Yoga Styles 101: An Introduction to Iyengar Yoga
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All yoga styles combine physical poses with deep breathing and meditation, to create a balance in the body and mind.
But keeping tabs on them and choosing the right style for your goals could be quite a chore.
Rest assured, we are here to help.
In the coming weeks, we are sharing insightful articles that comprise detailed information on the main yoga styles. We hope that, by doing so, you’ll be able to choose the style that suits you best or encourage you to try something new.
In the meantime, let’s talk about Iyengar Yoga, a style that emphasizes precision and proper alignment with the help of various props.
Each class is a unique sequence and is designed in such a way that it gives the student a sense of confidence, courage, and optimism.
In this article, you’ll learn more about its history, what makes Iyengar Yoga different from the other yoga styles, its benefits, as well as other types of yoga that have derived from it.
But first, what is Iyengar Yoga?
Photo credit: YogaOnCrete
Iyengar Yoga is a methodical and deeply researched yoga system developed more than 75 years ago by Yogacharya BKS Iyengar.
What is unique about Iyengar Yoga is that the practice of asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing) is combined with an innovative approach emphasizing precision and alignment, planned sequencing, timing, and the use of props, such as bolsters, benches, bricks, straps, and sandbags.
This approach to yoga has allowed people of varying ages, levels of health, and fitness to enjoy the benefits that a sustained yoga practice can bring.
Mr. Iyengar described his yoga as “Patanjali Yoga” and says:
“I have no right to brand my practices or teachings as Iyengar Yoga. My pupils, who follow me, call it Iyengar Yoga. The only thing I am doing is to bring out the in-depth, the hidden qualities of Yoga to the awareness of you all. What I do is pure, authentic traditional Yoga. It is wrong to differentiate traditional yoga Iyengar Yoga, as it is also not fair to brand Yoga, as Raja-yoga, Hatha-yoga, Laya-yoga, Kundalini-yoga, Taraka-yoga and so forth. There is no distinction between one Yoga and another. Yoga, like God is one.”
During an Iyengar Yoga class, the way postures are taught is the same worldwide. The specific asanas are selected by the teacher for a specific class to achieve a specific goal. But the “catalogue” of poses is the same, no matter who teaches the class. This means you can easily fit in anywhere you join an Iyengar Yoga class.
What Iyengar Yoga lacks compared to some other types is flow. While Vinyasa Yoga focuses on the fluid transition from one pose to another, Iyengar holds the poses a longer time while the alignment is perfected. This absence of the Vinyasa flow is what brings the Iyengar method within reach for a broader population.
Thanks to its accessibility and safety, Iyengar Yoga continues to be one of the most popular styles practiced today.
» Read more about Vinyasa Yoga
History of Iyengar Yoga
The term “Iyengar Yoga” was coined by students of Mr. Iyengar in the 1970s to distinguish his approach from other styles of yoga. However, Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga come from the same lineage.
B.K.S. Iyengar was born in December 1918 in India and started practicing yoga to improve his health. He was taught yoga his brother-in-law, T. Krishnamacharya. In 1936 he started teaching yoga.
The foundation of the Iyengar Yoga Institute was laid in 1975, when the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute was founded in Pune, India. Less than a decade later, in 1982, Iyengar Yoga Institute was founded in London. To ensure the quality of teaching, Mr. Iyengar would personally assess the teachers each year.
As American and European students began practicing yoga in the 1960s, Mr. Iyengar’s method rose to prominence. He is wildly credited for bringing yoga to the West and his influence on modern asana practice cannot be overstated.
His book, Light on Yoga, has been continuously published since 1966 and represents the seminal text for Iyengar Yoga students and teachers around the world.
Certified Iyengar Yoga Teachers (CIYTs) undergo rigorous training and evaluation to earn their certifications and only they can describe their method of instruction as "Iyengar Yoga."
Elements of Iyengar Yoga
Iyengar Yoga focuses on three aspects: alignment, sequencing, and timing.
Alignment means maintaining the pose (asana) while respecting the body’s boundaries. Various props are used to help students with an asana without putting them at risk.
An effective alignment will help achieve a balance between the body, breath, and mind.
Sequencing refers to the order of postures that are practiced so that a safe and structured progression is ensured.
Timing refers to how long the asana is held for. Unlike Vinyasa Yoga, in Iyengar, the poses are held for longer. When stability is achieved, it is possible to safely intensify the depth of the pose.
Benefits of Iyengar Yoga
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No matter what yoga style you choose to practice, there are countless benefits for your physical and mental wellbeing.
Iyengar Yoga, being one of the most traditional types of yoga, benefits and heals the whole body greatly.
Among the advantages of a constant Iyengar yoga practice is the ability to face the physical, mental, and emotional challenges of contemporary life with strength, vitality, mobility, thoughtfulness, and equanimity.
Iyengar works from the premise that sustained and constant practice helps not only to address health issues but also to prevent them.
The slow, gentle practice and the use of props enable anyone – from beginner to advanced – to benefit from the effect of holding the stretches in a correct position. And the more you practice, the more you’ll increase your flexibility.
Having to hold each pose, helps you build strength and tone the entire body.
Focusing on the alignment, Iyengar helps you strengthen the muscles responsible for the posture. Soon enough you’ll find yourself sitting and standing straighter. It will give you increased confidence and more energy.
As you hold the asana and consider your alignment, you also need to pay attention to your breath. Iyengar helps you breathe properly off the mat, too.
And you also need to ignore all your thoughts and be in the present moment. You can then view Iyengar as a type of meditation that will help you achieve a calmer mind.
Iyengar teaches you to love your body. Improving your physical and mental condition leads, in turn, to healthier lifestyle choices.
Yoga styles based on Iyengar
Using props to help with proper alignment, Iyengar Yoga paved the way for gentle yoga styles that encourage students to take it slow, relax, and be in tune with their bodies.
All the styles derived from Iyengar are passive and only a handful of poses are practiced during each class.
Let’s take a look at them:
Anusara Yoga is a more joyful and inclusive style of yoga. It is based on the Tantric philosophy and emphasizes alignment and heart-centered movement. Anusara encourages moving the body as a celebration of your true nature. Classes often include chanting, philosophy, and a quality of movement called “flowing with grace.”
Restorative Yoga is mostly based on the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar. A restorative yoga sequence typically consists of only five or six poses, supported by props. This will help you completely relax and rest. Each pose is held for 5-20 minutes so it may feel that you hardly move at all during such a class, but rest assured that it is truly helping your body.
Scaravelli Yoga is a method that encourages you to take your time. It is intended to be a journey within your limits. The style was created by Vanda Scaravelli, a student of B.K.S. Iyengar. She believed that when we force ourselves into a yoga pose or sequence when we try hard and strain, we do immeasurable harm. Instead, she advocated a style that is all about carefully and subtly working with the body to ease into postures.
Who should practice Iyengar Yoga?
Anyone and everyone can and should practice Iyengar Yoga!
Iyengar Yoga is ideal for those who want to start practicing yoga and have reservations because of physical conditions, such as back problems. It is also recommended to the elderly.
That said, don’t get the idea that an Iyengar yoga class would be easy. Even though the style is adaptable to different levels, you’ll still break a sweat.
While beginners wouldn’t have problems taking a class, advanced practitioners who want to work on their alignment will benefit a lot from Iyengar Yoga, too.
If you have an interest in anatomy, you are meticulous and technical, Iyengar Yoga is certainly for you.
Hero photo credit: YogaOnCrete
If Iyengar Yoga seems too slow, why not try something more fast-paced? Join a Vinyasa Yoga retreat and get in the flow!