Introduction to Iyengar at Yoga Circle

Originally published on LiveJournal, 8.8.08

(This article is part of a series of reviews I call Taste of Chicago Yoga

Today was an Iyengar class at Yoga Circle, a gorgeous space located in a downtown athletic building. Yoga Circle is the most beautiful studio I have seen in Chicago thus far. It’s all raw wood, like a barn, but broad and airy, and full of green plants. There are plenty of low platforms for silently placing objects and props, and even the props are beautiful: carefully folded, clean blankets, plenty of blocks and bolsters. An absolutely inspiring place for focused practice. Also, the room is surrounded by slings and ropes from the walls and the ceiling, all useful for the Iyengar style practiced there.

“Iyengar” is a suggestive name. Though ostensibly named after the style’s founder, B. K. S. Iyengar, the name is generally used for all high-caste followers of Visishtadvaita Vedanta, a monoistic Hindu school of thought, and there are indeed many Iyengar families living in south India. This cultish connection should already hint at this yoga style’s aspirations. Mr. Iyengar is still alive and kicking, and is the foremost yoga teacher in the world today. His book, Light on Yoga (1966), is the most popular and accessible yoga text coming out of India, and for many people defines yoga, as a total way of life that synthesizes spirituality, human relationships, mindfulness and physical practice. It’s sometimes even called the "Yoga Bible."

Iyengar represents the second generation of Indian yoga. He learned it directly from Krishnamacharya, the inventor of yoga, who was his brother-in-law. Krishnamacharya, if you remember from my last review, lived under the challenges of colonialism, and was more interested in an outward-looking, world-engaging philosophy, and the style that claims him as a founder, ashtanga, is suitably vigorous. His student, Iyengar, grew up in a world already looking beyond colonialism to an independent India, to new challenges in a fraught, complex nation, and to an all-powerful post-colonial global market, with its promise of equalizing individualism. Iyengar style is far more cautious and deliberate than ashtanga, the philosophy emphatically seeking deep meaning in relationships between people, as a panacea to the pressure to become meaningless, purposeless individuals. Romantic love is elevated in this scheme, quite logically, to the ultimate human relationship, the horizon to which a better human society should gaze.

Sounds familiar? The 1960s were, of course, all about free love, the end of war, a clean break from an oppressive, segregated past. In America, this impulse exploded into an orgy of self-indulgent individualism, a luxury which the new and precarious post-colonies couldn’t quite afford. Nevertheless, Iyengar was fully part of these global desires, joining the ranks of many other South Asian “gurus” who traveled the world peddling “philosophies” of happiness (carefully named as to not appear similar to those boring old “religions”). What put Iyengar apart was that his solution to humanity’s problems involved considerable hard, physical work. There was no instant cure to the world’s ills. Just try doing a deep backend without years of training! This quality means that Iyengar yoga could, then, be turned into a program for human progress. Think of Iyengar yoga as a more maintainable (over time) version of the Summer of Love.

My Iyengar class today reflected bits and pieces of this heritage. It started with a chant in an unspecified Indian language (Sanskrit?), which, as you can imagine, annoyed me. It continued with very careful setups for various poses, which I thought I knew. Iyengar yoga, though, does everything differently from vinyasa. From the start, you are encouraged to experience each pose correctly, with all its emphases, even if it takes a considerable number of props to get you there. And, until you’re a very advanced student, expect to be using props a lot.

In fact, we can thank Mr. Iyengar for introducing props into yoga, and creating the whole industry of yoga accessories sold today and used in most yoga styles: blocks, belts, bolsters, blankets. (Do they really all being with ‘B’?!) By the time class was over, I had four blankets, a chair, a belt, and two bolsters by my mat. And this list doesn’t even include the belts attached to the wall, which we used for several poses. The only pose we did without any prop was head stand, which we kept for three minutes.

Iyengar’s pace is the opposite of that of vinyasa and ashtanga. Poses are kept for a long time, and you take time to set them up. No special breathing is directed. While vinyasa stresses breathing from the very start, in Iyengar that’s considered something more advanced. Breath isn’t the issue. Instead, the point is that merely putting your body in a certain position will give you benefits: physical, mental and “spiritual.” Like a magical formula, every aspect of the pose has to be just right. The instructor won’t let the class continue until she’s satisfied that everyone is there. As a student of yoga, this means that you will get a lot more personal instruction in Iyengar than in any other style of yoga.

But do you get a good workout? I’m not so sure. If you intend yoga to be your only physical exercise routine, Iyengar would be lacking. However, if you practice other forms of yoga, or another sport, an occasional Iyengar class can teach you a whole lot. I think I learned more from this one class than I have in a month of vinyasa classes. All without breaking a sweat...

I’m really fond of the Yoga Circle’s studio and intrigued by Iyengar style. I’m sure I’ll be back. Hopefully, I’ll also be able to take a class there with Gabriel Halpern, Yoga Circle director and premier yoga teacher of Chicago, who is usually off teaching workshops around the world. People’s eyes light up when the talk about him.