Light on Iyengar Yoga by bestt571


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                     Light on

                 A personal odyssey
                        by Gerry Visco

          oga keeps the mind and body young. But this
          admission may date me—I started doing yoga in
          high school during the late 1960s, not long after the
Beatles jetted off to India to study Transcendental Medita-
tion with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Our local YMCA offered
a yoga class, so I begged my father to drop me off every
week. If the Beatles could do Headstands, so could I.
     From the very beginning, I loved yoga; it challenged my
body and focused my mind. Ever since then, I’ve continued
studying yoga, trying just about every style with many dif-
ferent teachers. I liked all of them for various reasons, but I
favored the Iyengar method, the most challenging. It suited
me because it was logical and thorough, and promised a
solid practice from its well-trained teachers.
                                                                  photography by kellie walsh for 4 eyes photography; hair & makeup by stefanie Duell.

     I began practicing Iyengar yoga in 1992 when I took a
yoga class at Columbia University, where I work, on my
lunch hour. One day, we had a substitute teacher—and some-
thing about the more careful attention to the various parts of
the body really appealed to me. It wasn’t just some haphaz-
ard series of postures strung together, and we didn’t just lie
around relaxing, although, of course, we ended in Savasana.
     So, I sought out qualified instructors—and discovered
the Iyengar Yoga Institute and its wonderfully talented
teachers, some of whom are pictured in this article—Mary
Dunn, Robin Janis, James Murphy, and Carrie Owerko. All
of them have been instrumental mentors in my growth as                                                                                                   Iyengar senior teachers
a yogini. They even inspired me to become a teacher-in-                                                                                                  James Murphy, Robin Janis,
                                                                                                                                                         and Carrie Owerko practice
training in the Iyengar method.                                                                                                                          Eka Pada Urdhva Danurasana

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 tadasana                                                          Parivrtta Sirsasana                                           ply 100% of myself and be present in the poses. With ev-                  Then, there’s Handstands. Even though I started do-
                                                                                                                                 eryone working so hard, a great spirit suffuses the room.             ing them in 1993, I lost the ability to kick up after I took
                                                                                                                                 Sometimes, I imagine if we concentrated hard enough,                  some time off for abdominal surgery. It took a number of
                                                                                                                                 maybe we could levitate.                                              years, but now I get up most of the time. And I still can’t
                                                                                                                                    I’ve always been more strong than flexible, and be-                reach my hands together in Gomukhasana (Cow Face
                                                                                                                                 cause I sit at a desk all day, I’m one of the stiffer mem-            Pose), though I try every day. And who knows when I’ll
                                                                                                                                 bers of the class. Poses such as twists come more easily              achieve full Padmasana (Lotus Pose)? My pelvic area
                                                                                                                                 now, especially after years of working to open my chest.              is especially tight. But that’s what I like about Iyengar
                                                                                                                                 My Downward Facing Dog has improved since my dor-                     yoga. I’m there to practice, not to show off how accom-
                                                                                                                                 sal spine doesn’t protrude like before.                               plished I am.

