Last week, I attended an Iyengar style yoga class in Manhattan, a requirement for my 500-hour YogaWorks teaching training. This discipline of yoga focuses heavily on anatomical alignment, i.e., keeping the body safe and supported, and is structured more like a workshop than a free-flowing yoga class. I have mixed feelings about this type of yoga because I like to ‘flow’ in my yoga classes. I have spent many years of my life trapped in my ‘head,’ in my thought loops, feeling stuck, so flowing feels like an antidote to that. Moving, mindfully, steadily, gracefully, through yoga poses, one breath at a time, has helped to clear the cobwebs of my mind, to connect each movement to my breath and to, therefore, feel more grounded in my body and in life.
I grew up with disruptive energy that blocked a feeling of flow, of forward progression and this happened in subtle, insidious ways. In the environment I grew up in, nothing was certain, nothing was solid; things weren’t what they seemed. As an adult, I didn’t trust my environment or myself. And I became sensitive to obstacles in my path, things that I perceived as blocking my forward motion, whether that be a car that pulled in front of me on the highway, a negative or stern boss, or a ‘stop and go’ yoga class where I felt I spent most of the class in transition (i.e., getting props, using props, moving my mat around the room, working with a partner).
In Iyengar style yoga classes, that are heavy on instruction and alignment cues, I grew tense because I was trying so hard to understand the cues and to get everything right. And this felt stifling. It was the opposite of that light feeling I desired. So, I avoided these workshop-y classes. I even avoided using props, not because I didn’t think I needed them but because I didn’t understand how to use them or why I needed them, and having a bunch of stuff surrounding my mat felt stifling to me (yoga was about simplicity). In fact, anything that resembled support, structure, felt stifling to me. I was accustomed to fending for myself in life and didn’t know how to accept support; it was as though I would rather struggle than be supported.
Enter 200-hour yoga Teacher Training where on the weekends for some 14 hours, we did exactly what I had been avoiding. The entire session was a series of ‘stop and go’ exercises and attempting to understand alignment/anatomical cues (move my buttocks flesh where? I didn’t know I could move my buttocks flesh) and props galore. I was tortured for a while until I slowly understood … understood I needed to learn how to break down the poses. How could I teach someone how to do yoga if I didn’t have a clear concept of the basic components of each pose?
Over time, I came to not only respect my yoga props but to value them. I can’t remember when the shift happened, when I went from begrudgingly retrieving my blocks/blankets/strap (and, god forbid, a bolster) and plopping them down on mat to feeling naked without them. I think the shift happened slowly, but what I do remember is suddenly feeling integrated, expanded, and elated in Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle), a pose that had been challenging for me, probably because I had been shoving my body into a place that it was not ready to go. By sharing some of the weight of the pose with my block, by allowing the block to assist and support me, my body was granted more space, more freedom, to open and expand.
And so it went in the two-hour Iyengar class I was required to take. I listened. I fidgeted. I tensed up. I tried hard. And I let go.
We worked hard in Adho Mukha Savasana (Downward Facing Dog), harder than I have ever worked in that pose. I absorbed the instructions and felt what was happening in my body in a way I normally do not. I tuned into my angry hamstrings, one the tightest areas of my body with the exception of my shoulders. I drew my quads toward them with intention and effort, allowing them to release a bit, to open. Both my arms and legs rebelled after a while. I placed a block underneath each hand, which helped me to move more of my weight into my legs and gave more freedom to my spine. “If our spine is free the rest of our body benefits,” a yoga teacher once told me.
I tolerated, with as much grace as I could muster, the parts of class when we had to stop and retrieve more props or move our mats to the wall and then back again. It still doesn’t feel natural to me, takes me out of the class in the same way that you can be taken out of a written story when the author brings you into his or her thought process, but I now recognize that this pause, this moment of being taken out of the story, can provide clarity. A few years ago I would have felt grumpy and uninspired in a class like this. And I can’t say truthfully that I love this style of yoga and I’m not sure I ever will, but I was present, aware, throughout most of the class and that is progress.
Toward the end of class, we looped a strap around our upper arms in Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Hand Pose). We were instructed to place it around our arms and in back of our head, so that the bottom of our head, the occiput, just below the two bony knobs, was supported by the strap. It felt good to have the support since my shoulders are tight and my neck often feels strained. I could let go a little. As we stood, supported, in this pose our instructor, Carrie, said something that stuck me. “Take support,” she encouraged us. “Sometimes we need a container, a structure, in order to feel free.” I understood in that moment, while “taking support,” that sometimes we need structure, we need to accept support in life, so that we can grow. Doing everything on our own does not necessarily make us stronger.
Learning about correct alignment and using props that support my body has lead me to feel more grounded and then more expansive in my yoga poses. I am now better equipped to receive the benefits of each pose. I am learning (slowly) to take support in life, to branch out and connect to others; understanding that I am not alone, that I do not have to conquer everything on my own, has been liberating.
The day after I took the Iyengar class, I attended an Ishta style yoga class (a yoga style developed by Alan Finger that connects flowing movement to breath)—my style of yoga. I was back on my home turf. We flowed through poses in a safe way, focusing on alignment and breath. Toward the end of class, my lovely teacher Elizabeth reminded us: “If our bodies feel safe they can open and release.” I smiled at the synchronicity of her message as I absorbed its meaning.
A graduate of the YogaWorks Teacher Training program, Nicole teaches an alignment-based vinyasa style class, focusing on linking movement to breath and proper alignment to keep the body safe. As Nicole’s yoga practice has deepened, she has learned the importance and beauty of connection: to the self, others, and the environment. Nicole’s intention is to share this sense of wholeness she has found through yoga with her students.