On Tuesday we had a special opportunity to observe Prashant Iyengar teaching a group of local Indian students. As always, Prashant asked the students to consider the relationship between the body, breath and mind, and the infinite possible configurations between these three components of our being. In the classes I have taken with Prashant, he generally does not teach the technical aspects of asana. Instead he has us hold the poses as he guides us to explore our consciousness. He might suggest a way of approaching the breath, describe the use of graphic imagery, or ask us to place our attention on an energy center (cakra) or on a seed syllable (bija). These techniques take us beyond body consciousness and help us to cultivate, sensitize and educate ourselves in a fuller and deeper way.
Therefore, it was a big surprise to hear him teaching this group with precise technical points of action n the asanas. It was fantastic to see how he integrated his usual teaching style with specific instructions. For example, he taught that in Warrior III Pose (Virabhadrasana III) the foot had to lengthen from the ankle to the tarsals, from the tarsals to the metatarsals, and from the metatarsals to the toes. The entire foot was to be animated and cultured. He said that the foot should become so beautiful that someone would fall in love with it! This he called a unique kind of pedicure that should especially apply to our inverted poses.
While providing these useful techniques for “how to do the pose” he also worked with effort and timing in the poses. Prasahant explained that sometimes we have to “swipe the will card” and go for tenacity, volition, intensity, duration and forbearance in our poses. Only in this way can we access the cells that are usually dormant. Normally, we only use the cells that are bubbling with enthusiasm, but if we stay for a longer hold, dormant cells will come to life and be invited to participate.
For example, the class did long hold of Camel Pose (Ustrasana). Prashant instructed the group to take the shoulder blades into the back fully, intensely and strongly. Then, when they felt they had nothing left, they were to search for more. He said that at the point where we feel have nothing left, that is really where the “doing” begins. At the point when we are running out of energy and power, then we should keep going. As he put it, “The doing really starts when you can no longer do it.” Prashant explained that taking that step is so important, for that is when we “swipe the will card.” When duration and intensity come together, we will be calling in the reserve forces, and sending a requisition for more cells to engage.
After the class, Abhi led a discussion about her concern that this aspect of Iyengar Yoga – intensity combined with duration – was being lost. She asked how many of us had held Intense Extension Pose (Uttanasana) for ten minutes. Not many hands went up. Raya said that we could not simply have a fixed amount of time in mind and be satisfied with that. We should ask ourselves more often to go the extra mile with our timings.
Having received this reminder, I thought that perhaps we would take long timings in Abhi’s class the next morning. Of course I was completely wrong – we did jumpings! We jumped through many repetitions from Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana) to various standing poses. This led us toward arm balances. The class was quick and playful, while still containing many technical gems for our education. It was wonderful to see the way Abhi and Raya work together, Abhi instructing, Raya demonstrating and occasionally explaining as well. They are an effective team!
Abhi explained that whatever we tend to like is what we will practice, and that is what we will think Iyengar Yoga is. If we like holding, we will hold, and that is what we will think Iyengar Yoga is. If we like moving, we will move, and that is what we will think Iyengar Yoga is. But Iyengar Yoga includes both of these aspects and so much more. We need to see that we are practicing and teaching the full breadth of the subject.
It takes will power to jump and move quickly with energy and alertness. It takes will power to stay in a pose for a long period of time with awareness and steadiness. We gravitate to the middle ground of our own comfort zone, wherever that may lie on the continuum between quick action and sustained holding. We need to observe our own propensities, and then strive to get out of the middle ground and experience the whole gamut of what practice can be.
I am joyfully and passionately engaged in studying jazz piano and singing from the great American Songbook. (I am having a fabulous time here, but I do miss my piano!) When I am working on a new arrangement, my teacher often comments that I am not using the whole keyboard, but instead staying within a safe and comfortable range. He reminds me that I need to explore the high and low tones, and create more variety, texture and interest in the musical expression. Similarly in our yoga practice, we can explore using the whole “keyboard” of approaches to practice, deepening our learning and opening up to new possibilities of movement and stillness.
In love and light,