What is Yoga?

Developed in India, Yoga is a psycho-physical discipline with roots going back about 5,000 years. Today, most Yoga practices in the West focuses on the physical postures called "asanas," breathing exercises called "pranayama," and meditation. However, there's more to it than that, and the deeper you go the richer and more diverse the tradition becomes. The word "Yoga" means union. Linguistically, it is related to the Old English "yoke." Traditionally, the goal of Yoga is union with the Absolute, known as Brahman, or with Atman, the true self. These days the focus is often on the more down-to-earth benefits of Yoga, including improved physical fitness, mental clarity, greater self-understanding, stress control and general well-being. Spirituality, however, is a strong underlying theme to most practices. The beauty of Yoga is in its versatility, allowing practitioners to focus on the physical, psychological or spiritual, or a combination of all three.

What is Iyengar Yoga?

Iyengar Yoga is based on the teachings of the living yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, author of the classic yoga treatise Light on Yoga, who began teaching in Pune, India, in 1936 at the age of 18.

Today, at 86, he continues to teach and inspire students all over the world. His daughter, Geeta, and his son, Prashant, are also accomplished teachers and authors of yoga texts.

The Iyengar family’s teachings are deeply grounded in the yoga sutras of Patanjali, an ancient summation of the path of yoga considered to be at least 2,500 years old. B.K.S. Iyengar’s intense practice and almost seventy years of teaching have produced significant innovations in the teaching of the art and science of yoga.

What to expect from this method of yoga.

· Qualified and rigorously trained instructors committed to excellence in teaching

· A safe and systematic progression of yoga postures to develop each student’s ability and skill, both within each class and from class to class

· Sequencing that develops strength, flexibility, stamina, concentration, and body alignment

· Individual correction and knowledge of how to adjust postures for common physical problems

    · Precise use of language

    · Demonstration and teaching of specific points to develop understanding and intelligent action

    · Individual correction and adjustment of students, when necessary

· Integration of the yoga philosophy with the practice of asana

· Incorporation and relevance of practice into daily life

· Ways to use yoga to ease various ailments and stress

· Use of props, such as blankets, blocks, and straps, to facilitate learning and adjust yoga postures to individual needs

What are props and why do we use them?

B.K.S. Iyengar introduced props into the modern practice of yoga to allow all practitioners access to the benefits of the postures regardless of physical condition, age, or length of study. Props help all practitioners (including the most advanced) gain sensitivity to the use of effort and receive the deep benefits of postures held over significant time periods. Props are introduced from the beginning for students with specific physical limitations and gradually in regular classes to enhance personal understanding of a posture and its effects and to develop skill and confidence.

Props include sticky mats, blankets, belts, blocks, benches, wall ropes, sandbags, chairs, and other objects that help students experience the various yoga poses more profoundly. Props may be used in class to encourage students, bolster confidence, and create optimal body alignment.

Allowing students to practice asanas (yoga postures) and pranayamas (breathing patterns) with greater effectiveness, ease, and stability, props provide support for the body and allow the mind to relax and more profoundly receive the benefits of the yoga.

How does Iyengar Yoga differ from other styles of yoga?

The Iyengar method develops strength, endurance, and optimal body alignment, in addition to flexibility and relaxation. The Iyengar method develops self-awareness, intelligent evaluation, and profound inward reflection.

Standing poses are emphasized at the beginning to build strength and ease of movement, increase general vitality, and improve circulation, coordination, and balance.

Postures for deep relaxation are introduced from the beginning. Gradually, sitting and reclining postures, forward bends, inversions, backbends, twists, arm balance, and flowing sequences are introduced.

Iyengar Yoga emphasizes precision of alignment in the yoga poses. Why is this important?

People tend to stretch from their more flexible areas and rely on their better-developed muscles for strength, thus reinforcing postural habits. Iyengar Yoga encourages weak parts to strengthen and stiff areas to release, thus awakening and realigning the whole body. As the body moves into better alignment, less muscular work is required and relaxation increases naturally.

