BKS Iyengar was the world's foremost authority of modern-day Hatha Yoga, who spent more than seventy-five years of his life's work devoted to further developing this ancient art, cultivating a deep and clear understanding of the workings of the human body and its potential for spiritual development. Iyengar's methodology is unique and is based on one of the core principles of yoga: that the body is a self-healing entity and a gateway for spiritual development. His teachings begin with the physical body.
In the Iyengar methodology, we start by developing our awareness by using the larger muscles through standing asanas, and this helps us tune into the body. At this stage, balance, movement, and increasing awareness and flexibility are key.
Practising these asanas or postures:
- Creates muscle tone, builds strength and endurance
- Increases flexibility in the spine
- Strengthens the neck and back
- Releases blocked energy
- Eliminates pain and stress
- Stimulates the vital organs
- Builds awareness of the physical body
Our focus, then, moves towards improving our physical practice through technique, alignment and opening up the body layer by layer. We begin to develop muscle awareness, strengthen the core and awaken to our body's innate intelligence, bringing it into a renewed state of being. As the physical body is skilfully awakened at a profound level, it leads to the floodgates of prana (energy), our vital life force being released, and we start to get glimpses of what lies within. This is an art in itself, and it is in this that Guruji's genius lies.
However, reaching this level of self-awareness isn't easy; it requires discipline, focus and perseverance. But with continued practice, further self-development and reflection, we are able to move beyond the physical practice of asana, to relax and tame the mind and senses, until there is unity in the body, the mind and the breath. The practice comes alive within us, and creates a foundation for healing, vitality and spiritual growth.
Self-awareness then begins to
- Infiltrate into daily life, bringing awakening
- Make us much more alert and mindful
- Enable us to be more responsive versus reactive
Patanjali insists on direct knowledge and experience of life as the essential criteria for this path. He understood that without this, moving into this science is impossible because to experience what lies beyond the mind cannot occur through borrowed or intellectual knowledge, and neither does it come with ease.
Patanjali also emphasizes the importance of a strong, vibrant and healthy physical body, as it is the vehicle with which we manoeuvre the physical world and experience life. An unhealthy body prevents us from doing this. It is through the body that we learn how to channel our restless energies, move past the limitations of the mind, and become strong and expansive beings.
In one conversation with Guruji, he explained that when he started his journey with yoga, he was severely ill. So, his quest was to understand how energy flowed throughout his entire body, from the tips of his fingers to the tips of his toes. He was deeply driven by a desire to discover the immeasurable play of energy (prana) within the limited physical body, and discover how he could heal himself.
Guruji understood only too well that if the body is to heal itself naturally, energy must flow without obstruction, as only then can there be synergy in the body, with all its internal organs, joints, muscles, cells and internal systems working to their full efficiency and vitality.
The physical practice of asana can be difficult, considering most people lose their flexibility over time. Guruji used to say that fortunate are those with an inflexible and uncooperative body, as the very journey of yoga lies in how the student evolves through this experience.
During our practice, various forces typically come up to distract us and pull us off our intended path. The inflexibility and impermanence of the body and the mind, an agitated mental state, aches and pains, fear associated with the forces of gravity, and feelings of doubt, to name a few, are all powerful distractions. Each asana demands focus and effort to go deeper, to find that point of perfect balance and harmony, where the mind, the body and the breath are fully engaged, and we become completely at one with the present moment: alert, aware and strongly grounded.
When this moment occurs, there is an inborn intelligence that arises within the physical body and the asana comes together with perfection and ease. This can be explored through the simplest of asanas, and does not require convoluted postures to explore what lies within.
For example, if we experience fear in a particular posture and engage with it, the mind begins to waver and disintegrate, and we may lose our balance and fall. The key then is to recognize these forces as distractions while remaining alert enough to not engage with them. So at the same time as training our body, we are also training the mind to concentrate and focus on the breath- irrespective of what is happening within us and around us.
Focusing on the breath, we become present, and this enables us to centre ourselves and come into an awareness of our practice. We gain an understanding of how to perform the asana properly, by awakening to the body's intelligence. We become an observer of the dynamics of our posture, mindful of the different elements that come together. This may mean that we become aware that a certain part of the body needs to be further engaged or strengthened, that we need to draw energy to release tightness or open a certain part, or that we do not have balance because our posture is incorrect. Alternatively, just by focusing the mind and remaining at one with the breath, we might be able to perform the asana simply through concentration, as we are in complete sync with ourselves.
Asana can only be effortless when the core is engaged, the body is balanced, alignment is perfect, the breath is regulated and the mind is steady. In this balanced state, we are able to remain absorbed in the Self, having lost identification with the physical body, completely immersed in the consciousness within. The more we hone this ability, the easier it becomes to extend this practice into daily life.
When our posture is wrong, we won't have proper balance and the continued practice of asana may then develop into a serious injury over time. In fact, pain and injury in the knees, shoulder, neck, and back are also results of years of standing, walking, running, sitting and practising incorrectly. Parallel to this is the learning that an imbalanced state of being has far reaching effects on our lives.
Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort
to perform it becomes effortless, and there is total
absorption in the Self.
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, sutra 2.47
Excerpted with permission of Westland Publications Ltd. from Just Breathe by Radhika Vachani. Pre-order your copy here.