The terminology of “right and wrong” comes up more often than I would like in yoga, especially pertaining to Iyengar Yoga. Though it is something we encourage often, students of Iyengar Yoga are afraid to start a practice at home for fear of “doing something wrong”, and there is a perception that the job of the Iyengar Yoga teacher is to make sure the student is “doing it right”. For sure, one of the reasons that folks choose Iyengar Yoga in particular is an emphasis on precise alignment and use of props for physical safety and other benefits. But, in all my classes, trainings, readings, and visits to the Iyengar Yoga Institute, it has not been my impression that the complexities and approaches to yoga our system take are done for “right” or for “wrong”.
We are human, and the human mind works happily in dualities – pain/pleasure, right/wrong, hot/cold. Those terms are clear and easy, but they actually take away a lot of the intrigue that lies within yoga and the approach of Iyengar Yoga in particular. Coming off seven days of practice with Abhijata Iyengar and in the past taking classes with Geeta and Prashant Iyengar, this terminology and focus on “right and wrong” continues to make me scratch my head.
“The technical aspects of asanas are very meticulously observed by the Iyengars, by ‘Iyengar’ teachers and by ‘Iyengar’ students. One often tends to feel and remark that our system is very complicated because of the technical details. They are not complexities but they are intricacies. The student is given an access to the body, which is beyond the peripheral, skeletal and muscular body…penetration requires intricacies…Without intricacies, you cannot touch the subtleties and without subtleties you cannot penetrate.”Prashant Iyengar – Yoga and the New Millennium – pgs 6-7
Yoga has a depth that we need to be able to penetrate and we have to start somewhere. To know where our body parts are and actually feel what they are doing is one of the first steps in paying attention and developing awareness. It is what sets yoga practice apart from other forms of pure bodily exercise. To approach yoga without the emphasis on paying attention is to just miss the point of yoga – stilling the fluctuations of consciousness. It is not a simple judgment of “wrong or right”, but the actual benefits of yoga in particular come from an ability to feel, sense, experience, and reflect. “In merely doing, you will not get the benefits.” (Prashant Iyengar in “A Class after a Class” pg 5).
To penetrate the feelings and workings of the mind and consciousness in yoga, first we must know what we feel physically. This is more the purpose of the Iyengar system’s detailed instruction than some “right or wrong” physical alignment of a joint or muscle. Yes, alignment helps to balance out a lot of habitual push and pull we do to our body over time, but that is not the only reason to turn a thigh or tuck a buttock. To put conscious effort into a position means you have to pay attention and to pay attention means to bring consciousness to one thing, and that in turn lessens the fluctuations in the mind. Geeta Iyengar once said in class that as the teacher “she could only adjust the body and possibly a single layer of the mind of a student to change their experience. The rest is up to us.” To stop an instruction only at “right or wrong” is to cut your personal journey very short.
This process of penetration takes time and those fluctuations of consciousness happen at every level. As students of yoga, once we get the clues and cues to pay attention to the “gross body” or the outer physical layers, then we have to go deeper. This past week, Chris Saudek instructed us to “stretch our toenails forward.” This may sound ridiculous to an untrained ear (can there be a “right or wrong” way to do that?), but she knows that the instruction is to bring a feeling more than a doing. The “effect” of this instruction is on an emotional and sensory level and not a physical one. But to even get to that emotional or sensory level, I as the student first have to pay attention, know and feel if my physical feet are turned in or out, if my arch is lifted or not, etc…The layers of our self are present and accounted for, we just have to be willing to take the time to journey through them all.
Experimentation and curiosity are key! Yes, our teacher can keep us present more easily than we might experience on our own without guidance or study and with all our usual thoughts and distractions. Yes, that teacher is also a guide to knowledge of the subject and can lessen some of the experimentation time we might fumble through ourselves. But, if we ONLY ever take a “right or wrong” approach to instruction or learning we will miss some pretty exciting twists and turns in our practice and in life.
And again, in my experience that is not what the Iyengars have asked of us. They do not have the “right or wrong”answer for you. Another typical Geeta Iyengar refrain in class was “YOU FIND OUT!”. After the instruction…then what? Sequencing, which is also a distinction in the Iyengar Yoga method, is designed to elicit a certain experience that diminishes mental and nervous system disturbances as much as addressing a physical “flow”. But, it all depends on context. One pose or sequence for one person, at one time and in one context may not be “right” for another person at another time, in another context all together.
We must begin to look beyond “right or wrong” and put away the judgement of actions of ourselves and our teachers in yoga. Doing so will open up our experience from mere “doing of things” to the “experience of Self”. This does take some amount of courage and stamina and resilience in practice. To “SEE” ourselves more deeply and clearly to the point of feeling our actual feet, toenails, skin, muscles, thoughts, feelings, and emotions is to empower ourselves beyond measure, which is truly the power of yoga.