going deeper... Freedom in Iyengar Yoga with Mary Reilly

It is not usually apparent to new students that there are philosophical underlays in everything we do in the Iyengar yoga lineage. The regimented, disciplined, progressive approach to asana, to teaching, to instruction, is not just systematic, but also carefully intentioned as a "do no harm" approach to passing on the teaching of Patanjali's yoga.

cultivating appropriate attitudes

Mary Reilly, a Senior Certified Iyengar yoga teacher from Petoskey, Michigan, has been gracing Grand Rapids with her annual workshop for over a decade.  This year's "Freedom in Iyengar Yoga" workshop began on Friday evening with a seemingly informal opener about her t-shirt from the Iyengar Yoga Association of the Southeast which read: "Maitri Ya'll." She explained to the class: Maitri is the sanskrit for "friendliness" and can be found in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in Sutra 33 of the 1st chapter, or Samadhi Pada (Chapter on Self- Realization). Mary went on to describe how Patanjali gives advice for yoga practitioners to act in relationship with others to maintain tranquillity of consciousness, and that B.K.S. Iyengar's book, Core of the Yoga Sutras, has also illuminated working with this sutra in the context of our own personal practice, our strengths, and our shortcomings.  Here is the sutra:

maitri karuna mudina upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam
Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favorably disposed, serene and benevolent.
— Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Sutra I.33, transl. B.K.S. Iyengar

Furthermore, B.K.S. Iyengar guides us "This sutra asks us to rejoice with the happy, to be compassionate to the sorrowful, friendly to the virtuous, and indifferent to those who continue to live in vice despite attempts to change them.   This mental adjustment builds social as well as individual health."

This sutra set the intention for our work with our selves, and our relations with others for the weekend.  We were asked to practice compassion with ourselves, just as we should with those who are in a state of suffering, and be careful of the tendency to have expectations of ourselves (and others) that are different from reality, and when seeing reality to be gentle with ourselves as we illuminate our shortcomings and weaknesses and tendencies (or samskaras -- like dendrite paths in the brain, our conditioned behaviors that may be recognized or unrecognized, our habits, our familiar modes of behavior).  When we see these shortcomings, like the thighs that stubbornly externally rotate on the kick to the entrance into Adho Mukha Vrksasana, the appropriate response is acceptance, and repeated practice to work to overcome the tendency. 

foundational practices & preventing future pain

We were also reminded of the under layers of the difficult poses that she taught, especially when students were facing difficulties or showing collapse and imbalance in the advanced poses. That the standing asanas, with all the shoulder work, and Sirsasana and Sarvangasana are on the Introductory teaching syllabi of the Iyengar method, and should be learned in class, studied, practiced, and perfected first. Having noticed the tendency through the years in myself and others to want to go to the advanced class or the teacher training before perfecting the work in (or ever attending!) the beginning classes, there is much compassion and practice to be pursued in this department of continuing to work humbly and consistently on the foundations of our study and practice, both as individuals and in community.  The beginning syllabi, and the beginning actions should not to be overlooked-- if we haven't learned how far apart our legs should be in the basic standing poses (or even their names), or learned and practiced arm work, it sets us at quite a disadvantage for learning more complicated poses and understanding the references to the beginning poses that are made in the work of learning the morning challenging poses... "work the leg like Malasana!" makes little sense or connection to the student now struggling to approach Bakasana who has not learned Malasana or the name of the posture. This is the reason for the strictness (& compassion) of many Iyengar teachers in asking students who have never taken a class in the method, to start at the beginning.  Mary quoted this sutra II.16 directly:

heyam dukham anagatam
The pains which are yet to come can be and are to be avoided.
— Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, transl. B.K.S. Iyengar

The importance of the foundational work of the arms and legs in the foundational postures was a theme in the weekend, as it prevents the abdomen and throat and organic body (including nervous system) from being hardened and jangled by incorrect practice.  We were continually asked to check in with our eyes receding, front brain going back, keeping eyes soft and level (promoting brain balance), and to keep the abdomen and diaphragm spacious, especially in the work of challenging postures.  B.K.S. Iyengar further explains this sutra, "Unknown future pain can be prevented by adhering now to yogic discipline." The discipline of a stable approach to yoga study and yoga practice is meant to build up our strength and protect us.  "Patanjali warns us here of the pitfalls in spiritual growth, and advises us to stabilize the body and mind so that we may not be shattered when spiritual light dawns."

Mary shared with us that Guruji was always checking the photographs of the advanced postures of his students for tension in the face that revealed the tension of the nervous system that revealed the posture as not yet perfected. She spoke repeatedly that the face should be soft in arm balances and the abdomen should not be hard. A hard abdomen stops the breath and stresses the nervous system and the functioning of the organs. A hard face reveals a tension in the brain & nervous system that blocks the light of the Self. 

