posted by danbean
I’ve really enjoyed taking Iyengar-style Yoga lately, and there happens to be an excellent studio right here in Park Slope called Yogasana.
Founded by the highly approachable Kristen Davis in 2003, it maintains a very high standard of instruction. Since I’ve become a regular at Kristen’s class as of late, I was happy she was so willing to share some of her insights with ElephantBeans readers.
On teaching, discovering yoga, and Alexander Technique…
I think it’s important to know that I came to yoga and the Alexander Technique in the exact same week back in 1993. I was a dance major at Ohio State University, and had suffered an ankle injury that was preventing me from dancing. I had been curious about these two modalities and decided to use my injury as an opportunity to study them. I fell in love with both of them, and since then they’ve always gone hand in hand. I seem to think through yoga in the language of Alexander Technique, and through Alexander Technique in the language of yoga. It’s a continuing interest/obsession of mine to translate between the two modes—to get at the heart of it, the commonality.
I moved to NYC in 1995 and danced—and worked retail. I decided to train to be an Alexander Technique teacher—a rigorous 3+ years of training, all the while exploring different yoga styles and figuring out what I liked (I mostly did vinyasa—Jivamukti and Om). Immediately after finishing my Alexander training I did a yoga teacher training with Alison West. Hers was a small training that was decidedly eclectic—Alison herself was trained in Sivananda and Ashtanga styles, and had many years of serious Iyengar study under her belt. From her I learned a deep respect for the many styles of yoga, but again and again I gravitated toward Iyengar. Like Alexander Technique it seemed to recognize habit in a way that I didn’t see in other yoga styles. The subtle directions, the process of thinking, the use of props, all went well with Alexander and my idea of self-study. I went on to do another teacher training at the NY Iyengar Yoga Institute (which I ultimately did not complete), an apprenticeship under Genny Kapular, and more teacher training with Robin Janis. B.K.S. Iyengar’s intense exploration of his body was, and still is, profoundly inspiring to me.
On balancing strict detail with a sense of levity and lightness…
Your first question about my attitude toward teaching made me recognize how interwoven the Alexander Technique is into my teaching. I’m flattered that you think I’m able to bring a levity to the class. I think that is the only way you can teach a style that is so inherently strict.
My teaching comes out of my own experience, the dialogue between my mind and body as I practice. This dialogue comes out of all my years of Alexander Technique and the way I apply it to my yoga. The mind and body have a symbiotic relationship. The mind must coach and cajole, the body responds, and the mind is rewarded with an incredible sense of peace and serenity.
Step 1. The mind must observe, simply see what’s there, as is, without judgment. Be willing to meet the body where it’s at, in that moment.
Step 2. The mind must put an end to any nonsense—inhibit or stop any habitual pattern, any negative action, any effort that is misplaced.
I say that with a certain strictness, but really this is where there’s a lot of coaxing and cajoling. We are often dependent on these habits in very deep ways (on an emotional level); they don’t release easily. Knowing this, the mind can guide and imagine, but ultimately the body will respond in its own time, on its own schedule, so there has to be a certain looseness, playfulness. You can’t be tied to the fruits of your labor; you can’t take yourself too seriously .
Step 3. Then the mind must tell the body what it WOULD like it to do, direct the actions it wants (the actions that will better organize the body and take it deeper into the pose). There is a cooperation between the mind and body –the action cannot be forced, but must come out of an integrated sense of ease. Again playful, exploratory.
In my own practice I go through these steps a number of times in each pose. In my teaching I try to share this process. And I use this process as a framework for looking at my students—first, to just observe, second to see what is extraneous, what action is being overdone and ultimately obscuring the pose, and third, what action will re-organize the body and bring it into a greater wholeness.
This process requires discipline for sure, and a sort of harsh honesty (to really see things as they are, and be willing to stay with that). I think such an intense focus requires levity to make it bearable, to even make it possible. It’s really all a game. It’s fun! In my own dialogue between mind and body, if my mind begins to take itself too seriously it takes on an aggressive and critical attitude, which only causes my body to become rigid and fearful. I have to be able to step back and laugh at it all—laugh at how my left ribs are always gripping my spine, at how the right side of my neck likes to shorten. I no longer really care if they ever release—the game, the exploration, is so much fun. It’s human nature to have these issues, if I didn’t, either I’m not human or I’m dead.
On Iyengar Yoga, the lineage, and its where it is today…
Like Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar was a student of Krishnamacharya’s. Having suffered from malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis, he often had to modify poses using homemade props of oil barrels, dowels and bricks, in order to accomplish the poses as his teacher asked. When he began teaching, he recognized many of the difficulties that his students had, and modified his teaching to address their needs.
The hallmarks of his teaching include: a teaching methodology of visual demonstration, specific verbal instruction, and minimal hands-on adjustments; precise anatomical instruction and the use of props; many different ways of sequencing, born out of the idea that the yoga practice must be modified to meet the practitioner’s needs–that no one sequence is appropriate for every person, for every day (which also leads into yoga being used therapeutically); and holding poses for longer periods to let their effects fully penetrate, and to find a meditative quality within each pose.
