Sunday, March 27, 2011

I Got Schooled, Iyengar Style: Iyengar Yoga Institute

There are several different types of yoga and though I love Lauren's Vinyasa flow class and am a devotee to her teachings on Wednesdays and Sundays, I took advantage of the fact that she wasn't teaching today to try something new - specifically, a "general" level class at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Maida Vale.

Despite living less than a 10-minute walk away, I'd always avoided the institute because: a) I don't particularly enjoy Iyengar yoga and b) it, quite frankly, scares the bejesus out of me.

Let's tackle these two issues one at a time: why don't I enjoy Iyengar?  And, is yoga about enjoyment?  Well, the answer to the latter question is yes, I think one should enjoy practicing yoga.  If you don't, there's no point in doing it at all.  To answer the real question at hand, though, you have to understand a little bit more about Iyengar yoga and what it involves ... so read this Wiki entry (and OMG, that picture is SO bad and SO misleading!).  Anyway, Iyengar is too static, rigid and confined for me, as opposed to the great, flowing movements of Ashtanga.  And while I'm careful not to compromise my form when practicing Ashtanga, the precision required of any Iyengar class is enough to make me want to walk through a glass window.  Secondly, the Institute scares me because I know it's good, I know it's serious and I know they don't mess around (i.e. you're supposed to have studied at least 2 years of Iyengar yoga before taking the "general" class level.  I have - I just didn't tell anyone that this was done in the basement conference room of my former employer's offices and taught by a woman who I'm pretty certain never made any trips to Pune (which is, like, the ultimate testament to an instructor's credibility at the Institute) to study with BKS Iyengar himself and almost never made any corrections, which is why I quit in the first place).

But at the encouragement of my co-worker, who has been a regular at the Institute for years, I decided to try the class.  The Institute itself is tucked away on Randolph Avenue - only about a 2-minute walk from Maida Vale tube station - and is a simple, sanctuary-like building.  Studio 1, where my class was held (pictured above) bright white walls, polished wood floor and skylights and floor to ceiling windows looking out into a garden.  It is undoubtedly the most beautiful studio I have ever visited.

The absence of mirrors (which is a no-no in most serious studios) is the first hint that there's no cheating when it comes to alignment: you can't see your reflection, so you need to know how a pose, or asana, feels, when you're doing it correctly.  Gulp.

The regular students quickly filled the room and I was relegated to a corner.  The assistant, Chris, came by with a very nice smile and whispered, "Alaric will probably ask you to move as you don't have much space there, so feel free to take the other corner."  I nodded gratefully and took my mat to the opposite side of the room.  Most students were already lying in supta baddha konasana with all their props neatly arranged beside them (that's something I didn't mention about Iyengar yoga - you're expected to use props to enhance and help your practice.  This can sometimes result in you having two bolstsers, two blankets, four foam blocks, one wooden block and a strap beside your mat.  Aside from having a serious deficiency in remembering things, I'm too dumb to remember what to do with the props - another reason why I find Iyengar yoga tedious).  Then my friend came plodded up and quietly suggested that I move to the middle of the room as I wouldn't be able to see.  So I ended up directly in front of the teacher's raised stage area.  Great.

Suddenly, a loud voice boomed across the floor.  "I want all of you to begin in supta baddha konasana.  You!" he barked at a girl to my left.  "Adjust your belt BEFORE you lie down.  Do it NOW."  Chris hurried over to me and helped me with my belt as I frantically tried to position it correctly.  Class hadn't even begun and I had a feeling I will be kicked out soon.  After much struggling, I managed to lie back on my bolster.  "You!" the teacher barked again, pointing down at me.  By now, my arms were trembling from fear and I had forced myself into the most uncomfortable supta baddha konasana I had ever been in.  "Your back is not long," he growled, quickly adjusting my hips from under me.  "There.  Now, can you feel?" I nodded vigorously.  "Good," he said sternly, moving on.  "Your back cannot be long if your buttocks aren't pulled away from the bolster!"  It was a small adjustment, but made the world of difference.  Again, I was scared, but grateful.

"Now rise up and turn to place your bolster between your knees, balasana."  Shit.  What is 'balasana'?  I sneaked a peek and saw everyone getting into child's pose.  The teacher sat inches away from me.  "If you can't sit back on your heels, place a blanket underneath," he barked, clearly to me.  I reached my arms long in front of me and put my head down on the bolster.  But apparently, my child's pose wasn't good enough.  "You!" he shouted.  I didn't know he was referring to me as my head was down.  He snapped his fingers.  "Helloooo?" he said, annoyed.  I looked up.  "Turn your bolster the other way."  I fumbled about, still quaking.  "Like this?" I asked in a near-whisper.  He grinned, as if to say, "Duh!"  Great, so now I felt stupid in even the safest pose of all.