What are the benefits of yoga practice?

Everyone can benefit from practicing yoga. It can be used to manage stress, prepare for childbirth, recover from injuries or improve health and fitness. It can give one a philosophical perspective of life, bring tranquility and mental strength. There is no-one who cannot benefit from its practice.

B.K.S. Iyengar states that modern western life has brought tremendous benefits but also its own perils. The elimination of the drudgery in our lives has left us with an immobile, sedentary lifestyle, where the intellect holds sway over the body in the pursuit of happiness. But the lack of natural exercise in our lives has left many people with chronic health and stress problems, especially as they get older. Yoga enables the student to find relief from these physical ailments and to strengthen the body and make it more supple.

When you practice yoga you will find that it works on all levels of the body, mind and spirit.

Physically as a beginner, you will experience the practice of yoga as a form of physical exercise that enables you to improve your strength, flexibility, stamina and balance. However, more than other forms of exercise you will also feel an increased sense of well being and vitality as the body is exercised organically- the inner organs, circulation, joint action etc. are all worked so as to improve their function and efficiency. One thus overcomes many symptoms of an imbalanced modern life, such as headaches, stiff necks, lower backache, insomnia and digestive disorders, and to harness one's energy bringing vitality to everyday activities. Thus health as opposed to merely fitness improves also.

As one progresses with yoga one becomes aware of this occurring within one's self also. From the psychological viewpoint, yoga sharpens the intellect and aids concentration. It steadies the emotions and encourages a caring concern for others. Above all, it gives hope. The practice of breathing techniques calms the mind. Its philosophy sets life in perspective. In the realm of the spiritual, yoga brings awareness and the ability to be still. Through meditation, inner peace is experienced. Thus yoga is a practical philosophy involving every aspect of a person's being. It teaches the evolution of the individual by the development of self-discipline and self-awareness."So, by the practice of yoga, an athlete can become a better athlete, a teacher a better teacher, an accountant a better accountant. One of B K S Iyengar's students, the violinist Yehudi Menuhin acknowledged his Guru not as his best yoga teacher but also his best violin teacher. "Yoga is like music. The rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul, create the symphony of life."

Who can practice yoga?

Anyone regardless of age, sex, nationality, religion or social status can practice Yoga.

Are there age limits to yoga?

It is not recommended that Children younger than 7-8 years practice yoga. Although younger children can playfully be introduced to yoga, they should never be forced as this can damage their spine and other joints because their bodies are still developing.

There is no upper age limit and it is never too old to learn yoga.

Will my health improve when I practice yoga?

Yoga does help in overcoming health problems. One needs to note that health is not just a disease-free state but a state of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. Diseases may be dormant, interrupted or in a fully active stage and an individual is able to detect the disease depending upon his/her sensitivity. Most individuals realise that they have a problem only when the symptoms start showing. In such cases, yoga asanas are taught in such a manner that the patient gets symptomatic relief. Later, the patient has to continue with their practice so as to get at the root of the disease. Practice of yoga also builds the character of tolerance in the practitioner, strengthens the nerves and quietens the mind and so, as Prashant Iyengar states, "Yoga helps cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured."

How much should I practice Iyengar yoga?

The more one practices, the more benefit and improvements one will get; the rewards correspond to the effort put in.

However, a daily routine, even if only for a few minutes, is more beneficial than one long session weekly. A daily routine also builds it's own momentum and encourages one to continue with yoga rather than bursts of irregular but intense practice.

Once a regular practice has been established it is possible to increase the duration of the sessions depending on enthusiasm and other commitments. There is no real maximum limit to practice. As a guide, trainee teachers are expected to practice at least 2 hours daily. B.K.S. Iyengar at over 80 years of age still does four hours daily Asana practice and an hour Pranayama.