Over his 70-year teaching career, he has codified over 200 postures and 14 breathing exercises, and written countless seminal books on asana, pranayama and yoga philosophy. From the sticky mat we practice on, the restorative poses we do, or the detailed instruction we’ve learned about a pose, B.K.S. Iyengar has influenced many elements of today’s yoga.
To be candid, I am disappointed in the way in which Iyengar’s work is being disseminated. I find that many Iyengar people are quick to codify every statement he makes without looking at the context. A direction he gives is written into law without seeing that the direction was meant for a specific student at a specific time. There is a lot of black and white thinking, that I feel belittles what Iyengar yoga is.
I think Iyengar’s real legacy lies in his authenticity, his creativity and sharp intellect, and his discipline. I use him as an example, a guide, for how to penetrate my own body/mind. I use his props, his verbal instruction, as tools, but ultimately I can only follow in his footsteps, using my own intellect to analyze and adjust, my own creativity for problem solving, my own discipline for practicing with precision and honesty. Thankfully, I do have the platform he built, but to truly follow his example, to find my own authenticity, I must delve in and make my own interpretations.
On sequencing, and how it differs from some other styles…
Yoga in the Iyengar tradition does not follow a set, scripted sequence. The sequencing of poses is complex and requires extensive study, but through experience you begin to learn the different effects poses can have, and the cumulative effect their order has. Standing poses promote stability and strength and can prepare the body to go in many different directions; forward bends are calming and cooling (often given as a prescription for anxiety); back bends are stimulating and have an anti-depressant effect (often given as a prescription for depression); inversions are cathartic and engender a sense of well-being; twists are quieting and encourage an internal focus. Aside from the effects of the different poses the sequence will also depend on factors such as your age, your experience, your energy level, your mental state.
Taking all of these variables into consideration, there are general guidelines for sequencing, but few strict rules. Although, one rule is that Sirsasana (headstand) is always followed by Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), or any similar pose that has a jalandhara bandha (chin lock) action (setu bandha, viparita karani, halasana, etc.). Sirsasana is a heating pose that engages the muscles of the neck. Sarvangasana is a cooling pose that releases the neck muscles, thus creating balance. I have known of a senior teacher teaching headstand and then following it with a lot of forward bends, thus offering the same cooling effects and neck release as a shoulderstand.
I really can’t speak to the sequencing of the Ashtanga Primary Series. I’ve done it a handful of times (and loved it), but that was many years ago, and I certainly didn’t have the knowledge and experience that I have now. I’d like to practice it again and see what the intelligence is behind it. I do know however that the sequence ends with seated pranayama that is done with jalandhara bandha—this would provide a calming and cooling effect.
I want to add here that I love teaching/practicing Iyengar-style yoga—the analytical mind, the ability to be creative, the intense physicality make it entirely fulfilling to me—however, I’m fascinated by Mysore-style Ashtanga Yoga. I’m intrigued by the idea of doing the same sequence day after day. That the sequence remains the constant and against that backdrop you can observe the fluctuations of the mind and body. Maybe someday…
On practicing with injuries and modifications…
Modifying poses to meet a student’s needs is absolutely inherent to Iyengar Yoga, and it’s one of the things I love. I believe that your yoga practice should reflect the present moment. There is an honesty to that—a recognition that you may be able to do a pose at one time of the day, but not at another; that the practice of a 20 year old is different from that of a 50 year old.
A group class has its limitations in this way, but I do my best to accommodate each student. Although I don’t specialize in therapeutics, I follow the Iyengar philosophy that any pose done correctly is therapeutic. I want my students to learn that they must stay true to themselves, recognizing their strengths and weaknesses in the present moment, and then I help them adjust their practice accordingly. I think that through this type of conscious practice there are fewer injuries. Personally, I’ve not had any injuries since I started yoga and Alexander technique (except for a sprained foot from wearing improper shoes while swinging on a swing—that’s a whole other story).
Because there is a focus on anatomical precision and a flexibility to the practice (in terms of sequencing, in terms of modifying), I believe it creates a different tone around injury, that it engenders an acceptance and an ability to work with the cause of the injury. Again and again, I see students overcoming chronic pain—back pain, sciatica, headaches, etc. and injuries—knee problems, shoulder issues, etc. I see students’ bodies completely re-organize, becoming more easeful, more free. I see students finding a sort of stability and peace in both body and mind.
On students crossing over from other styles…
I’ve had mixed experiences with this. With yoga’s intense popularity I sometimes get students who are simply wanting the physical benefits and aren’t interested in the self-study and mental focus that my style requires. I find that if the student has an analytical mind, and a sincere desire to learn, we’re a good match. For several years I practiced vinyasa yoga along with Iyengar, so I can appreciate people coming to my class to gain knowledge and insight into their particular issues, and then applying that to their other yoga practice.
Stay tuned for more when Kristen will discuss her pregnancy, and what it’s like to own a yoga studio…