thing is how you do everything". Iyengar teachers and students fold their blankets neatly because they understand how alignment matters, how the way you fold your body matters, and how one small thing, fully experienced and fully understood, can lead to intelligence and consciousness.