“What most people want is the same. Most people simply want physical and mental health, understanding and wisdom, and peace and freedom…. Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life where you do not feel like you are constantly trying to fit the broken pieces together. Yoga allows you to find an inner peace that is not ruffled and riled by the endless stresses and struggles of life. Yoga allows you to find a new kind of freedom that you may not have known even existed.” –BKS Iyengar, “Light on Life”
When someone leaves this earth, it gives us pause to reflect on that person’s life. Not just their achievements, but more significantly, how they touched your life. The majority of us have never met the great yoga master BKS Iyengar, who passed this last week. But for those of us who have studied his alignment-focused and prop-based style of yoga, he was instrumental in transforming our practice even from across the planet.
As a former dancer, I discovered yoga more than 20 years ago. I was drawn to its slow, flowing, intentional movement and the discipline of a consistent physical practice. Also as an introvert by nature, the internal and solitary aspect of the practice made it easy and comforting for me. I was like a pea in a peapod. Yoga brought me solace in my mind and ease in my body.
Early into my practice, I realized how healing yoga could be as I watched old dance injuries begin to dissipate. Yoga shifted my life perspective so much so that I left my 10-year career as a journalist and returned to my first love of dance and became a ballet and modern dance teacher. Several years into it, however, new injuries began to surface.
My yoga practice up until this point was instinctual and indulgent. A typical practice involved flowing from one pose to the next and moving into poses as far as my body would take me. My goal was to recreate the external form of the poses in its deepest, most impressive form, with little thought for how I was getting there or why. With time, I began to realize that my over-flexible and hyper-mobile body was an injury waiting to happen.
Still in love with the mental and emotional benefits of the practice, I sought out new ways of practicing and teachers who could show me ways of practicing more safely and methodically. Already familiar with yoga’s power to heal, I was committed to learning more. The further I searched, I was continually drawn to teachers who studied with BKS Iyengar, one of the founding fathers of Hatha Yoga as we know it today, and heralded for his precise alignment and holistic approach using yoga to heal injury and illness.
At first I was resistant to the use of blocks and straps. “Why would I use a strap if I can already touch the floor and reach my feet with my hands?” I thought. “Why sit on a blanket, when I can already sit comfortably on the floor?” But I stayed with it over the years, and realized with the support of props, I could experience a different sense of ease and freedom. It helped me feel poses differently and understand them with a new perspective. With practice, I was able to tune into and appreciate the subtle shifts that could only occur with time and support. To be clear, while this is not the only way to practice or even the only way I practice, it is always there to support me when I need it.
As my teaching also shifted from dance to yoga, it became apparent that a clear understanding of alignment and intelligent use of props were key in helping me translate a safe yoga practice to my students. To that I owe great thanks to the many teachers who have trained me, but most notably Gabriel Halpern, who continues to mentor and support me to this day. For a yoga practice that can endure the test of time in a body that is always testing its limits, it is a practice of longevity that will help to sustain and support us during life’s ups and downs, which is the only guarantee of a lifetime.