                                                                                                                                    The Light of Yoga                          yoga when her teacher left. In the
                                                                                                                                                                               meantime, her mother, inspired by
                                                                                                                                                                                                                            eled to Pune to study with Iyengar, he
                                                                                                                                                                                                                            set the tone by telling Palmer, “Out
                                                                                                                                   iyengar teacher Mary Dunn pioneered         BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, traveled        of class, she is your daughter; but
                                                                                                                                   the style in the U.S. with intelligence,    to study with him in India. When             in class, she is my daughter.” Dunn
                                                                                                                                   empathy, and a stalwart spirit              Iyengar came to the US for the first         treasures the experience. “Mother
                                                                                                                                                                               time to teach yoga in 1973, he stayed        and I laughed in the dark when we
                                                                                                                                        Since she began teaching yoga in       with Mary Palmer in Ann Arbor,               fell into bed exhausted after full days,
                                                                                                                                   1974, Mary Dunn has taught thou-            where he taught hundreds of students         delighted in what we were learn-
                                                                                                                                   sands of students at all levels from        at the local YMCA.                           ing,” she says. “We got to know each
                                                                                                                                   total beginners to senior citizens to           Dunn took his classes when he            other in many new ways that set the
                                                                                                                                   advanced practitioners and teach-           went to California in 1974. “He put          basis for a marvelously satisfying
                                                                                                                                   ers. Dunn, a founding organizer of          me on the stage,” she recalls. “I was        adult closeness.” Since then, Dunn
                                                                                                                                   the first Iyengar Yoga Association in       naïve and didn’t have any bad habits         has made many trips to India to work
                                                                                                                                   the United States, was instrumen-           he had to break. I said to myself, ‘This     one-on-one with her teacher.
                                                                                                                                   tal in establishing the Iyengar Yoga        person knows so much.’ I trusted him              Her own teaching style has always
                                                                                                                                   centers in San Francisco,                                 from the beginning.” Dunn      been clear, direct, and accessible.
                                                                                                                                   San Diego, and New York.                                  still marvels at her early     An article for the IYAGNY newsletter
open to change                                                     evenly. A proper Headstand flows in one straight line, from     From 2003 until 2005, I                                   encounters with Iyengar.       about Tadasana (Mountain Pose) re-
     It’s not easy to get into the Iyengar teacher-training pro-   a firm foundation, with every part of the body extended         took the teacher-train-                                   “He was dynamic and            veals the former high-school English
                                                                                                                                   ing course she ran with                                   strong, demanding yet also     teacher’s poetic economy of words:
gram; in fact, I failed my first audition. But after a few more    toward the ceiling like the spire of a cathedral. With this
                                                                                                                                   teacher James Murphy                                      good-natured,” she says.       “From the very first direction, ‘Join
years of practice, I was accepted in 2005. The program,            alignment, some Iyengar practitioners can hold Headstand        at the Iyengar Institute in                               “He demanded a lot from        your feet’ we learn to transfer focus
run by Mary Dunn and James Murphy, was rigorous, but I             for 20 minutes or more.                                         New York City.                                            his students from the be-      from our head to what is most distant
                                                                                                                                        Sitting in her airy                                  ginning, allowing them to      from it, our feet,” Dunn wrote. “As we
enjoyed learning more about yoga and how to teach it.
                                                                                                                                   Upper West Side apart-                                    have the wonderful experi-     develop our connection with the foot’s
     My first teaching experiences, though, were a bit dis-        Something for everyone                                          ment, Dunn reminisces                                     ence of doing more than        system of arches, our feet become
maying when I realized that many students are reluctant to            Yoga is not exercise. Mr. Iyengar says yoga is the art       with me about her begin-                                  they thought they could.”      wellsprings of energy we can use to
try something new. “Where’s the flow series? Why aren’t            of living. It’s a method where you transcend your limita-       nings in yoga. “I never                                        Meeting Iyengar           fuel our entire being.”
                                                                                                                                   planned on being a yoga teacher,”           changed her whole life. “It wasn’t                “Teaching has given me a life’s
you playing music?” they asked. Although Iyengar yoga              tions. It teaches you how to observe your own body and          she says. Back when she was a               until I studied with Iyengar that the        work of which I’m proud,” she says.
includes “jumpings” that flow, it is mostly about holding a        mind, which can help you in all your other activities.          young mother of two daughters,              scope of the subject began to reveal         “I feel I’ve made a difference, and it’s
pose in ideal alignment. And while music is great, it’s easier     Iyengar yoga is often mislabeled as the style practiced by      Dunn couldn’t even touch her toes,          itself,” says Dunn. “I became aware          given me innumerable friends and a
                                                                                                                                   although she regularly participated in      there were pathways in the body al-          wonderful sense of purpose. Being a
to focus without distractions. Nonetheless, the students           dancers or teachers. The truth is Iyengar yoga speaks to        ice skating, swimming, team sports,         lowing the intelligent understanding         yoga teacher is a way of connecting
kept mentioning how their old teacher did things.                  all types of bodies and capabilities.                           and tennis. “You should try yoga,” her      of movement, the creation of silence.        with people about the things that mat-
     Since yoga is about allowing change to happen and                I’m no dancer—I’m just an average athletic person who        mother, Mary Palmer, encouraged her.        Asana and pranayama opened doors             ter most, not only for my own life but
                                                                                                                                   “It’s the most amazing thing!”              to awareness—emotionally, physi-             to look at the big questions.”
being open to new things, my job was to show them why              likes to work hard. My yoga has evolved over the years,
                                                                                                                                        A bit skeptical at first, Dunn began   ologically, intellectually, and spiritual-        Diagnosed with advanced
this method works. The flexible students jumped easily             and at this point, I could be classified as an intermediate     taking a local yoga class once a week.      ly.” Her studies made her realize the        peritoneal cancer in 2007, Dunn has
into Headstands, but they were wobbly once they got there.         practitioner. In the beginning, my main challenge was           A half-hour into her first class, she       universality of the human condition          since had three major surgeries and
                                                                                                                                   decided this was just what she needed       and helped her cope with her own             chemotherapy. She maintains a blog
They thought just getting up was enough, but the challenge         to open my joints and relax the stiffness in my hips and
                                                                                                                                   to physically express herself and give      difficulties. “To become a teacher,          where she talks about her ongoing
is to hold a solid Headstand. That means it’s better to do         shoulders. Virabhadrasana II used to be so painful for me.      her mind an intellectual workout.           you have to have both detachment             treatment (
it against the wall than be in a “banana” shape, where the         Should I mention I’m a wimp with some inversions, too?               Dunn moved to Berkeley in 1973         and profound empathy,” she says.             Our thoughts and hearts are with
                                                                                                                                   with her family and began teaching              When Dunn and her mother trav-           Mary at this difficult time.     —G.V.
back bows and the body is out of alignment. In Headstand,             I study regularly with Carrie Owerko, this issue’s
your chest needs to be open, the legs active and balanced          cover model. Her arduous classes have taught me to ap-