An intense student will be sincere and devoted in his practice. In class it is the duty of the teacher to ensure that the students are fully involved both physically, mentally and emotionally in class. Only then will this attribute become part of all their activities. The student should be willing to make an effort to learn and work hard.

How long does it take to learn Iyengar yoga?

Yoga is not a subject that is learnt to a certain level upon which one is "qualified." It is a subject which has a beginning but no end - the more one progresses in one's practice, the more the subject opens up and the more one realises there is more to be learnt, absorbed and applied. B.K.S Iyengar has been practicing for over 65 years and states that he is still a student who is constantly discovering and learning new things through yoga.

How "tough" is Iyengar yoga?

Iyengar Yoga is not "tough" but it is demanding. Correct yoga requires being totally involved physically, mentally and emotionally in one's practice. As Yoga is concerned with the growth and development of the individual, this means extending one's current comfortable limits. Thus yoga requires that one work beyond what is necessarily easy but obviously not to the point of distress. Yoga should be a constant challenge but never an assault, and the teacher's task to continuously raise the standard for the student so that there is always room for progress.

How is Iyengar Yoga different from Stretching and Deep Breathing?

Iyengar Yoga teaches and leads towards the experience of all 8 aspects of astanga yoga, primarily through the tools of asanas and pranayama.

In Iyengar yoga one learns how the performance of Asana needs the disciplines of Yama and Niyama (ethics and personal discipline), the role of the breath (Pranayama) and how the turning of the senses of perception to look inwards (Pratyahara) and total concentration (Dharana) while doing asanas lead one to experience the higher mental states.

Asanas are postures which are performed by the physical body but the breath, the mind and the intelligence must also be involved in the performance. Any posture performed without total involvement becomes an exercise and not an asana. Asanas require reflection in action such that the mind, emotions and the physical body are not separated. In this way regular practice of Iyengar Yoga definitely acts on the mind, emotions and intellect.

An example is when a person is very nervous such as before a public performance. The body (e.g shoulders) will become tense and tight and the breathing heavy and fast although the tension is only "mental." So the state of one's emotions and mind is sub-consciously reflected in one's breath and physical body. Asanas and Pranayama are a reflection of the same principle. The physical body and the breath are consciously altered so as to sub-consciously regulate the emotions and the mind. Certain postures performed in a specific manner bring about mental relaxation, quietness and serenity so that regular practice of asanas and pranayama brings with it not only physical health but also mental poise, intellectual clarity and emotional equanimity.

Is meditation taught in Iyengar yoga?

Meditation is not taught as a separate subject in Iyengar yoga classes. As already stated, true meditation (Dhyana) and the subtler mental states are things which cannot be taught. Meditation is a state where one "becomes one with the universal spirit." One has no mind, intelligence, feelings or experiences when in this state and so no question of expressions of one's experiences. Thus meditation cannot be taught - It is a state of being which comes of itself when the practitioner is ready.

In practice this means that the body must be made healthy and trained to sit alertly and attentively through the practice of asanas. The mind and senses must be trained to become quiet and steady through the practice of pranayama. Yama and Niyama provide the discipline and self restraint necessary for these achievements. Once these foundation stones have been laid, the way becomes open for the experience of meditation to come.

In "meditation classes," what is generally taught is how to settle into a mental state of relaxation, go into trance, visualise mentally or perform some similar mental activity. A true meditative state is none of these but rather where mind and body are silent but vibrant with energy.

Therefore, within the lay understanding of "meditation," yes one does learn to cultivate a quiet, relaxed and tranquil state of mind in Iyengar Yoga classes. One also learns how to lay the correct foundations for meditation to be experienced, but there should not be a misunderstanding of the true nature of meditation.

I have a stiff body. Can I practice yoga?

