Iyengar yoga originated, like all yoga, in India. The sage Panjali’s Sutras were documented between 500 BC and 200 BC, as a systematic way to understand consciousness through practice and renunciation. Patanjali’s Sutras are considered an authoritative text on yoga. Over the centuries and through various lineages the sutras have been interpreted by academics, commentators and practitioners of yoga with varying emphases.
Born in Bellur, India in 1918, BKS Iyengar’s approach to yoga focuses on asana and pranayama to explore the eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga.
BKS Iyengar celebrated his 95th birthday in 2013 in Pune, India where he continues to maintain a daily practice and teach. Commencing yoga at age 16 to deal with a series of health conditions, over a lifetime Iyengar has evolved distinct methods of practicing and teaching yoga, which have been adopted by many around the world. Iyengar’s methods are founded in traditional yoga and predominately based within Patanjali’s yoga sutras. Iyengar classifies the yoga he teaches as Astanga (eight-limbed) yoga and adopts all aspects of yoga in his method. Many other types of yoga differ, as a particular aspect is pursued (e.g. raja yoga focuses on mastery of mind, hatha yoga emphasises the physical aspects of yoga, and mantra yoga uses mantra to refine mind). Iyengar adopts all aspects of yoga as he considers making distinctions between aspects (e.g. mind and body) arbitrary.
BKS Iyengar has tested Patanjali’s yoga sutras through his own practice of yoga, and as a result, his method holds high relevance to the practice and experience of yoga, with an apparent emphasis on the asana and pranayama limbs. While it may appear that this approach neglects many of the other limbs, Iyengar justifies his method, reasoning the emphasis is held on the teachable and describable aspects of yoga. These aspects are the limbs that require the application of discipline and effort (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama and pratyahara). He views dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (integration) as the outcomes, or effects, of a practice of yoga; these are attained and cannot be explicitly taught. This does not mean these aspects are overlooked.
Iyengar has developed a method, characterised by an emphasis on precision and alignment, use of props and timing which offer a practical way to work toward the outcomes. Iyengar also reasons the outcomes are inherent in the other limbs of yoga, a view which differs to other interpretations of the yoga sutras (and Iyengar’s preliminary view) that the eight-limbs are stepwise achievements.
In practising Iyengar yoga, we benefit from Iyengar’s life-time of practice and teaching experience, be it the detailed definitions of alignment, the use of props or the application of sequence to affect the experience of asana.
When starting out, it may appear that Iyengar yoga is all about working the body to attain a particular shape of the body, however, this interpretation would miss the point of yoga. Iyengar’s methods help you to build the capacity to apply and watch yourself, and with a practice over time, you work toward the integration of the body, mind and soul.
1. Yoga Drsti (With yogic eyes), BKS Iyengar, Astadala Yogamala, Vol 2
2. The Tree of Yoga, BKS Iyengar,1988
3. Understanding the principles behind Iyengar Yoga, Prashant Iyengar, Yoga Rahasya, Vol 2 2004
Inversions are contraindicated for menstruation. This is due to the effect that inverting the uterus has on the menstrual flow. Whilst inverted, gravity works against the flow, and the flow may be disturbed or even stop. This is considered contradictory in Ayurveda, in which waste products from the body should not be withheld within the body. The practice of inversions during menstruation has also been associated with complications, and may also lead to increased menstrual flow.
Asana that strongly grip, compress and or twist the abdominal muscles are also avoided during menstruation, as this can also disturb the flow or place undue strain on this region. In addition, asana that are highly stimulating, overly exertive, or restrict the breath are generally avoided during menstruation.
These principles result in the following classes of asana being avoided:
– inversions and arm balances;
– intense backward extension;
– body knottings and closed twists that compress the abdomen;
– strenuous poses, for example, jumping to enter standing asana; and
– lengthy periods of seated pranayama, and some practices of pranayama.
During menstruation a practitioner may use modifications to reduce the exertion required in asana, allowing energy levels and/or strain on the abdominal area to be managed.
Examples include using the support of a wall for standing poses or taking the head to support in forward bends.
Supported Viparita Dandasana and Setu-bandha Sarvangasana are commonly practiced whilst menstruating as these asana can provide the same benefits of Sirsasana (head stand) and Sarvangasana (shoulder stand), which are contraindicated during mensuration.
1. YOGA A Gem for Women, Geeta Iyengar, 1990
2. The practice of women during the whole month, Geeta Iyengar, 2009
Both Salamba Sirsasana (head stand) and Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) are classified as inversions. While many benefits are attributed to these poses, the main benefits result from the effect of gravity on circulation within the lymphatic and cardiovascular systems in the inverted state. The lymphatic system can drain more efficiently and blood from the veins in the leg can move back toward the heart with less resistance, resting the heart. These asana also cultivate the mind, by building the awareness, coordination and restraint required to stay and balance in the pose.
Sarvangasana and Sirsasana are considered complementary asana. Both are inversions, however each has a different effect on the nervous and musculoskeletal systems.
The main effects of Sirsasana are on the brain. The pose stimulates oxygenated blood supply to the brain, promoting clarity and sharpness of intellect. The position also revitalises the pituitary and pineal glands that regulate growth and health in the body. Sirsasana is classified as a stimulating and invigorating pose. On the contrary, Sarvangasana soothes the nervous system, and promotes patience and emotional stability. The inverted state in this asana stimulates oxygenated blood supply to the chest area, which is considered to assist the healing of ailments in this region (e.g. bronchitis and asthma). The chin lock of Sarvangasana stimulates the thyroid and parathyroid glands, which are involved in the regulation of the nervous and muscular systems (parathyroid) and metabolism (thyroid).
