Iyengar Yoga: 'Food for the Spirit'

I had taken a lot of yoga classes, but this practice was different.

(This essay originally appeared on Beliefnet in 2004.)

I first went to an Iyengar Yoga class four years ago. My wife Cynthia had been radiant with enthusiasm every time she'd come back from a class for the previous year and a half. Although she'd never said it, I was aware that she was waiting expectantly for me to try it. She knew I had a lot of resistance, since I had a long history of an almost complete lack of coordination as well as an outstanding ability to space out during physical activities from aerobics to walking (I was famous for walking into the poles for parking signs because I found it difficult to pay attention to anything but my own thoughts).

 

Cynthia had told me about the belts, wooden blocks, and other props used in Iyengar Yoga in doing asanas (poses or postures), one of the characteristics that differentiates it from other types of hatha yoga, and she'd mentioned that the poses are held longer in Iyengar than in other kinds of yoga. This part made me apprehensive: I was worried about having to hold the poses for more than a brief length of time, but I was also encouraged by the idea of using props because I thought they might make them easier.

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I had taken non-Iyengar hatha yoga classes in the past, but all the teachers with whom I'd studied had taught yoga simply as a form of exercise. The poses were to build muscle tone and create flexibility. If the teachers saw the poses within a spiritual context, they didn't share that perspective with us. Consequently, I went to my first Iyengar class just for physical exercise, but I soon realized that Iyengar Yoga offers something greater: It offers what my first Iyengar teacher, Sylvie Terree, calls "food for the spirit."

The class began very differently from any yoga class I'd attended before. We were asked to repeat in unison a Sanskrit chant to Patanjali, the Indian sage who is the father of all yoga. It was voluntary; no one had to do it. There was a handout with the Sanskrit words, their phonetic facsimiles, and a translation. As an ecumenical Jew, I joined the others in repeating the chant.

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Mark Bruce Rosin
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