Beliefnet
(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.

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.

Also on the handout was a quote from Geeta Iyengar, daughter of the founder, B.K.S. Iyengar, who, with her brother Prashant, has headed the Ramamani Memorial Institute (RMI) in Pune since their father's official retirement in 1984. The quote reads: "We chant so that at the very beginning that feeling of sanctification comes from inside, with the feeling of surrendering oneself, because nothing can be learned in this world unless you have the humility to learn."

I had never before been in a yoga class that felt sanctified, and as we were told to get mats and blocks to work on standing poses, I felt a sense that more was being required of me – and more was being given to me – in this class than I was used to in other classes. I was right. Sylvie demonstrated the poses with a precision that no teacher I had studied with before had. She pointed out the specific muscles we would be using, showed us the alignment for each pose that we would be aiming for, and explained why certain alignments we might be tempted to use would be harmful to our bodies. She talked about the benefits the poses would give us. She also asked each of us if we had any physical conditions she should know about in case she had to modify the poses to accommodate the problem.

As we held each pose, she devoted herself to helping each of us do our best pose. The blocks, I learned, were used by those of us who, like me, have tight legs and shoulders, or have back injuries, because we would throw our bodies into misalignment if we tried, for example, to reach all the way down to the floor with one hand while extending the other arm straight into the air in one of the triangle poses (Parivrtta or Uttihita Trikonasana). Thus, props aren't used to make poses easier, they are used to help us do the poses without forcing ourselves into an approximation of them that might end up doing physical damage. Yoga teaches non-violence; in Iyengar Yoga we learn non-violence within our own bodies and this teaches us non-violence with others.

Of course I didn't learn all of this the first day. That day I learned not only that Iyengar Yoga is precise, but that the precise instructions with which Sylvie taught us the poses – with instructions for our toes and heels, even the skin under our feet, and every part of the body all the way up to our heads – encourages us to bring consciousness to all parts of the body. I learned that precision is displayed in all aspects of the class. We are each responsible for putting away the blocks, mats, blankets, and other props in their proper storage areas. This gives us a sense of responsibility for the practice area, and a sense of connectedness to the other students who will use the props and, by extension, connectedness to all people.

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