What is Iyengar Yoga and is it good for Beginners?

Beginners Yoga class in Kirkcaldy, Fife.
Beginners Level Yoga class with Jo Mitchell Yoga at Strive Health, In Kirkcaldy, Fife.

What is Yoga and what is Iyengar Yoga?

‘Yoga’ is a word which comes from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’  which means to ‘join together’ or concentrate attention.   Yoga is one aspect of Indian philosophy and the first text on the subject is seen in the classical work, ‘Yoga Sutras’ of Patanjali, a book of 185 short passages.  

Yoga is one of the oldest systems of personal development in the world. Its aim – to balance the body, mind and spirit – was formulated by ancient yogis. They understood our essential human nature and realised a way to use our inner resources to live in harmony with ourselves and the environment.

Yoga asanas (poses) and pranayama (awareness of the breath) aim to reach all the muscles, nerves and glands of the body and promote physical and mental health.

Beginners Yoga class with Jo Mitchell Yoga.
Join a Beginners Yoga class with Jo Mitchell Yoga.

The Iyengar Approach to Yoga

 

Iyengar yoga uses the ancient techniques of yoga, as understood and practised over many years by Yogacharya Sri B.K.S. Iyengar of Pune, South India. In his many world-renowned books he systematised over 200 postures and breathing techniques and their anatomical background.

 

He showed how the various parts of the body can be positioned correctly so that each individual part, as well as the physiological system can function to their best potential. The Iyengar method is a challenge to the intelligence as the mind needs to focus on awareness in, and of, the posture. Body and mind are stretched beyond their everyday limits and begin to act in unison.

 

The idea of meditation in action is a keynote of the Iyengar system. Being totally aware and absorbed in the poses as they are being done is meditation: body and mind communicate at a subtle level and are harmonized. The Iyengar method is not just a sophisticated form of physical exercise and deep breathing. It is a spiritual practice aimed at integrating mind, body and inner self.

 

Attending an Iyengar Yoga class is different from a trip to the gym. Yes you will move your body but the way in which you move your body is different. 

 

Your Iyengar Yoga teacher will provide you with instructions that require you to move in a different way and develop a sensitivity or awareness in your body that won’t happen in a regular gym or fitness class. 

 

Here’s an example lifted from Path to Holistic Health by BKS Iyengar. 

 

“Mr Iyengar taught his students to awaken the intelligence within. This allows practitioners to sharpen their awareness resulting in an inner action.”

 

How does this ‘sharpening of intelligence’ happen? Here’s a description of the types of instruction typical of Iyengar Yoga.  During Tadasana, otherwise known as mountain pose, Mr Iyengar went beyond “stand with your legs and feet joined together”. He asked the students to question the need to align the inner and outer foot. Alignment increase the sensitivity in the foot and balances the energy. Then the practitioner lifts both sides of the knee resulting in a firm grip of the quadriceps, moving it closer to the thigh bones. In Tadasana, the firmness in the thighs leads to a lift in the gastric and lower abdominal region. This in turn elates the thoracic and organic region, the breath automatically becomes deeper and more rhythmic with corresponding changes to the senses, mind and emotions.”

 

Feet in Tadasana Iyengar Yoga for beginners
It's all about the feet. Feet are critical to your body alignment.

Why is Iyengar Yoga great for beginners.

 

There are many reasons why Iyengar Yoga stands apart from other schools or methods of Yoga however if you are new to yoga, it can be difficult to recognise them. It all may seem like Yoga but over time, you begin to recognise the differences. 
 

It starts in your first class with the instructions given by your teacher. If you are thinking about coming along to an Iyengar Yoga class, I would encourage you to have a go at this at home. 

Try standing with your legs and feet joined together. Join the inner feet at the heels, ball of the foot and big toes if you can. Now try and balance the inner and outer foot. See what starts to happen in your legs. It might not be instant and may take a few moments but observe what starts to happen in your feet and legs as they become aligned.  Notice too if there’s a corresponding change up through your abdomen.  