Although it might at first sight appear that someone who is very flexible can perform yoga asanas (postures) better than a stiff person, this is a misconception. Yoga should not be confused with gymnastics. Yoga aims to develop one's understanding, alignment and awareness through subtle adjustments made to the body - the skin, muscles, tendons and joints etc - while in a yoga posture. The aim is to attain firmness, stability and a feeling of exhilaration in an asana - to make "the effortful effort becomes an effortless effort."

It is therefore not important whether you can touch your head to the knees when bending forward or whether you can sit in full lotus but how well one attempts to do so. Quality not quantity matters. That is not to say that flexibility does not make achieving postures easier, but it is only one element of many necessary for a good asana.

Fortunately flexibility is also developed with dedicated practice and devoted students can develop their flexibility to the level of any ballet dancer.

Which diseases can be treated with yoga?

Therapeutic Yoga can provide relief from chronic health problems. Some of the chronic ailments for which people have benefited from Yoga practice include:

· Skeleto-muscular disorders; arthritis and pains in the knees, shoulders and other joints, curvatures of the back and back pain, slipped discs and sciatic pain.
· Circulatory disorders; heart problems, hypotension, hypertension, circulatory problems in the legs.
· Digestive disorders; constipation, acidity, diabetes and hernias.
· Respiratory disorders; asthma, coughs, colds and bronchitis.
· Nervous disorders; headaches, migraines, sinusitis and stress.
· Reproductive disorders; menstrual problems, uterine displacement and menopausal problems.

If suffering from any medical condition, it is essential to inform your teacher. Serious medical conditions require the attention of a suitably qualified remedial instructor with the necessary training and experience.

Can children do yoga?

Yoga can be safely introduced to children at around seven years.

When young they need to be taught in a playful manner such that they can enjoy what they are doing and are so motivated to continue with it. The basic nature of children is dynamic and they love things which are fast and quick; their minds are very alert but never very steady and therefore they constantly need variety. Also children learn faster by observing than by words so a teacher needs to perform along with the children and at the same pace; as B.K.S. Iyengar says "Children are controlled by their eyes not by words." All these aspects must be taken into consideration in teaching Yoga successfully.

In practice this means postures should be taught in quick succession with plenty of variety and continuous challenges such that their latent energy is used positively. Gradually precision and perfection can be introduced as they grow. Introducing yoga to children develops in them the attributes of courage, concentration and determination.

Pranayama should never be taught to children as this goes against their basic nature. Pranayama is "internalisation" while children are basically extrovert by nature. Their curiosity and exuberance should not be trounced as this can lead to emotional disturbances in later life.

What about yoga for women? (during Menses)

Yoga can be practiced by women of all ages and at all stages of life. Practice is beneficial, even during menstruation and pregnancy although the practice needs to be adjusted depending on one's circumstances. Certain postures are extremely helpful for a women's physiology, especially to overcome menstrual disorders and also to withstand the physiological and emotional changes accompanying menopause.

Mostly it's a matter of personal preference. Some women don't want to do Yoga during their period, many don't mind and continue to practice during menses. For women who do choose to practice, it is suggested that they avoid inverted poses, abdominal strengtheners, extended holding of any pose, or energizing breaths (kapalabhati). The issue is that these practices might interfere with the downward flow or cause discomfort.

What about yoga during pregnancy?

Yoga practice during pregnancy is beneficial to the mother as well as the unborn child. However, one must be careful if unsure.

In pregnancy, one cannot practice as usual and the guidance of a suitably qualified teacher should be sought. Special pregnancy classes are recommended as certain postures must not be practiced and others must be adjusted to take into account the condition of the baby and the mother. Above all one should feel no strain or tiredness during or after yoga. Also, how one practices needs to change as the pregnancy progresses. If in doubt it is best to leave the practice of yoga until the baby has been born so there is no risk.

In practice the postures help relieve tiredness and tension. The spine is also well exercised easing back pain and the pelvic floor strengthened. The pelvic area is also expanded encouraging circulation around the uterus and ensuring there is space for the baby to move.

