The Iyengar Tradition

Guru Shishya Relationship

In simple terms, the practice of yoga that has its roots in the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar is known around the world as Iyengar Yoga. Traditionally yoga is considered as a sacred subject and sacred knowledge. And such knowledge has always been passed on by a guide, teacher or as we call such a person in India, a Guru. A guru means someone who removes the darkness of ignorance, showing light within. And in that traditional context, it has always been important that there be a personal and intimate contact between the teacher and the taught. Such an education was received in the “Guru-kula”, which means the student becomes a part of the Guru’s household. 

Though this may not be possible in the modern times in the west, such a relationship nonetheless still exists in India and is considered very important in the hearts of the people. It may no more be the norm to live with the guru, but the guru-shishya relationship is still considered very special and is a relationship that is transformative.

Guruji and his way of teaching Yoga

BKS Iyengar began teaching in 1936 at the age of 18 and continued to teach and share till he left his mortal body in august 2014. Discipline, observation of scientific detail and total devotion to practice characterise his teachings and the school of Yoga he has developed.

All of yoga is one, and people give it different names for the purposes of identification of the tradition or the source. Guruji BKS Iyengar in his teachings and practice introduced the concepts of alignment, precision and timing in the asanas and this really distinguishes this tradition of practice. Since the mind is naturally drawn to movement, the insistence is on keeping the mind anchored on the actions that bring stability. Therefore the stable limb anchors the moving limb (stillness anchors the movement), so that actions come from stability. The unchanging stillness anchors the mind – the breath guides the movement.

The Use of Props 

Another characteristic of this style of practice is the use of props. The props can be used for several purposes: 

– for the sake of relaxation, they can be used to support the body. 

– they can be used to help understand a posture better, and to deepen an action. 

– they can be used to create more challenges in a pose.

– they can be used to study alignment, to make sure that we aren’t under the illusion of alignment

– they can be used to make an asana accessible for a body that is challenged and might not be able to do the pose otherwise.

Note: A prop is by no means a crutch. This is a gross misconception. A prop is a teacher and a guide. It is a tool to help us learn. It is not something that we use now and get rid of with time. Since learning is perpetual, we never know when and how the props will come to our aid.

The idea that props are a support to get rid of later comes with the conditioning of an education that looks for perfection and is caught up in idealism. The mind likes these human made concepts. In reality, we need humility and sensitivity to discover and accept our lack of awareness and consciousness. Guruji used to say that our bodies are like caves. When we begin yogabhyasa (the practice of yoga), it is like walking into a cave. At first we see enough because of the light outside. This light is our teacher. But the deeper we go into ourselves, the more aware we need to be to not fall and harm ourselves. For this we need inner light, which comes with sensitivity. And when we are alone in that cave, the props become our light.

Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi in Asana

Another striking characteristic of Guruji BKS Iyengar’s discoveries is that earlier Asana was always seen as a stepping stone to the experience of dharana (focused mind), dhyana absorbed mind and samadhi (a state of total awareness and stillness of mind). Whereas the different use of props such as bricks, belts, wall, bolster, etc makes it possible to be in the asana without the use of pure will. When held for a certain period of time, these asanas naturally bring about Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. In that sense, the practice of asanas is no more a stepping stone where one does a lot of movements and lies down in Savasana, hoping to find deep relaxation. Asanas then make the body a stable ground for the mind to spread in, and release and relax.