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 Setu Bandha Sarvangasana Variation                                                                                                                                                                  Where it all began
                                                                                                                                                            Roped In                                    Living master BKS Iyengar, one of the foremost teachers
                                                                                                                                           One of the tools Iyengar relies upon is Yoga Kurunta,     of yoga in the world and creator of this eponymous style, be-
                                                                                                                                       the use of ropes, as part of a regular yoga practice.
                                                                                                                                       Geeta S. Iyengar, his daughter, describes seven rope          gan teaching in Mysore, India, at the age of 18 and was then
                                                                                                                                       techniques in her book, Yoga: A Gem for Women. The            sent to Pune. Often called “Guruji,” for beloved teacher, he
                                                                                                                                       word kurunta means puppet, describing how the yoga
                                                                                                                                       practitioner suspends on the ropes.                           will turn 90 in December. Assisted by his daughter Geeta and
                                                                                                                                           Practicing yoga this way opens the body, releasing        son Prashant, Iyengar continues to teach at his center, called
                                                                                                                                       tension in the spine and pelvic area, and allows easier
                                                                                                                                       access to even the most difficult poses. An effective way
                                                                                                                                                                                                     Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI).
                                                                                                                                       to work with elderly or stiff practitioners, the ropes also      Most Iyengar teachers make a pilgrimage to Pune to
                                                                                                                                       help correct scoliosis. People with neck problems can
                                                                                                                                                                                                     study with him, but Iyengar yoga centers extend all over
                                                                                                                                       practice Sirsasana (Headstand) with ropes.
                                                                                                                                                                                                     the world, with several thousand certified teachers and
                                                                                                                                              Some other benefits of Yoga Kurunta:                   hundreds in the United States alone. Mr. Iyengar has writ-
                                                                                                                                       • Good for backbends and concave back postures,               ten many best-selling books on yogic practices and philoso-
                                                                                                                                       forward bends, Downward Facing Dog, remedial or
                                                                                                                                       restorative work                                              phy including Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama, Light on the
                                                                                                                                       • Spinal traction helps relieve back pain and tension         Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Light on Life, and others. All these
                                                                                                                                                                                                     books are essential study tools for most yoga teachers and
                                                                                                                                       • Excellent for stretching hamstrings, shoulders,
                                                                                                                                       and chest                                                     practitioners of all styles everywhere. What’s most amazing

