From the moment I began a serious yoga practice, almost thirty years ago, I have practiced Iyengar. My first teachers, Larry Hatlett and Karl Duffy, are senior teachers who, on several occassions, traveled to Pune to study with Mr. Iyengar and his family. And because I was devoted to my teachers in 1984 it followed that I was—and in 2013 still am—devoted to Iyengar Yoga.
Iyengar Yoga emphasizes alignment and safety through the use of props in order to guide the practitioner into the asana. As the student develops strength and flexibility the reliance on props diminishes until the individual can achieve the pose on their own. Strict alignment principles protect joints and create a safe style of yoga that has clean, precise lines. An Iyengar practice is slow. Mindful. There is a clarity to the practice that in 1984, as a young woman just beginning her yoga journey and uncertain about her new life in California, I loved. Three decades later, as I settle into mid-life, it is the practice I turn to when life is out of focus or too chaotic. The physicality of the practice reins me in.
Strict Iyengar practice is about the asana. Traditionally, pranayama, mudras and bandhas are not introduced until the basic postures are mastered. There is no “Hot-Iyengar-Vinyasa.” No “Iyengar-Pilates” hybrid. Even the yoga I teach and describe as “Iyengar-Influenced-Slow-Flow” is a disservice to the name. There is one simple hallmark of an Iyengar practice: repetition, repetition, repetition.
I’m often asked for advice from individuals new to yoga. They’re curious and confused by the various schools and brands of yoga and don’t know where to begin. I encourage them, always and unequivocally, to first study Iyengar. It is the perfect foundation practice, like learning the piano scales. Once you know the notes you can play anything you want.
My admiration for Iyengar explains the yoga guilt I experienced after being introduced to Yin Yoga in 2009.
A student arrived for class early one day and told me about a workshop she had attended.
“We held the poses for five minutes!”
I was skeptical. And intrigued.
I arrived home later that day and did that thing we do. I Googled. That was the day my yoga life began to change. In January 2010, I attended my first workshop. I sat in the back of the studio, rigid and resistant to this new way of thinking. No more alignment. Softening into the shape. What did this mean? Why did it feel like something my body and my practice was hungry for?
Nine months later I attended training at Land of Medicine Buddha in Soquel, and became a certified Yin Yoga teacher.
After all my years of being dedicated to Iyengar, why did I feel such a strong affinity for Yin?
Where Iyengar is all clean lines and precision, Yin is curvilinear and soft. Where Iyengar strengthens, Yin lengthens. Where Iyengar hardens, Yin melts. Our intentions when we practice Iyengar differ from the intentions we embrace during a Yin practice.
In that way, Iyengar and Yin complement one another. They are two halves of the same whole. And now, at last, the practice I had loved for decades was balanced.
I appreciate Yin’s focus on connective tissue. The fascia, tendons, ligaments and bone. In order to transform connective tissue we resolve, in Yin, to do three simple things:
We hold for time. At least two minutes but sometimes ten. It’s like this: if we want to straighten a row of teeth do we knock them around with a hammer and pliers until they are where we want them? Of course not. We apply braces and then patiently allow the connective tissue to move, shift, open and settle. That is how Yin cultivates patience. That is how, in Yin, we discover release.
We play the edge. We don’t force our bodies to hold shapes that bring discomfort. Instead, we hold the truth that our edge moves. Our edge—the place where we feel stress on the connective tissue but not distress or pain—contracts and expands. It changes from day to day depending on our lifestyle, our mood, our health. And so each practice is a new and different experience. We open ourselves to change. Sometimes change moves us forward. And sometimes change asks us to step back.
Finally, we embrace stillness. Instead of fanning heat with the exertion one finds in a yang-fueled Iyengar practice, we remain still and soft. This allows our body to sink into our full expression of the pose, one breath at a time. The stillness and silence of a Yin practice feels foreign at first. And then we realize—it’s what we’ve been missing.
The balance I feel by practicing both Iyengar and Yin extends beyond the physical. The clarity Iyengar offers is matched by Yin’s contentment. The effect of Yin practice on the nervous system is deep and profound. Rather than extending energy outward toward the edges of my body, in Yin I move to the interior.
For that reason I find Yin a calming antidote for those days that are filled with static. The days when I need to retreat for a time. The atmosphere a Yin practice creates encourages the unwinding of tension.
In the West we pride ourselves on our ability to move fast and multitask. The challenge of Yin reaches beyond the effect it has on tight, bound connective tissue. Yin Yoga asks us to practice “not doing.” In that practice cravings and aversions will be made apparent.
Emotions we have buried underneath the pile of work on our desk will rise to the surface.
I love my Iyengar practice. I truly do. It feeds my body; my attitude toward life. It nourishes me.
But Yin Yoga has added a new dimension to my practice. Yin feeds my soul.
Ultimately, there is balance and beauty in them both.
For the better part of two decades Mimm has been a yoga teacher, massage therapist, reflexologist and writer. When she’s not balancing in Ardha Chandrasana or wrestling with a sentence, she’s either playing her guitar or doing homework. This year she begins work toward her master’s degree in transpersonal psychology at Sofia University.