What’s it like to practice yoga the Iyengar way? What’s really going on inside?
What makes Iyengar Yoga different? This is the question I get asked the most often, and it can be answered in many ways. Usually I (and other CIYTs) start by explaining some of the attributes for which Iyengar Yoga is widely known: precision, alignment, attention to detail, use of props, sequencing, timings, and so on.
Instead of all that, right now I’m going to attempt to describe the chain of events that actually goes on while practicing: the Iyengar Yoga process, if you will.
Act. Reflect. Refine. Repeat.
Act. Move the body. Get into the pose with attention to the "how." Once you're in the pose, movements end but actions continue. What are the actions of the pose? Do the actions of the pose. See if you can bring those actions into coordination and harmony with one another.
Reflect. This is the art of Being in the pose. Prashant Iyengar likes to remind us that most of the time we go about life – and even our yoga practice – as "human doings" who are always doing, doing, doing. Prashant asks us to stop being human doings and start being human beings! That is what we do at this stage: Watch. Observe. Examine. Sense. Listen. Learn. Feel. This is svadhyaya, the art of self-study and self-reflection. This right here is how, over a long period of time, instructions become knowledge and knowledge becomes wisdom.
Refine. Adjust yourself based on your ever-changing understanding. Re-extend. Re-do. Re-grip. Breathe. Go further inward. Invigorate those areas which are dull or have slackened (this includes your mind, by the way). Reinvigorate your attention. Surrender further and further the places that are unduly gripped. Counteract both tendencies toward underaction and overaction. Strive for a state of balanced action. This moves your pose ever closer to the state of "effortless effort." This is the moment when you may catch a glimpse of the infinite being within (Sutra II.47). But don't stop there. Insist upon your own sharp attention and commitment to continue to evolve even after you think you've "got it." Keep looking.
Repeat. Repeat the process of Act, Reflect, Refine, Repeat for as long as you are in the pose. Teachers repeat instructions until they see that the students' bodies "catch" what is being taught. Students repeat the poses a second time (or a third, or ...). The key actions may be repeated in a different pose (i.e. how does what we learned in that last pose apply to what I am doing now?). The same pose may also be repeated later on in the practice to trace the changes (what has changed and why? How is it different now, and what caused it to be?) All of this is thoughtfully designed to progressively increase the intelligence of each and every cell in the body. At all times you are attentive to what came before, what brought you to where you are now, and what's the next step as you move on. This is intelligent sequencing, one of the hallmarks of Iyengar Yoga.
Repeat, and repeat, and repeat this Iyengar Yoga Process! Act, Reflect, Refine, Repeat. Repeat it for a long time, uninterruptedly, and with feeling! (Sutra I.14)
Eventually, a seasoned practitioner can point to this process and say – in truthfulness – that it's not exactly like that. Fair point. The steps meld. Grahitr grahana grahesu: The yogi realizes that the knower, the instrument of knowing, and the known are one (Sutra I.41). So do the actions, reflections, and refinements blend in the eternal moment of the now. The process becomes not so much sequential as singular. When you feel it, there is a timeless quality to it. That's when you know you're getting somewhere with this thing called yoga. Your satisfaction at this point is well deserved. AND...the Sutras say to beware of the pitfall of spiritual complacency. When you feel happy that you have achieved something, that is the time to redouble your efforts.
So...Repeat! We do it all again tomorrow...except that we don't. Just as the old saying goes that you can't step in the same river twice, so it is true that you can't do the same Iyengar Yoga practice twice (personally, I am very glad of this). Not even if it's the exact same poses, held for the same length of time, and in the same order. For something has changed between then and now, and that something is YOU. So trace the changes, celebrate the progress when it happens, press on when you hit the setbacks, and just keep showing up to Act, Reflect, Refine and Repeat. May your Iyengar Yoga process bring you fulfillment and joy.