There an excellent Pose of the Month Guide on the Yoga on Tay website that helps detail the types of instructions you would hear in a beginners level Iyengar Yoga class.  Yoga on Tay is an Iyengar Yoga studio based in Newport on Tay in Fife and I teach a beginners level class there on a Wednesday evening at 6pm. Find out more about Yoga on Tay. 

 

The use of props in Iyengar Yoga

The influence of BKS Iyengar will be felt in every yoga class across the world. His seminal publication Light on Yoga in 1965, published by Allen & Unwin, London is now translated into 18 languages. He pioneered the use of yoga props to help every body access the benefits of the pose without necessarily being able to achieve the full, final, classic pose. 

The image below shows using the chair to help achieve alignment and extension in Trikonasana ( triangle pose). The classic pose involves the hand coming to the ground but here a chair is used to help these students extend and revolve around their spines, extending the spine and opening the chest. These students will be experiencing more of the benefits of the pose and the correct actions than if they had taken their hands to the floor. They may not get their hands to the floor today but they will be developing the awareness to progress to the full pose in time. 

Rushing to take the hand to the floor in Trikonasana as a beginner, can often cause the bottom to stick out behind, the lift through the legs is lost and the chest closes and faces the floor. It’s the role of your yoga teacher to spot this and help you find the alignment, extension and direction that will help you progress towards the classic pose and enjoy the benefits of the pose. 

Friday Beginners Yoga class at Strive in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland.
The use of props in Iyengar Yoga

Being ‘good’ at Yoga

New students that come to class for the first time, can often be heard saying ‘I’m no good at yoga’, especially after falling out of a balancing pose or coming up short in standing forward extension that involves taking the hands towards the toes. 

I enjoy hearing this as it gives me the opportunity to say ‘Hold on, no-one is bad at yoga!” Yoga is about developing sensitivity in the body not achieving the perfect pose. No-one ever achieves the perfect pose. It’s all practice. Sometimes or some days, poses can feel absolutely perfect but it’s usually temporary and that’s ok. Yoga practice becomes about the feeling inside. This is why you often hear experienced yogis describe it as ‘deepening their practice.’ Over time yoga practice is about developing sensitivity in your body. this is the Yog of yoga, union of body, mind, breath. Breath, body, mind. Mind, body breath. Substitute breath for soul if you like. These layers in the body are known as kosas. Our awareness and perception of them evolves through our yoga practice. 

Being ‘good at yoga’ is an interesting idea as you will have poses that come easily to your body and poses that don’t. I am constantly surprised in class at the poses I think some will find difficult performed with ease and vice versa. It just goes to show that every body and every person is unique. We all have the same bones, tendons and muscles but how they all operate and function, and how we can all get them to operate and function is different. 

Certified Iyengar Yoga teacher Jo Mitchell on Seafield beach in Kirkcaldy, Fife.

If you are interested in trying Iyengar Yoga, you can sign up for a class with me. Find out the available class times

Is Iyengar Yoga hard?

Beginners level standing twist during Jo Mitchell Yoga class for beginners.
Beginners yoga class with a standing twist

Yes and no. Many beginners or practitioners from other methods of yoga do describe Iyengar Yoga as hard however it’s like many of the best things in life, they have to be worked for to be achieved. The precision and alignment that you learn in Iyengar Yoga takes time to master but once you understand the guiding principles, you will be rewarded with the benefits of  a safe and progressive method of yoga. 

Is Iyengar Yoga good for beginners?

Absolutely! Iyengar Yoga is very much a slow cook. It’s very safe and structured for beginners. Many of my new students leave their first class and message me later with the same thing. ‘Thanks very much that was great. My legs are feeling it but in a good way.’ It’s not the same as going to a gym session as the way that you are asked to move in an Iyengar Yoga class requires more thought and precision. This often activates deeper muscle layers than you use on a day to day basis. 
 

"Iyengar Yoga is a holistic experience that benefits the body, mind and emotions. The driving force behind Iyengar Yoga is BKS Iyengar's belief that yoga is for everyone and it is effective in reducing modern-day stress. "