Iyengar with the Dalai Lama
Half term finished and the new yoga term has started! In fact there are quite a few things to update you on. I’ve left my indian home and travelled north to the stunning Dharamshala which is located just on the fringes of the Himalayas.
McLeod Ganj is about a 20 minute walk away and is home to the Dalai Lama himself. In fact it is home to the entire Tibetan government in exile, with approximately 11,000 monks and nuns living there. The climate is also cooler than southern parts of India. This means minimal bug activity and optimal relaxation conditions for Amit, oh happy days! Here in Dharmshala, I will be learning all about Iyengar Yoga. This branch of Yoga was created B.K.S Iyengar in the 1970s with the goal of creating proper structural alignment. In order to achieve this, various props including belts, blocks and blankets are used. One of the biggest reasons why I like Iyengar yoga is that it is accessible for everyone- young, old, beginners and those with a disability or injury. Even if you are an experienced practitioner, there is a lot to learn from Iyengar.
The main teacher here at the Himalayan Iyengar Yoga Center is Sharat Arora. Sharat learnt directly under under B.K.S Iyengar for 7 years and is considered one of Iyengars’ top students. I’ve enrolled for 4 weeks to get a deep and widespread understanding of what Iyengar is all about. Classes are taught daily from Wednesday to Sunday with each class lasting 3 hours. This week I was on the mandatory beginner course to learn the fundamentals. The class usually starts with 2 or 3 long standing asanas during which the teachers hammer home one key concept. It is taught that proper alignment comes from the foundation of the foot and where the weight is distributed on the underside of the foot. In getting the weight mainly on the heel our chest naturally opens up and corrects our entire posture. To test this, try standing up with the feet parallel and shoulder width apart. Next move the weight to the front part of your foot, without pivoting at the hip. Then slowly move your weight back on your heels, you should feel a point where your chest opens up slightly. You will never got told to open your chest up in a posture as this is regarded as a ‘local adjustment’ and you will likely compromise elsewhere such as your back. Instead, the instructors will look at your feet and instruct you accordingly.
There is one main teacher called Behrata and three other assistant teachers, Mihir, Nicky and another I don’t know the name of, I call her cutie pie. As expected the quality of teaching is amazing. The 4 teachers are always on guard and ready to step in if they see bad postural form. When I’m in a pose, I always seem to get adjusted. I feel like that kid in class who tries really hard but just can’t turn instructions into reality.
Behrata has a very calming impression when she teaches and is great with analogies. She mentioned something that I absolutely loved. Whilst in a pose, she said something along the lines of ‘Become aware of all the subtle sensations, tension, heat, pressure and other forms of energy. Becoming aware without engagement is like shining a torch on the unknown areas of the body. Once we know what exists in these dark areas, our mind will automatically prescribe the best course of healing’. For me this was a big light bulb moment because the word awareness gets thrown around a lot in Yoga and I’ve never really understood why, until now.
The pace of the class is quite a bit slower than other forms of Yoga such as Ashtanga. Iyengar and Ashtanga are like polar opposites. Ashtanga is fast, flowing and energetic. Iyengar is slow, still and restorative. On a physical level, Iyengar will not result in a radical physical transformation in terms of flexibility or say strength. Instead, it acts on a much more subtle level and corrects deep postural misalignments in key areas such as the back and spine. There is one pose which is considered as the flagship pose of Iyengar, the pose to rule them all! This pose is the shoulder stand, sarvangasana and it makes use of 7 props!
When the teacher asks us to do shoulder stand we all head to the equipment area and I feel a bit like Tony Stark when he walks to his gadget inventory and gets on his fancy Ironman suit, only mine are soft and non destructive. Traditionally, shoulder stand is done on the floor, however Iyengar views this as impractical as much of the weight is on the back of the neck. With the raised platform all of your body weight sits on your shoulders with minimal weight on your neck. Behrata told us that this pose is great for those who work in offices as your back tends to hunch and shoulders roll inwards. In shoulder stand, you are doing the opposite and massaging your shoulders with your entire body weight. Blood flows to the brain, pressure from the lower back dissipates and the lung capacity is maximised through the opening of the chest. Physically it is very powerful. On a deeper level, it is viewed as the go to pose in times of low mood, say when the weather is not soo good or you are not feeling 100%. Through opening the chest, the heart also opens up and you become more accepting of the present state of mind you are in.