But it didn't end there.  As we bent over in a forward fold with our legs mat-distance apart, he began to talk us through the muscles in the legs.  My left hamstring had began to twitch and my palms were sweating like mad from nerves.  "Rotate your inner thighs!" he commanded, and flicked his thumbs swiftly across my right, then left hamstrings.  I was familiar with this rotation from Lauren's own instruction and worked hard to turn them the required way.  "The important thing is to RELAX the muscles!" he boomed.  Every time he commanded, "relax!" I did the opposite, involuntarily tensing.  "Straighten your arms!  Contract your triceps!" he barked at the girl next to me.  "Come on!" he said, smacking her arms.  She giggled, as did the rest of the class.  Wait - was I missing something?  Was his toughness merely a joke?  As the new girl, I decided not to test it.  

Throughout the class, I received some terrific corrections.  I found out that I hadn't been stretching my hips flexors properly in a simple seated hip opener due to the way I've been crossing my ankles.  I discovered that I had been tensing the wrong muscles when I sit in upavistha konasana.

Then we came to inversions.  "If you're menstruating, ladies, stay in the middle of the floor and do the following asanas," he boomed.  To be quite honest, I was too scared to mess up my inversions (though I witnessed quite a lot of people kicking up into headstand, which was quite interesting, given the level of perfection this teacher seeks) and face the wrath of the instructor so opted to stay in the middle of the room. 

We finished with with a long savasana (there's even a correct way to do that) where he shook his head and told me I wasn't correctly positioned and worked on our pranayama, or breath control before rising to a seated position for the final "Namaste."  I thanked the teacher and he smiled and replied, "Thank you," in a gentle tone.  The best part was that he didn't tell me to go back to the Beginner's class.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

So - what did I think?  I got my butt kicked (nearly literally).  But in a good way.  And I think I'd like to go back.  Then again, I'm a glutton for punishment.

Photo source


  1. I'm the opposite of you-I love Iyengar but don't like flow. OK, flow gets you sweating a bit more but the poses were never held long enough to feel like I was getting benefit. I love the use of props in Iyengar as they help you get far further than you normally would without falling over or causing yourself an injury and my Iyengar teacher was always coming up with variations of poses on the spot to make it more interesting. Just my opinion!

  2. Thanks for sharing! I love hearing about other peoples' yoga stories. I think flow really appeals to me as someone with a dance background. But I also know a lot of dancers who prefer Iyengar. Ultimately, however, I think it's down to the teacher as well as personal choice. I've nearly walked out of many-a-flow/ashtanga classes because I was frustrated by the instructor. And despite my aversion to Iyengar, I really enjoyed the class on Sunday solely because of the teacher and would definitely like to go back to further develop my practice.

  3. i just love iyengar

  4. You're so brave. I would have cried.

  5. I have just attended a 'beginners course' at the Institute Maida Vale.. I have been attending the amazing Triyoga, but found Maida vale more local so gave it a go alongside attending Triyoga. I found The Institute snobbish and the complete antithesis of what i have come to love about yoga- i.e. it was not a spiritual; compassionate; loving; and fulfilling mind and body experience. It was gruff and intimidating. It served to inhibit rather than encourage me- perhaps its the 'cruel to be kind' approach. It seems that the author of the piece had a similar experience, and with a different teacher to the one i had which suggests its endemic. The teachers obviously experienced the approach themselves in their training and copied the approach as is standard for humans beings, or its particular to their institute, justified by some kind of yoga snobbery perhpas- we are so very suggestible; and impressionable after all- indoctrinated into all kinds of behaviours we unconsciously 'copy cat' with little free will. It can be seen the world over. Well i get enough of this kind of nonsense in the 'real world' and think the Institute has missed a large part of 'the point' of yoga..
    The essential body shape composition of Iyengar teachers is different to that of the 'standard' yoga teacher too- the Iyengar body shape is stockier and less long and lean. Alongside the obvious physical reasons, I think this may also be a reflection of the 'works philosophy' approach in place of championing innate intelligence and grace. This remains food for thought for me..
    The next time someone barks at me- i will bark back. I think sticking up for myself wld probably do more for my sense of well bing than anything else!

    1. Hi misspy1 - thanks for finding this old blog post and sharing your experience! I actually didn't go back to the Institute after that (mostly because we moved, but also because I decided that I really didn't like Iyengar that much) and I noticed the difference between the yoga studios that I loved, which have a lot of the good characteristics you described above i.e. spiritual, compassionate, loving, etc. It's interesting to hear your different experiences at Triyoga (which I have been meaning to try for ages) and at the Iyengar Institute. And you're right: we encounter enough of the "nonsense" you described above in the 'real world' to have to deal with it in our personal time, so that's why I'm sticking to the studios that continue to encourage and foster a supportive, warm, and friendly environment.

  6. Thanks for sharing the post.. parents are worlds best person in each lives of individual..they need or must succeed to sustain needs of the family. Kelowna Yoga


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