                                                                                                                                       • Adds speed, lightness, agility, range of motion             about Mr. Iyengar, though, is his willingness to go beyond
                                                                                                                                                                                                     his limits. He uses his own body as a laboratory of sorts,
                                                                                                                                       Although using ropes can be a bit daunting at first,
                                                                                                                                       James Murphy says, “It’s actually a lot of fun.” He uses
                                                                                                                                                                                                     which is why the Iyengar method continues to evolve.
                                                                                                                                       them often in his classes at the Iyengar Yoga Institute          If you go to an Iyengar class, be assured that you’ll be
                                                                                                                                       of New York because the gravity and movement in
                                                                                                                                                                                                     guided by an experienced and knowledgeable teacher.
                                                                                                                                       rope work awakens the body and brings freedom to
                                                                                                                                       the joints.                                                   Iyengar teachers are required to undergo an ongoing cer-

                                                                                                                                       Practitioners should learn the art of Kurunta with an         tification process throughout their careers—with assess-
                                                                                                                                       experienced teacher. Ropes provide a great tool for any       ments on six levels from Introductory to Advanced Senior.
                                                                                                                                       yoga studio but, of course, they need to be securely
take time to explore                                               with confidence that I won’t fall. And after a month or two                                                                       The Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United
                                                                                                                                       bolted to the wall by a professional carpenter.
     As my practice matures, I discover new things about           of daily attempts to stand tall and grab my toe in Utthita                                                                        States (IYNAUS,, a national non-profit group
myself every day. A few years ago, I realized I wasn’t stand-      Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand to Foot Pose), I                                                                             dedicated to the teachings and philosophy of BKS Iyengar,
ing properly. I’d grip my stomach, and I wasn’t keeping the        can finally do it. And if I can do that with daily effort, then I                                                                 oversees the certification process. The Iyengar Yoga
middle of my torso long—which made me wonder whether               can do any pose if I’m diligent.                                                                                                  Institute of New York, located in New York City’s Chelsea
this constriction was what caused the                                                        Yoga is not about achieving the                                                                         area, where I study, is a non-profit group affiliated with
abdominal issues that led to my sur-             Being able to touch the                  perfect pose—it’s about intention. It’s                                                                    IYNAUS and is the headquarters for the Iyengar Yoga As-
gery. Ditto my chest: A lifelong habit           ground in Uttanasana...                  being in the moment, but it’s also the                                                                     sociation of Greater New York, which includes New York,
of caving in my chest and collapsing            or drop back into Urdhva                  process, the effort, the concentration.                                                                    New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Students and
my rib cage could have contributed to                 Dhanurasana...                      Being able to touch the ground in Ut-                                                                      teachers from any style of yoga can certainly benefit from
my asthma.                                                                                tanasana (Forward Bend) or drop back                                                                       the Iyengar method—and who knows, if you try it, you
                                                  is not any better than
     As all my teachers emphasize, the                                                    into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward                                                                            just might want to continue.
                                              doing the simplest poses with
best way to go beyond your limits                                                         Facing Bow Pose) is not any better
                                               devotion and intelligence.                                                                                                                            gerry Visco is a freelance writer and photographer and
is with a daily home practice, even                                                       than doing the simplest poses with
                                                                                                                                                                                                     completed a two-year yoga teacher-in-training at the Iyengar
if it’s a short one. Although it can be                                                   devotion and intelligence.                                                                                 Institute in New York City.
difficult to juggle a full-time job and a full life with all the      Yoga is an exploration of your body and mind. We try
New York City distractions, I developed a basic routine.           to bring freedom, lightness, and space into the body as we
     Every day, I swim at the gym on my building’s rooftop         strengthen it. Through Iyengar yoga, I’ve learned not to
                                                                                                                                                                                                        iyengar Yoga institute of new York
and spend as much time as possible before or after doing           rush but to concentrate and give the process my all. Half-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                             150 West 22nd St., 11th floor
an asana sequence. Sometimes, I’ll pick one or two poses           effort and half-attention to anything will result in medi-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                             New York, NY 10011
I’m having trouble with and keep at it. I’ve managed to            ocrity. Developing my practice with my Iyengar teachers                                                                                                   (212) 691-9642
improve my balance in Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon                 provided a foundation that helps all my poses as well as                                                                                        
Pose) and Vrksasana (Tree Pose). It’s great going into class       my own life challenges.

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