Doers and Feelers: Thoughts on Iyengar and Ashtanga Yoga
Although there’s been some reconciliation between the systems of Iyengar and Ashtanga yoga over the past decade, I still feel there is a strong divide between the systems, and their practitioners. In general, Iyengar practitioners seem to have the attitude that Ashtanga Yoga is brutish, unrefined, overly physical, and Ashtangis are inevitably going to hurt themselves due to poor form and lack of sensitivity. On the other side, many Ashtangis seem to feel that Iyengar Yoga is overly intellectual, tedious, passionless, and that Iyengar practitioners are too in their heads, and don’t know how to breathe. Practitioners of both systems seem to share an air of yoga snobbery, and reside in the superiority of their chosen system. To overly simplify, the thought is that the Ashtangis are doers, and lack the ability to feel, and the Iyengars are feelers (or thinkers,) and lack the ability to do.
Of course, these attitudes are shifting as more and more teachers -- and practitioners -- continue to bridge the gap between the systems. There are a few well-known and respected Ashtanga teachers who have fairly serious, long-term study of Iyengar Yoga under their belts. And although I don’t know any by name, I’m sure there are some prominent Iyengar teachers who’ve seriously explored Ashtanga yoga for an extended period of time. There are even styles of yoga that have popped up attempting to be a blend of the two systems, although my feeling is that these styles are so diluted they fail to capture the essence and integrity of either (cue yoga snobbery.) Overall, I feel this cross communication between the two systems is healthy for yoga, and will elevate the practice and teaching of asana overtime.
B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois, the propagators of Iyengar and Ashtanga Yoga respectively, once shared the same teacher: T.K.V. Krishnamacharya. As young men, both Jois, and Iyengar studied yoga under Krishnamacharya in Mysore, India. Krishnamacharya taught them the vinyasa system of yoga, which much more resembles the current form of Ashtanga Yoga than it does Iyengar Yoga. Both men practiced yoga asana in the way Krishnamacharya taught them for many years, but somewhere along the line their methods of teaching diverged. Over time, Iyengar slowly removed the vinyasa component from his teachings, and started to focus more on alignment, props, therapeutics, and timings. Jois, on the other hand, continued with the vinyasa system, and distilled it into the Ashtanga sequences practiced today.
There are many theories as to why Iyengar changed his style of practice and teaching over time. As B.K.S. Iyengar grew in popularity, his classes got larger, and I’d imagine the range of body types and the gap in physical ability grew among his students. This larger class size, combined with a broader spectrum of athleticism, naturally leads to more verbal instruction, less physical adjustments, and a focus on alignment. Alignment is the great equalizer in asana practice. It gives the teacher the ability to challenge practitioners of all abilities simultaneously with the same pose. With a focus on alignment, the poses never really get easier; instead, they just get more refined and subtle.
Another theory as to the shift in Iyengar’s approach is related to his continuation of asana practice into old age. By the time yoga was really taking off, Iyengar and Jois were both old men, beyond the normal age of retirement in the West. Jois had stopped practicing asana at some point along the line, but Iyengar kept going. And as his body and mind aged, so did his approach. The dynamism of vinyasa gave way to a more static, and perhaps contemplative, practice. Restorative postures, and long periods of time spent in shapes supported with various props, created a way of practicing yoga for aging, injured, and ill populations. Iyengar took a strong interest in working with the medically incurable, and medical classes are still held at his institute in Pune, India.
A pet theory of mine about how and why Jois and Iyengar parted ways in approach has to do with where their students were coming from. Both Iyengar and Jois travelled the world throughout their teaching careers, but where they most travelled to differed. Iyengar seems to have mostly traveled throughout Europe, Jois in North America. When I think of Iyengar Yoga, it somehow feels very European to me. It is refined, cultured, and the precision of the asana seeks to create a sort of fine art. A subtlety of posture invisible to the untrained eye, but apparent to those in the know -- fit to reside in the Louvre. Ashtanga Yoga, on the other hand, feels much more American. It is type A, based on hard manual labor, and holds the promise that anyone can succeed with enough practice. Ashtanga is a bit rough around the edges, and the system requires, or develops practitioners with grit. If Iyengar Yoga is a glass of fine wine to be sipped and savored, Ashtanga Yoga is bourbon, meant to be taken straight -- no chaser.
I’m particularly fond of the metaphor of yoga as music, and the body as an instrument. My experience of Iyengar Yoga has been a process similar to learning notes, chords, and scales in music. Postures are broken down into component pieces and learned note by note, training the body to feel the pitch, tone, and frequency of each asana. But these notes and scales are not translated into music. In Iyengar yoga, the instrument is continuously being tuned, the ear constantly trained, but music is rarely played. The set sequences of Ashtanga Yoga can be thought of as songs, compositions created by a savant. Every day you practice the same song. Little to no technical instruction is given for your instrument, yet you just keep attempting to play the song. The instrument is often out of tune, the melody and harmony off, but you are playing music. With enough repetition, you will start to understand your instrument, the song will sound good, and you will begin learning a new song.
Ashtanga Yoga, and Iyengar Yoga are sister practices, their intention and goals the same. However, the approach of each system differs. Ashtanga Yoga’s focus is ultimately on breathing: specifically the coordination of breath and movement. The system seeks to cultivate a steady, even, and relaxed chest breath throughout the practice, regardless of how simple or difficult what you’re doing at the time is. With Ashtanga it is ultimately the breath that is moving, and manipulating the body. There is a running joke in the Ashtanga world that if you ask your teacher how to do a particular pose, or transition, they simply reply “you inhale” or “you exhale,” depending upon which is applicable. This refinement of breath is said to lead to the arising of bandhas, and through bandhas the body eventually takes its proper alignment in the asana. This approach can be thought of as working from the inside out: control the inner body, and the outer will follow.
Iyengar Yoga is more of an outside in approach. The system starts by teaching proper alignment of the outer body within a posture, usually through the use of props and precise verbal instruction. With practice and refinement, the physical alignment of the body leads to the creation of bandhas, and as the bandhas arise the breath is thought to take its proper rhythm. Iyengar Yoga also introduces the practice of pranayama, much earlier than Ashtanga Yoga. However, many Ashtangis would argue that the whole Ashtanga asana practice is actually a pranayama practice. You could think of the Ashtanga progression as breath, bandha, posture, and the Iyengar approach as posture, bandha, breath. They start from nearly polar opposite ends of the spectrum, but ultimately seek to meet in the same place.
I had a teacher in high school who was fond of talking about communism, and fascism. He would draw a line on the blackboard (remember those?) and put a “C” on one end and an “F” on the other. He would then take a piece of chalk in each hand, and continue the line in each direction, allowing the line to slowly bend until the ends touched, and he had formed a circle. On the political spectrum, communism and fascism are, in theory, at opposite ends, but in practice, if you take either ethos far enough, they start to resemble one another. Ashtanga and Iyengar are like this. If you look at practitioners who have done either system for a long enough period of time, their practices resemble one another. I will leave it to the reader to decide which system of yoga more resembles fascism, and which communism...