My elusive search for a meaningful yoga practice began nearly three decades ago when I was living on New York’s Upper East Side. I was looking to meet spiritually minded people and, in those days, yoga was associated with the crunchy granola set. The practice was still sufficiently foreign that studios offered orientation sessions to acquaint potential students with the discipline.
My introductory session was taught by a bottle blonde who enthusiastically volunteered that she was a former model who used to do lots of drugs. One day she saw this woman with an amazing body, and upon learning it was achieved practicing yoga, the blonde was hooked. Not quite the motivation and spirituality I was seeking.
Over the years, I visited various yoga studios and tried different classes and modalities. Most of the places didn’t actually teach yoga but demonstrated it in a way that reminded me of the childhood game “Simon Says” without saying Simon Says. “Downward dog,” a typically lithe twentysomething would say, and everyone would follow suit. “Warrior One” and the class would follow. Often the “teacher” would have her back to the class, and she neither knew nor cared if people in class were doing the poses correctly.
The commercialization of yoga has accelerated in the past decade, and the spirit and teachings of the practice have fallen by the wayside. The former marketing officer of Core Power, the nation’s largest yoga studio chain, promoted yoga as offering “inner peace and flat abs in an hour.” The chain dismisses karma as a meaningless “metaphysical precept” on par with words like “authentic” and “world class yoga experience.” (Maybe so, but karma is still a bitch, which perhaps is why Core Power has faced four labor lawsuits.)
I read that a yoga teacher with celebrity status belonged to New York’s posh Soho Club, whose “too-cool-for-you” membership is restricted to “creative types” nominated by their peers. I’m no authority on the path to enlightenment, but I wouldn’t look to someone who embodies and embraces New York’s rich snobby elite to find it.
Iyengar yoga and its certified practitioners haven’t been coopted by the selfie culture of modern-day yoga and have refused to promote the discipline as a pathway to a great bod. Iyengar promotes spiritual and physical modesty. Traditional Iyengar shorts are so unflattering they’d even make supermodel Gigi Hadid look dowdy. An authentic Iyengar practice begins with the reciting of an invocation that acknowledges the humility of those assembled and appeals for guidance and light to learn and understand the principles of yoga.
Unlike many yoga teachers at popular studios who got their certification attending a workshop or two, it takes years of rigorous training and commitment to get certified as an Iyengar instructor. At the Iyengar Institute of Los Angeles where I take classes, I’d conservatively guess the average age of the instructors is mid-40s, although its known that one of them is in his 70s. (Iyengar teachers are seemingly ageless, so my estimate could be way off). Iyengar teachers know and understand the intricacies of traditional yoga poses but also the physiology behind them. As a result, they can offer safe alternative poses for students who are injured or have physical limitations.
The practice was developed in India by B.K.S. Iyengar, who suffered from malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis as a child. What distinguishes Iyengar yoga from other yoga modalities is its focus on holding and refining poses, rather than following a flow of choreographed asanas. At the beginner level, instructors will break down poses into simpler components that give students a better understanding of what’s trying to be achieved. Iyengar yoga heavily utilizes props such as rope walls, chairs, bolsters, straps, and blankets. Indeed, unfolding and folding blankets is so commonplace that Iyengar students are well suited to work at a laundry.
Iyengar yoga is torture for Type A personalities like me who prefer to always be moving and having our minds occupied or distracted. Holding a seemingly simple pose such as down dog for nearly a minute can be excruciating physically and mentally. Iyengar teachers won’t let you just go into a pose and remain static; they will give you a multitude of adjustment instructions that take considerable concentration and stamina to understand and implement. The practice doesn’t allow for daydreaming; on more occasions I’d care to admit, a teacher has called me out for not paying attention.
I find Iyengar yoga about as exciting as watching paint dry. But when I force myself to go to classes I feel a million times better and my ability to concentrate improves dramatically. Studies show that an ability to experience and embrace boredom is critical to performing work requiring deep concentration because the brain needs meaningful downtime.
Iyengar yoga dramatically improves alignment and flexibility. Iyengar instructors watch their students like hawks and they are more hands on than Joe Biden, constantly adjusting and easing their students into poses. In the two years I’ve been practicing Iyengar yoga, I haven’t so much as strained a muscle. I was out of commission for nearly three months because of an injury I sustained doing hot yoga. I credit Iyengar yoga for healing a pelvic ailment that I was told would require surgery.
I first discovered Iyengar yoga about 15 years ago when I was living in New York, but lost interest after the Iyengar Institute there redid its floors, jacked up its rates, and copped an attitude. My interest was rekindled two years ago oddly enough at the West L.A. club of Equinox, which prefers to promote its own brand of gimmicky fitness yoga but offers Iyengar classes as a sop to longtime members of the club that formerly occupied the space. One of the teachers is Chris Stein, a world-renowned Iyengar instructor who travels to India every year for additional study and trains students in China.
Stein inspired my Iyengar yoga journey and I began taking classes at the Iyengar Institute of Los Angeles, one of three teaching centers in the U.S. for the practice (the three centers all operate independently). I gravitated to Becky Patel, who I later learned studied under Stein. Despite Iyengar’s exacting standards, the practice allows for considerable teaching personalization and every instructor has their own distinctive style. I recommend taking classes with multiple Iyengar instructors.
Alas, I worry about the future of Iyengar yoga. The practice is poorly understood and marketed, and in L.A., I see few millennials in class. B.K.S. Iyengar died in 2014 and his daughter, Geeta, also a renowned yogi, died last year. Iyengar instructors increasingly are afraid to adjust their students for fear of being accused for improper touching, which is most unfortunate since they are well trained to make critical and beneficial corrections. (If you don’t want to be touched, let the instructor know.)
It would be most unfortunate if Iyengar yoga disappears. In a world that moves too fast and where mediocrity, shallowness, and pretension are widespread, Iyengar promotes values and ideals once associated with yoga. I can’t promise Iyengar instructors will lead you on the path to enlightenment, but their humility and dedication can point you in the direction of the trailhead.
B.K.S. Iyengar Institute of L.A.
1835 S La Cienega Blvd Suite 240,
Los Angeles, CA 90035