An asana for everyone

You can avoid bending forward (like your doctor suggested), for the rest of your life, or strengthen your muscles and train your skeletal structure to bend forward correctly, with the help of Iyengar Yoga, writes Pragya Bhatt.

“Yoga is like music: the rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul create the symphony of life.” – Yogacharya BKS Iyengar

With the recent passing away of one of the last living legends of yoga, the world lost not only a great guru, but also a great philosopher, humanitarian and genius. Yoga practitioners often credit their practice for their changed lives. If that is so, then, no one has been as instrumental in changing people’s lives as Yogacharya BKS Iyengar.

From heads of state, to musicians to sports stars, anyone who has ever walked the distance to an Iyengar Yoga class has been welcomed with open arms. Those who came in wheelchairs went back on their feet. Insomniacs slept soundly. Drug addicts didn’t need that ‘kick’ anymore. Grandmothers practised alongside their grandkids.

When injuries became an obstacle for BKS Iyengar to practise yoga in its conventional form, he decided to use props to help himself. Over time, he realised that if props could help him regain his health, then others can benefit from his methods as well. This meant that even people who had conditions such as arthritis, fluctuations in blood pressure, heart conditions, structural or skeletal deformities, and even severe injuries could benefit from all that yoga has to offer. He devoted his life to the study of the human body and how asanas could be simulated using commonly available items such as chairs and blankets. From this study emerged learnings we now call ‘Iyengar Yoga’. 

Why does it command the loyal following that it does? More importantly, could it benefit you? The focus in Iyengar classes is on correct alignment. Iyengar Yoga teachers observe the placement of hands and feet very carefully in their students. Although there may be no mirrors in the class, teachers take their time to demonstrate the minutiae of the asana, often several times, and then observe while the students try to incorporate the tips into their practice. Needless to say, the students’ minds are focused on the nitty-gritty of the asana more than on mindlessly grabbing toes or putting feet behind head.

 And this is perhaps why yoga is the only discipline where you will find a permanent solution to rampant spinal issues such as slipped disc, herniated disc and cervical issues. You can avoid bending forward (like your doctor suggested) for the rest of your life. Or you can strengthen your back muscles and your spinal column, and learn the correct mechanics of how the skeletal structure is supposed to bend forward. In Iyengar Yoga lies the elusive cure for slipped disc.

The beauty of Iyengar Yoga is that all yogis are equal in the class. Regardless of whether you’ve been practising for five days or five years, all students use the props and focus intensely on the asanas. 

This is, perhaps, why the intellect is awakened, and hence awareness sharpened, in Iyengar yogis. Movement, whether in yoga class or outside yoga class, becomes deliberate and refined. Each asana is a work of mind-body coordination. And when the mind and body work as one, wonders happen. 

Here’s a list of the most commonly used props in an Iyengar yoga class:

Sticky mats

This is a prop that is taken for granted by most practitioners, but few attribute the usage to BKS Iyengar. Old video footages show yogis practising asanas on the floor, or at the most on dhurries. That can take a toll on the elbows and knees. Poses such as the Adhomukhasvanasana (Downward Facing Dog), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), Chakrasana (Wheel Pose) would become very difficult without a sticky mat.

Blocks 

These are made of wood and weigh less than a kilo, so that practitioners can easily lift them during the practice. These wooden blocks are placed between the feet during poses such as the Tadasana, to train the legs to remain alert and strong. Alternatively, the block can also be held between the hands to ensure that the arms stay active while reaching up.

Belts

Belts are used by students to understand alignment as well as to hold limbs together. For instance, many practitioners find it difficult to keep the soles together in the Badhakonasana (Butterfly Pose). The belt can be wound around the ankles to ensure that the soles stay together. 

It can also be placed on the floor to ensure that the body is aligned correctly when performing the Pasvakonasana (Side Angle Pose) and the Trikonasana (Triangle Pose).
  Blankets

Cushioning comes in handy while performing asanas, where a lot of pressure is applied on the elbows and knees. Poses such as the Virasana (Hero’s Pose) and the Utkatasana (Camel’s Pose) can cause bruises if done on a hard surface. 

Additionally, the blanket provides much-needed support when sliding on the floor for the Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand).  

Bolsters

Standard-sized bolsters are used in class to sit on. Sitting on a bolster gives a slight elevation to the buttocks allowing the spine to stay erect. It also enables practitioners to understand the correct posture of the Sukhasana (sitting with your legs crossed). Once the spine is erect, twists and backbends become more effective. Bolsters also come in handy to allow the spine to relax in pain-prone areas.

Ropes

A unique feature of Iyengar Yoga classes is that even inversions (like headstands, handstands and shoulderstands) can be done by beginners. Ropes come in handy to enable new practitioners to perform inversions. So, if you suffer from menstrual issues, asthma, poor circulation, migraines and other such common ailments, join your nearest Iyengar Yoga class and practise inversions.

Chairs

Those uncomfortable metal foldable chairs are great for spinal twists (the Utkatasana or the Chair Pose). Advanced Iyengar Yoga students also use these chairs for back bends and asanas such as the Sarvangasana (Shoulder Stand) and the Halasana (Plough Pose). The great thing is that even beginners can perform intermediate and advanced asanas using a simple metal chair!

(The writer is a yoga instructor in Bangalore)

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