II.47 prayatna saithitya ananta samapattibhyam
Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.

Perfection in an Asana is reached only when effort ceases, instilling infinite poise and allowing the finite vehicle, the body, to merge in the seer.
— Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, transl. B.K.S. Iyengar

Again, the foundations of this work are found in the work of the arms and legs, the karmendriyas (organs of action) in standing postures that are intended to be the foundation for the system and learned, studied, and practiced first as a way of understanding Asana:

II.46 sthira sukham Asanam
Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.
— Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar

steadiness of intelligence & concentration (dharana)

The focus on steadiness of intelligence (sthira means firm, fixed, steady, steadfast, lasting) in the practice of Asana is a hallmark and expectation of the teaching skillset of Intermediate & higher Iyengar yoga teachers: there is a focus on "what is to be maintained?" During the teaching of a variation of Urdhva Dhanurasana (upward bow posture), Mary told the class that the attention to the outer knee in the posture must be unwavering. "The knees should not waver!" 

This type of concentration, or dharana employed within the actions of Asana, is a hallmark of the method. In Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, B.K.S. Iyengar explains this last sutra and Patajali's explanation of sutras III.1-III.2 to describe the correct performance of an Asana. "He says 'the focusing of attention on a chosen point or area within the body as well as outside is concentration (dharana). Maintaining this intensity of awareness leads from one-pointed attention to non-specific attentiveness.  When the attentive awareness between the consciousness of the practitioner and his practice is unbroken, this is dhyana (state of meditation)." In II.48, when Patanjali says that the pairs of opposites do not exist in the correct performance of Asana he clearly implies the involvement of dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation).

The trio of sutras on Asana is concluded with:

II.48 tatah dvandvah anabhighatah
From then on the sadhaka is undisturbed by dualities.

The effect of Asana is to put an end to the dualities or differentiation between the body and mind, mind and soul... This is perfection in action and freedom in consciousness.
— Light on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, transl. B.K.S. Iyengar

Holding an Asana with correct & disciplined firmness (from a well-prepared foundation of practice), with stability & UNWAVERING intelligence and concentration on what must be held with stability, and with peace & effortlessness in the brain, nervous system and spaciousness of the organic body, is the gateway to freedom.

going beyond the "I-ness" (small self & its attachments) & establishing the consciousness in the Seer

Mary began the Sunday class with our traditional Patanjali chant and also added the Guru Strotam that pays respect to the lineage of teaching.  She concluded the class with a request that we abstain from a traditional "Namaste" greeting and instead remain deeply established in the inner Self.  It is a difficult habit to break as it is hard to refrain from thanking the teacher.  When I studied in India, in Geeta and Prashant's classes, they never invited students to pay them respects or thank them as a routine of class closure. After classes, to give my thanks, I would make my way quickly over to Geeta, who would be reclining on the Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana bench, by the time the props had been cleared. It was up to us, the responsibility "on us" as my teacher, Manouso, says, in his ultra concise way of teaching us to find out for ourselves what is our "duty" or "dharma". In an interesting interview with Prashant Iyengar in The Indian Express "On the Record: The Importance of Yoga & the Business of Un-Yoga", he refers to the current culture of yoga business: "Today, yoga has become a commercial subject; business has creeped into it. Now there are personality cults and ego cults. That is not yoga, it is un-yogic. These un-yogic things will and are spoiling the environment." Mary made a point to tell us not to fixate on the "points" she was teaching, that the search itself is what B.K.S. Iyengar had always intended us to be directed toward. The points might be a beginning, but are not the end of the journey.

the freedom of being in the moment

The last sutra I remember mentioned (memory is imperfect, so please understand that much is missed in this account), is a comment about observing the movement of the moments in the performance of an Asana. We can find the philosophical source in the Vibhuti Pada, the chapter on powers in the Yoga Sutras:

III.53 ksana tatkramayoh smayamat vivekajam jñanam
By samyama on moment and on the continuous flow of moments, the yogi gains exalted knowledge, free from the limitations of time and space.
— Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, transl. B.K.S. Iyengar

Samyama means integration and a combined work or experience of dharana/dhyana/samadhi or concentration/meditation/self-realization.  We have the freedom to act with unconditioned clarity when established in the Self, and in the present moment, and not in the ego which lives in the past, the future and created constructions (vrttis).

The moment is unconditioned reality...
— B.K.S. Iyengar

Asana is a journey by which we can make our way to the Self through disciplined approach and continuous practice. Thanks to Mary Reilly for teaching in Grand Rapids and for her devotion to her studenthood, her practice & her teaching of yoga.