Importance of learning

Importance of learning

“People call us requesting all sorts of information. One of the more common questions is about our class levels and what level the caller should attend. If s/he is not a beginner, we usually ask what kind of yoga s/he has practiced and for how long. Then we have some idea of what his/her experience is and can suggest the appropriate level.  As often as not, the caller says that s/he really doesn’t know what kind of yoga s/he’s been doing. This used to surprise me since it seems to me that if you’ve been taking a yoga class for a while, you’d know what kind of yoga is being taught. Given the current proliferation of yoga classes and explosion of yoga styles, though, I am no longer surprised by this response.

There are, of course, many different methods and traditions of yoga. This has always been true. But in today’s hyper commercial yoga world nearly everyone pays a lot of attention to branding and differentiating themselves from everyone else. Some practitioners study for a while, either with one or two teachers or maybe with a variety of methods; become teachers themselves; and then, after deciding which parts of what they’ve studied to keep and which to discard, make up their own brand name. Because of that, the number of styles/names of yoga has grown incredibly. New brands such as AcroYoga, Purna Yoga, Vari Yoga, and Yin Yoga have joined the older traditions, such as Sivananda, Ashtanga, and Iyengar. Perhaps that is why folks sometimes don’t know what kind of yoga they’re doing. Who can keep up? Who cares?

Maybe you should care, though. After all, we’re talking about your body, mind, and spirit here. Seems to me that these are sufficiently important that you’d want to at least avoid injurious or ineffective methods if not actively seek out the most elevating and liberating teachers and teachings. But sorting your way through the maze of methods can be daunting. How to know where to go or with whom to study? Why choose one over another? What are the differences between the various approaches?

My intention in this newsletter, however, is not to offer a compendium of yoga methods or strategies for choosing one over another. Instead, I want to discuss what makes the method I and the other teachers at Unity Woods practice and teach, Iyengar Yoga, unique.

During my ten years of practice and study before committing myself to Iyengar Yoga, I explored a number of other traditions and teachers. Throughout that time and for much of the thirty years since, I attended and taught at dozens of conferences that offered a wide array of practices and practitioners. I’m certain I haven’t seen it all,….but I’ve seen a lot.

Among the characteristics that distinguish Iyengar Yoga from other styles are: a major emphasis on alignment; riveting attention to detail and precision; the use of props; the absence of dim lights, incense, and music; and the use of increasingly subtle anatomical description to guide the practitioner. These points are the ones most commonly used to describe Iyengar Yoga. They are accurate and important. In this piece, however, I would like to focus on a less touted but, I believe, equally important element of the method: the importance of learning.

For years, the sporting goods giant Nike had a slogan: Just Do It. (I don’t know whether they still use it.) This also seems to be the approach many yoga methods employ. When it comes to yoga, just do it. Actually, I have no quarrel with the “do it” part. You gotta do it or nothing happens. It’s the “just” part that rankles me a bit.

In Iyengar yoga we definitely “do it”. The classes can be physically rigorous, and there is very little fooling around or extraneous chitchat. But we don’t “just” do it. We are also interested in the “how’s” and “why’s” of what we are doing. We are interested in learning, not just doing. For dedicated Iyengar Yoga practitioners, our practice is a discipline. We often take discipline to mean “forcing ourselves to do something we don’t much want to do”, and the word does have that meaning. But the root of the word discipline is discipulus, Latin for a learner. It is that aspect of the word that holds such relevance for Iyengar students, because that is what we are. We are students. We study what we are doing, and in this way, we study ourselves. Self-study or svadhyaya is an important part of Iyengar Yoga as well as an integral part of classical yoga as prescribed in the Yoga Sutras. The process of learning through self-study requires us to pay exquisite attention to what we are doing and what is happening. This is one of the reasons why Iyengar Yoga is sometimes called “meditation in motion” and why it is not “just” an exotic exercise.

Curiosity plays a vital part in the process of learning. In the Fall Unity Woods newsletter, I spoke about the importance of curiosity and a sense of adventure as key elements in developing a long lasting and rewarding yoga practice. Curiosity urges us to explore what is going on as we practice; this exploration can open up vast new dimensions to the practice. In Iyengar classes, for example, we learn to observe what we are doing and to observe the effects of our practice. For example, if I am in a symmetrical pose such as Downward Facing Dog Pose (Adhomukha Shvanasana), why does the pressure in my left hand feel different from the pressure in my right hand? If I explore and adjust, I may discover that I lean into one shoulder more than the other, or that the muscles of one arm are gripping more than the muscles of the other. These explorations and discoveries are more than just treasure hunts to amuse and occupy the practitioner. While they enhance the symmetry and beauty of the poses, they help us avoid injury, remedy long standing problems, and allow us to gain the maximum benefit from our efforts. New students who have studied other forms of yoga often remark after their first Iyengar Yoga class that this is the first time they’ve been instructed in how to do the poses.

For effective learning to take place, a systematic approach to the subject is necessary. One of the strengths of Iyengar Yoga is that it is truly a system, a method, not just an amalgam of bits and pieces gathered from here and there and patched together. Over his 78 years of practice and 75 years of teaching, B.K.S. Iyengar has studied, developed, and refined his method in such a way that there is an inherent consistency that enables serious students to learn and grow if they are willing to put in the time and effort.

To go back to my opening paragraph, this is the main reason we have levels at Unity Woods. Just as the one room school house was replaced to allow pupils to learn more effectively, the one-class-fits-all as a tool for learning yoga is not very effective either. It’s fine for “just doing it”, but students can’t make much progress if the teacher has to keep teaching to the lowest common denominator in a mixed level class. And if the teacher teaches too much above the level of the students, the likelihood of confusion and/or injury increases significantly. That’s why we want to know what experience the folks who call us have had so we can put them in a class that will facilitate their learning and help them grow as practitioners and as people.

There is certainly more than one way to study, practice, and teach yoga. And that’s a good thing, because we are all different, with different needs, capabilities, and interests. For me, the challenge and joy of learning that lies at the heart of Iyengar Yoga has led me on a journey of self-study that continues to fascinate and inform me just about every day of my life. Who could ask for anything more?



“Let me conclude by quoting the words of Spanish artist Goya who, in the seventy-eighth year of his life, when he was already deaf and debilitated, said,  Aún aprendo – ‘I am still learning.’ It is true for me , too. I will never stop learning…”  B.K.S. Iyengar, Light On Life