Iyengar yoga classes incorporate wall ropes to assist poses, like using the ropes to assist the inverted poses pictured above.
Iyengar yoga will appeal to anyone wanting to develop a strong foundation for lifelong flexibility, but especially to the uninitiated man who craves pragmatic instruction and is wary of yoga's woo-woo side
On a sunny Saturday morning, my husband and I went to our first Iyengar yoga class – and his first yoga class, ever – at The Yoga Space, located just behind the Olympic Village on False Creek in Vancouver.
It took me 14 years to convince him to come to a yoga class and it was worth the wait because there could not have been a better class for his introduction.
The class (and Iyengar in general) was very different from any other kind of yoga I’ve experienced, from Moksha to Ashtanga to Kundalini.
Through an intimate Level 1 class with instructor Roberta Vommaro followed by a lengthy chat with studio director Louie Ettling, we learned what makes Iyengar yoga so different from other forms, and why it’s the perfect type of yoga for a reluctant man.
Iyengar Yoga is Based on the System Developed by B.K.S. Iyengar
B.K.S. Iyengar (pictured above) was born in India in 1918, became a student of yoga in his early teens, developed a unique approach to his practice, and brought his yoga to the West in the 1960s. He continues to practice yoga daily – including long unsupported headstands – and inspires students around the world, at an astounding 93 years of age.
Iyengar developed a form of yoga that was accessible to anyone and everyone, another factor that draws the less-flexible-gender to his no-nonsense classes. “It’s yoga for everybody, irrespective of age, gender, capacity and level of health,” says Ettling.
“[Iyengar] was actually the first teacher who officially brought any prop into a yoga room,” she says. “The purpose of his prop system was not only to make the pose easier but, in fact, to make the pose more real, more corrective, more transformative.”
The props that struck me most when we first entered the room were the ropes. Eighteen sets of ropes line the back wall of the room and students set their mats up in line with the ropes. We also used blankets, blocks, straps and chairs to assist us with different asanas, or poses.
Iyengar Yoga is Practical, Precise and Disciplined
My husband had a trendy, hippie, chanting view of yoga before ever trying it and was pleasantly surprised to discover the practical and precise approach to Iyengar yoga.
“It was very similar to my experience in martial arts classes,” he says, “where a technique is demonstrated and then the instructor walks around the room giving corrections where needed.”
Iyengar’s instructor certification process is a very rigorous one. Students are only eligible to begin the teacher-training process after maintaining a regular daily practice and then they go through a minimum of three years of basic teacher training based on an internationally recognized curriculum, followed by lifelong continuing education.
“It takes many years,” says Ettling. “The levels of sophistication are like any martial arts form, [the training] goes on, on and on.”
Ettling has been studying Iyengar yoga for almost 30 years and teaching for nearly 20. She has been to India to work with Iyengar himself, most recently last November, and serves on the Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada's professional development committee as teacher-trainer.
Daily Headstands – An Important Part of Iyengar Yoga
Iyengar’s lengthy teacher-training process, exquisite attention to detail, structured learning process – the teacher demonstrates and carefully breaks down poses before students try them – and use of props, creates a very safe environment where students are closely observed and slowly build on the basics before moving on to more difficult poses, like headstands.
I mentioned earlier that B.K.S. Iyengar still does daily headstands. I asked Ettling about the importance of inverted poses, like the headstand and shoulder stand, in Iyengar yoga.
“As regular practitioners, we do headstands and shoulder stands every day,” says Ettling, citing not only the physical benefits but the mental discipline required – “when you turn everything upside down and you can learn to be still, then you have learned something. One learns control when doing upside-down poses; a headstand takes a lot of practice. We train students carefully when we teach them to do the headstand. We make sure they do it correctly.”
The commitment involved with developing these skills is one of the qualities that most appeals to Ettling, and to my husband.
The Yoga Space’s Registered Classes Ensure Students Build a Strong Foundation
“The thing I like about this form is that people who like it tend to be serious kinds of students. They understand discipline. For example, if you’re a violinist you’re going to like this sort of thing because you know that a scale is important and you know that training takes steps. You’re not thinking, ‘can we move on now, can I stand on my head already?’”
Just like structured martial arts classes, in order to ensure students build a strong foundation, The Yoga Space offers registered, ongoing three-month sessions, although you can drop in once or twice to see if it’s something that would suit you.
“That’s another thing I think is quite different here – we don’t have new people coming and going every week. It would be very hard to teach them progressively if every week there were a bunch of new people,” says Ettling.
So what did my husband think of the experience? "The class was pretty challenging because there were ways to modify the positions to keep the difficulty level at the edge of my capability,” he says. “I see the benefit of yoga as base conditioning, a way to build a strong foundation for any physical activity, and also prepare you for sitting at a desk all day.”
And to his relief, he says, "Yoga doesn’t have to be about the new-age spirituality that many people associate with the practice. It was presented in a usable, practical, reality-based context that didn't require any leaps of faith to comprehend."
Get more information on Iyengar classes at The Yoga Space, located at 677 E 27th Ave, Vancouver, BC V5V 2K7.
The Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada's 2012 Annual Conference and AGM will be held in Toronto from May 9 to 13 and include two senior teachers from Pune, India bringing conference participants the latest teachings from BKS Iyengar himself.