The most widely practised form of yoga, Iyengar helps you stand tall with less pain and ‘takes your mind on holiday’, says Melanie Leyshon
Just one celebrity name-check of a food or exercise can spark a frenzy. You may have heard about Iyengar yoga recently simply because Nigella Lawson claimed it was the reason for her new slimline look. Newspapers got over-excited as she appeared to drop two dress sizes without dieting. I was particularly intrigued as I’ve been taking Iyengar classes for six months and am the same size as I was before. However, I’m hooked for its other benefits. My incredibly tense shoulders are pain free, my posture has improved and my limbs are stronger. The other bonus at the end of a busy week is feeling calmer going into the weekend. And there aren’t any other exercise classes that would get me out at 7pm on a Friday night.
It’s a precise set of postures (‘asanas’): 200, in fact, but not all practised in one class! It’s not a dynamic flow class – instead you concentrate on easing into and holding each posture. You feel energised or calmed, depending on the sequence of postures. Judy Smith, an experienced teacher at the Iyengar Institute in London’s Maida Vale, calls it ‘meditation in motion’. She explains the postures form the basis for all other styles of yoga. ‘Iyengar is specific and precise. You learn where to put every part of the body to get proper alignment.’ She says it’s ‘like taking your mind on a holiday, fully engaging so you can hold postures without effort.’
Where it began
The founder, BKS Iyengar, was a sickly boy born in India in 1914 but not expected to live beyond 14. His family sent him to learn yoga in Mysore and, inspired, enlightened and now healthy, BKS became a world renowned yoga teacher. Interestingly, it was after meeting Yehudi Menuhin that he brought his style of yoga to Europe in 1954. The violinist was suffering from insomnia and fatigue, but after a few hours with BKS his troubles were eased. The encounter opened the door for Iyengar yoga to be taught worldwide. The postures are referred to by their Sanskrit names, so once familiar with them, in theory you can drop into a class anywhere in the world and follow what’s going on. The secret of its popularity? BKS lived to 95!
Mind and body benefits
Judy took up Iyengar yoga over 30 years ago, as she suffered scoliosis (curvature of the spine). Not something you can cure, she says, ‘but I don’t have any pain and I’m much more flexible.’ An understatement: she looks ramrod straight and perfectly aligned. Judy says Iyengar can help many conditions, from skeletal to digestive issues. She herself teaches remedial classes for back problems. ‘I had one person come in crawling on all fours and three months later they were virtually skipping out with joy.’ But there’s something for every ailment, she says. In particular, it can help with knees, shoulders, necks, IBS, constipation and diarrhoea. At Iyengar Yoga Institute Maida Vale, there are classes especially for children. One young girl told me how it helped with her dyslexia, as it calmed her mind so she made fewer mistakes when reading and writing. Then there are the attendees who suffer from depression and anxiety. ‘I can spot them as they walk in, bent over with their chests collapsed,’ says Judy. ‘I do a lot of postures to open their chest and I see them going out brighter and straighter. Iyengar helps lift your mood, too. ‘If you wake up in the morning and feel rubbish, after an hour of Iyengar practise you’ll feel marvellous,’ she says.
How to get started…
To do it safely you need to join a class rather than follow an online video. ‘Get it wrong and you can injure yourself,’ says Judy. She recommends starting with a six-week foundation course of one class per week, then joining weekly beginners’ classes. All the institute’s teachers are well versed in scanning a class to spot people out of alignment, says Judy. She stresses the importance of telling your teacher about injuries or pain before a class. Teachers can then monitor and give you alternative ways to do a posture or recommend a remedial class. You’re never too old to start (the institute also runs gentle classes for the over-60s) and, in fact, with this style of yoga it’s important to work to your own ability. ‘It’s about doing the postures correctly and not pushing yourself beyond what your body can do,’ says Judy. And you can’t help but switch off from the outside world. My class in south London is next to a squash court and at the beginning of each session I’m aware of every hit of the ball. When I leave, I don’t even remember there was a game on… Job done!
What kit do you need?
Most classes provide props (a non-slip yoga mat, foam blocks and straps) and you use a wall and a chair to help with alignment and support. ‘As you get more experienced, you won’t need the props as much,’ says Judy. It helps to wear fitted clothes, so your teacher can check you’re stretching properly, and take a small blanket or sweatshirt to keep you warm during the final 5 min of relaxation. For more information, to find a class in your area and for free taster classes, go to iyi.org.uk.
Judy’s top yoga tips
> The best time to practise is on an empty stomach (4–5 hr after a heavy meal or 2–3 hr after a snack).
> Practise in bare feet on a non-slip mat or floor (feet can slip on carpet).
> In each group of asanas, only move on to the more difficult pose once you’ve practised the easier version.
> Maintain each pose for as long as you can without physical or mental strain.
> Keep eyes, mouth, throat and abdomen relaxed.
Find out what to eat before yoga here.
Find more tips and advice in Iyengar Yoga by Judy Smith (Waterstones, £9.99)