Becoming an Iyengar teacher

I’m taking the introductory exam this year. I’m very excited about it. For some reason, I just feel ready and look very much forward to it. I had fun during our “mock exam” and my teachers gave me their recommendation happily.

I’ve already handed in my theory exam and the deadline is over, so I figured I’d post some of my answers to questions I found interesting here.

I have to say that the question that puzzled me most was about the foundation of teaching. For some reason I had not really thought about it before and if we discussed it in teacher training, I forgot about it. I’m very much looking forward to hearing other opinions, but here is what I wrote (we had to give three reasons):

” The foundation of teaching is self-practice. 

It is not possible to teach something that you do not understand. Through practice comes understanding. Practicing to teach is different from practicing for one’s improvement (see Basic guidelines for teachers of yoga, p.4., B.K.S. and Geeta S. Iyengar). For example, I have a flexible body, so when I practice with my stiff students in mind I am trying to understand how I can get the same effect that I get and use the appropriate prop so that they are not limited by their flexibility.

Self-practice will also make demonstrations easier. While teaching we rely on the body’s memory so that we can rapidly get in and out of the asana. Without practice it is going to take more time to find back the proper position of the body. Oftentimes we also need to show not only the proper way to perform the asana, but also the mistake the students are making. This requires a very good proprioception, which can only come with practice.

If you do not practice, you are instructing in a “do what I say, not what I do” way which is unlikely to work. Students can see through the hypocrisy and they will not be motivated to give their best in the class. In a way this is also practicing the yamas and niyamas, namely satya, tapas and svadhyaya. “

Another interesting question, especially for readers wondering why I’m not posting all that often, was about our experience with Abhyasa (repeated practice), and Vairagya (detachment from wordly desires).

“I can relate very well to sutra I.14 (sat u dirghakala nairantarya satkara asevitah drdhabhumih “Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations”. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali p.64, B.K.S. Iyengar.). Sustained practice is usually not an issue for me; however, it is often easier to notice how much practice is helpful in times when it is difficult to practice and practice becomes scarce. Since I am currently writing my PhD thesis, it can be difficult to find time to practice; I can notice very easily that if I haven’t practiced for a couple of days I become much more easily irritated and my mind is much more difficult to restrain.
Vairagya is a much more difficult practice for me. I have issues not letting other’s opinions interfere with my behavior. As I get older and keep on practicing, it is slowly improving. I am becoming much less attached to physical appearances and belongings. But once again, since I am very much engulfed at this moment with finishing my PhD, it is sometimes difficult to separate “myself” from “my work”, let alone letting go of the idea of “me”. Entirely dissociating from the ego, the “I”, seems at this point in my yogic journey, if not unattainable, very, very far away. But I try to remind myself of this quote from the Introduction to Light On Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar (p.12) “He {the yogi} believes that it is his privilege to do his duty and that he has no rights to the fruit of his actions”.”

An exercice which I had already done before, but which is always useful (especially reflecting on it months later) and which originally lead be to become vegetarian and then vegan, is the classical “Choose 1 Yama and 1 Niyama and explain how they work in your lifestyle and practice. “:

“I am currently working on applying Ahimsa and Svadhaya to myself. I have recently injured my left hamstring, without really knowing how. If I’m honest with myself, I have always felt like my left hamstring was slightly stiffer than my right one. Or at least, I would sometimes feel my left hamstring when I wouldn’t feel my right one in a deep Utthanasana for example. I asked my osteopath about it but he couldn’t really help me apart from saying that it might be due to my SI problem (I displaced my pelvis twice within the past ten years). Anyhow I kept on practicing as usual, which is usually quite an intense practice. If I would feel my hamstring, it would only be during the asana and not once I would come out, so I didn’t worry and assumed it was only stiffness. However, a couple of weeks ago I woke up with a pretty bad hamstring pain, even though I didn’t feel anything when going to bed the previous day. I took it easy for a couple of days and it got better, so I started practicing like I used to again. Except this time, I seem to be getting “bad” pain. Even if I don’t feel bad while practicing, either a couple of hours or a couple of days later I start to feel the tendon insertion of my hamstring onto the hip, when I’m cycling or even sitting. This is especially bad because before I always felt like the muscle tissue was hurting, but injuring the tendon is another story: it’s much more difficult to heal. Therefore, I am doing a lot of self-study (Svadhaya) in order not to harm myself (Ahimsa). It is difficult for me to back out and accept that I might not be able to do things that I was able to only a couple of weeks ago, and to practice in a way that I don’t feel my hamstring at all and don’t let myself be pushed either by my ego or the teacher. I am learning a lot in the process, both on my physical practice and my mental state.”

And finally, another question I thought might be interesting to share, was about choosing a sutra from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and explain what it meant to us.

“One of my favorite sutras is sutra II.47: prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam “Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached” (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali p.159, B.K.S. Iyengar). I find the concept of effortless effort very interesting. In my personal experience, the moments when I have been able to quieten my brain the best come when I am performing inversions such as headstand or shoulderstand. There is no doubt that there is effort involved in standing on one’s head for long stretches of time, however I find that after some time, on good days, I can grasp the effortlessness through the effort and my mind suddenly becomes much more sharp and focused. On these days, 10 minutes in the asana seems very short. I aim to find this type of quietness and ease in the pose in all other asanas, and focusing on the breath helps immensely, especially with standing poses. In my teaching, I like to remind my students that they shouldn’t “be dying in the pose”, which means that if holding the pose with ease isn’t possible anymore they should come out. I am often surprised at how long people stay in poses they don’t feel good in at all. I am not a lazy student, however if I feel that my pose is lacking quality and the alignment is suffering I will come out. Sometimes one has to battle the mind to stay longer in the pose; but it is difficult to walk the fine line between staying longer because the mind is being lazy, and even though the pose is still good, the muscles are getting tired, and staying longer for staying longer even though we cannot keep the proper alignment (and possibly injuring oneself in the process) and the practitioner had better come out and rest. “

I hope you enjoyed this short extract (the exam had about 50 questions and I filled in around 23 pages I believe) of my exam, and am looking forward to any comments / opinions / discussion!

Meanwhile, I am lucky enough to be in NYC for a couple of days and take classes at the Institute – I had a great class on Natarajasana with Lara Warren last Friday!


Natarajasana, all right to Leslie Kaminoff