After pregnancy, yoga practice will help the mothers body return to normal shape and strength more quickly.

Can Yoga control high blood pressure?

Sometimes. Studies have shown that certain Yoga practices can help some patients control their high blood pressure. In general, Yoga promotes health, a sense of calm and relaxation. In addition, it teaches you to be aware of your body and to listen to the signals it sends -- all of which can be very useful.

Specific techniques that may be helpful controlling high blood pressure include diaphragmatic or belly breathing, which has been shown to reduce stress and induce relaxation, and a pranayama (controlled breathing) technique called Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, which also helps reduce stress and induce relaxation. Moreover, there have been a number of studies that show meditation can be a great help in controlling high blood pressure.

Certain Yoga postures should be avoided, however, if you have high blood pressure, including the shoulderstand, headstand and downward dog. There are also a number of postures that you should approach with caution and not hold for extended periods of time (more than a few breaths). These include Warrior I and II, Mountain, Triangle, Half Moon, Tree, Standing Squat and Symbol of Yoga.

I suffer from social anxiety, despite trying several kinds of medication, nothing really helps me. Can Yoga help?

In general, the combined practice of Yoga postures, meditation and pranayama breathing helps reduce stress and anxiety levels. It also helps build feelings of confidence and well-being and creates a stronger sense of self, all of which can help reduce levels of social anxiety. In addition, some of the practices -- such as Nadi Shodhana and other breathing techniques -- can help alleviate the symptoms of an anxiety attack. Yoga also teachers greater self awareness of mind and body. With practice, you may begin to sense the conditions that lead up to an attack and deal with them before they get out of control. It's important to start and maintain a regular practice. You should feel some immediate temporary relief, but it may take several months before you notice significant change.

All the different places that offer teacher training seem to have different criteria or hours to become a teacher. Is there an "official" criteria one must fulfill to become a "certified yoga teacher" or is it basically individual to the certain yoga schools?

There are no nationally recognized standards. So-called "certification" programs range from a weekend course to multi-year programs that are the equivalent of a college degree. In fact, there's a mini controversy within the Yoga community about the issue of national standards. Some teachers and organizations support the creation of uniform standards while others oppose them on the grounds that Yoga is so rich and diverse it would be impossible -- and destructive -- to set a single standard. That said, the Yoga Alliance, the organization at the center of the controversy, has outlined minimum training requirements that Yoga teachers must meet in order to become "registered" Yoga teachers. Registration has no national or official significance. However, the training requirements are reasonable and followed by most major training organizations.

Is Yoga aerobic exercise?

Yes and...maybe. Aerobic exercise is simply exercise that improves oxygenation of the blood through an increased heart rate and deeper breathing. Yoga can do that, especially those styles such as Astanga and ViniYoga that have a strong focus on the flow of one posture to another.

How many times a week should I do Yoga and for how long?

Most schools teach a practice session that lasts 60-90 minutes. If you can do that everyday -- great. If not, try and do that much a few days a week, including a class or two, and fill in with shorter sessions on days when you don't have as much time. Any Yoga is better than no Yoga, and 20 to 30 minutes a day is better than 90 minutes once a week.

Will Yoga help me lose weight and which style is best?

Yoga can make you look and feel better, regardless of your weight. That said, Yoga can help you slim down in a couple of ways. First, the exercises will help you burn calories. In addition, they'll help tone your muscles and improve of your posture. Yoga is also about healthy living, which includes a healthy diet. That doesn't mean you have to become a vegetarian, just that you should be conscious of the foods you eat, sticking with natural, fresh fruits and vegetables, grains, etc. as much as possible while limiting your intake of junk food and foods high in fat, like red meat. Any of the basic hatha styles will help. The important thing is to practice daily (or at least 4-5 days a week). If possible, try and find a teacher. Books, videos and website can be a great help, but nothing beats a live instructor.

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