I found a teacher in BKS Iyengar, and as his student and Iyengar yoga teacher, often find myself using his words when I teach. I say things like, “The floor is your teacher,” or “Let the wall be your teacher.”
Have you found a teacher? What drew you to her or him? I hear students say so and so is a “good” teacher, and sometimes they say so and so is “not a very good teacher.” Sometimes I think pain is my best teacher, since it tells me so quickly and definitively when I’ve done something incorrectly. Who is your teacher?
What does it mean to teach yoga? And what does it mean for a student to choose a teacher? These two questions are worth some reflection for any yoga student. Ultimately, one must become his or her own teacher to truly practice yoga, but most of us find ourselves in the presence of individuals who lead us along our yogic path until we can manage for ourselves. Even Iyengar had Shri Krishnamacharya during his early years as a yoga sisya.
I became so enamored of Iyengar yoga because he took the subject of teaching and learning as seriously as he took the practice of yoga. He has studied how people learn, and through a process of reflection and experimentation, how to best teach.
He has observed how students learn most efficiently. What confuses the student? What slows down progress? What needs to be learned before going onto more advanced study? How should poses be sequenced to advance the work without injury? Most of his methods could be used to teach any subject, if properly adapted.
In Iyengar yoga teacher training, teachers are asked to incorporate not only what he has taught, but also how he teaches.
Here are some of the principles:
- Demonstrate the pose. Ask people to “come watch.” Give both the Sanskrit name and English translation.
- Describe the pose. “My right leg is straight, my left leg is bent at a right angle.”
- Give only one or two actions. “Press your back heel as you lengthen you arm overhead.”
- Have people do the pose. Observe! Did they do what you asked? If so, add an action that helps refine the pose further. If not, demonstrate again - this time showing the incorrect action and then the corrected action.
It’s so sensible and practical, one wonders why everyone doesn’t do this.
Along with these basics, Iyengar says we must learn to speak directly to the body. Don’t give long explanations to beginners. They want to move. Don’t hold poses too long. Beginners learn more by going into the pose, coming out and doing it a second time. It’s harder to correct a pose when you are already in it, better to come out and try again.
While these are some of the principles of his teaching, they do little to describe the actual subtlety of a well-taught Iyengar yoga class. Learning how to sequence a class (what poses prepare for more difficult poses) can take decades to really understand, and the specific “actions” that Iyengar has developed through his own experimentation are brilliant.
Iyengar has also taught his teachers how to observe changes in skin color, breathing, energy levels and alignment in order to know when and how to modify poses. And there are so many ways to modify poses for individual needs. Iyengar has applied his understanding like a master architect and engineer when it comes to the use of blocks, straps and bolsters.
Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, the ancient text that provides a foundation for contemporary practitioners, dispassionately categorizes different kinds of yoga students. In Sutra 1:22, he writes that students are either, “mild, mediocre [or] ardent.” What kind of student are you? An honest assessment of your own level of interest might be useful in finding an appropriate teacher.
I feel lucky to have been introduced to Iyengar yoga early on, but I also recognize there are many wonderful teachers “out there” who have much to offer students. The practice of yoga requires a self-reflective mentality, and we don’t want to invite someone we don’t trust into that interior, intimate place. Good luck finding your teacher. Namasté.
Peggy is a certified Iyengar yoga instructor (level two) and a was a full professor of dance at Colorado College from 1980 until her retirement last spring. Her involvement with yoga began in 1998.
She fervently believes that yoga is both a "physical" and a "mental" practice, and is confident that the careful attention to alignment that's typical in Iyengar yoga classes can help many people who live with physical and emotional pain. She has studied in India with the Iyengars, and regularly studies with the most senior practitioners of Iyengar yoga in this country.