BKS Iyengar says that “Regular practice of Sirsasana makes healthy pure blood flow through the brain cells. This rejuvenates them so that thinking power increases and thoughts become clearer.” He goes on to say that “Regular and precise practice of Sirsasana develops the body, disciplines the mind and widens the horizons of the spirit. One becomes balanced and self reliant in pain and pleasure, loss and gain, shame and fame and defeat and victory.” (Light on Yoga pp 151-152) For these reasons it is a pose which becomes essential to daily practice.
Sirsasana can exaggerate or shed light on physical problems apparent in standing poses including (such as the tendency for the lumbar spine to dig, the floating ribs to jut forward) and can be a battle ground for dealing with thoughts, emotions, fears. Initially, it requires intense concentration. Over time the pose provides a key opportunity to sustain a level of effort and simultaneously observe one’s capacity for the renunciation of extraneous work, both physical and mental.
Geeta Iyengar also points out that “[t]he upside-down position counteracts the effects of the normal upright position on the internal organs, which have a tendency to drop and to sag and thus become sluggish. The Sirsasana position gently coaxes them to a new life.” (Gem for Women p. 188). For this reason the pose is refreshing, energising and invigorating.
BKS Iyengar says of Salamba Savangasana that “[i]t is a panacea for most common ailments. There are several endocrine organs or ductless glands in the human system which bathe in blood, absorb nutrients from the blood and secrete hormones for the proper functioning of a balanced and well enveloped body and brain. If the glands fail to function properly, the hormones are not produced as they should be and the body starts to deteriorate. Savangasana has a direct effect on thyroid and parathyroid glands which are situated on the neck region, since due to the firm chinlock their blood supply is increased, helping them to function properly.” (Light on Yoga, p. 171) For these reasons the pose is vital to the maintenance of general physical and mental health.
Both Sirsasana and Savangasana and their variations, by virtue of the inverted nature and particularly the chinlock of the Savangasana, which regulates glands located in the neck region, are useful in reducing premenstrual tension and other hormone related disorders.
On the topic of Iyengar Yoga philosophy we recommend that you read ‘Light on Life’ and ‘Tree of Yoga’ – both by BKS Iyengar.
To support your practice at home some useful texts include:
‘Path to Holistic Health’: by BKS Iyengar
‘Yoga the Iyengar Way’: by Silva, Mira and Shyam Mehta
‘How to Use Yoga. A Step by Step Guide to the Iyengar Method of Yoga’: by Mira Mehta
You can find many books and other props and equipment at Iyogaprops which is an online store based in Melbourne (we buy many of our props from them). Many online bookshops sell Iyengar yoga books too.
Menstruation and menopause demand that a woman’s body regularly manage dramatic changes in oestrogen and progesterone levels. The process makes huge demands upon the adrenal glands, the kidney and liver, as well as the ovaries and the entire nervous system.
- Oestrogen directly and indirectly affects the female neuromuscular system.
- Oestrogen and progesterone contribute significantly to bone health and bone density.
- Kidney and liver function determine the body’s capacity to eliminate excess oestrogen. Unopposed oestrogen can build to unsafe tissue levels that can lead to a strong risk for breast cancer and reproductive cancers. Progesterone prevents the problems associated with oestrogen dominance.
- Stress leads to adrenal fatigue and lowered levels of progesterone. Chronic stress leads to high cortisol production which leads to depression, muscle break down and an increase in fatty tissue.
Maintaining or improving the function of organs and glands is critical for women so that their bodies are able to efficiently respond to the demands of menstruation and menopause.
Women must not only learn to modify the sequence of their asana during menstruation and when menopausal symptoms are overwhelming, they must also develop skill in refining their alignment to become sensitive to the subtle qualitative experience. Subtle and precise refinements of the external body create the framework, or container in which organs and glands function.
If you are experiencing difficulties, speak with your teacher about how to modify your practice.
Pranayama is one of 8 disciplines mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. As a practice it evolves from a discipline of watching the breath – breath as object; to a more refined practice where the breath is observed to provide evidence of manomaya kosa (mental emotional body). Finally breath can be applied as an instrument to affect the condition of mind. Within Iyengar methodology, pranayama is recognised as the gateway to pratyahara (internalisation of the senses of perception). Asana, pranayama and pratyahara can all be practised and refined in terms of technique and skill and together these three disciplines bring the outcomes of dharana, dhyana and samadhi (concentration, meditation and transformation).
No. Practice provides the context in which a practitioner learns to watch the conduct of their thoughts. It is through practice that we evidence the vrttis (illusions, doubts, misperceptions) and recognise the klesas (the causes for these disturances in perception). Without first the capacity to study the mind, it is not possible to change the way it behaves.
Yoga is a universal subject though methodology differs dramatically according to the lineage of teachers. Each lineage of Yoga has is own specific approach to teaching and to practice and even within lineage, for example our lineage of Iyengar Yoga, schools and institutes will have different emphasis within their teaching.
Yes. The Iyengar methodology of Yoga study is particularly well suited to people of all body types.