Iyengar yoga, pioneered by its namesake – Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja (B.K.S.) Iyengar, who lived healthily till 95! – is hugely popular worldwide, with followers including the Queen of Pop Madonna, domestic doyenne Martha Stewart, and celeb chef Nigella Lawson.
The benefits of Iyengar Yoga
This precise form of yoga has stood the test of time for good reason – it can be attempted by everyone, at any age or fitness level. ‘No one is too old, overweight or unhealthy to begin Iyengar and benefit from it,’ says Carla Rech, an Iyengar teacher and committee member of the BKS Iyengar Yoga Institute of Southern Africa. Apparently the Queen Mother of Belgium picked it up – with B.K.S Iyengar himself as her teacher – when she was already in her 80s! Don’t believe us? See for yourself here.
The use of props, for novices and pros alike, is encouraged to minimise risk of injury and bring intelligence to poses so that you get the most out of them, explains Carla. ‘From helping to open up your chest for proper breathing to getting you into a headstand safely, Iyengar uses what is needed and at hand to maximise its benefits, be it a folded blanket, a piece of furniture, or even a brick!’
Iyengar promotes physical health and has therapeutic benefits, helping to ease an array of medical ailments. But, more than that, it boosts mental and spiritual well-being, too. As B.K.S. Iyengar himself once said:
It allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you don’t feel like you are constantly trying to fit broken pieces together.
The book B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health (Dorling Kindersley) gives great insight, but start with classes – local teachers are listed on bksiyengar.co.za. For now, let’s relax into one of these popular postures…
1. To calm the brain and the nervous system
Pose Adhomukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog stretch).
Also good for… Bringing life to the whole body; reducing stiffness in shoulders; strengthening ankles and toning legs; relieving heel pain; reducing menopausal hot flushes.
Cautions Avoid during pregnancy. Those prone to shoulder dislocation or frequent headaches, or who have high blood pressure, should see an Iyengar teacher about helpful modifications.
Adhomukha Svanasana steps
1 Start on all fours, hands as wide as shoulders, palms spread and your fingers open. Keep your knees and feet in line with your hands.
2 Exhale and curl toes under, lifting knees, taking pelvis up and back, to form a triangle, with buttocks as apex.
3 Keep arms and legs extended and move chest towards thighs.
4 Stretch heels back and down onto floor, without losing spine extension or bending knees.
5 Stretching base of your neck, gently lower crown of head to floor. Hold for 20 seconds.
2. Helpful during menopause
Pose Upavista Konasana (seated wide-angle pose)
Also good for… Stimulating ovaries; easing hip arthritis.
Cautions Those with asthma should see an lyengar teacher about helpful modifications.
Upavista Konasana steps
1 Sit upright, evenly on buttocks bones, (you can add a bit of height with a thin folded blanket for comfort), legs together, stretched out in front of you.
2 Place palms behind you on floor, on either side of body, fingers pointing forward. Use the support of hands to lift body up and open chest. Keep spine erect, shoulders relaxed.
3 Spread your legs as far apart as possible, keeping torso and spine erect. Keep your thighs and backs of knees down on floor and stretch from buttocks to heels. Rest centre of heel (not outer foot) on floor and keep the soles of your feet perpendicular to floor.
4 Gaze straight ahead, keeping torso lifted – extension without tension – lifting lower body upward against grounding of legs. Hold for 30 seconds.
5 For advanced yogis, come forward to catch your toes (see below), looking up while bringing central spine in, extending spine upward to lengthen and open torso. Then, on an exhalation, place head on floor or on raised support.
3. Great for endometriosis and depression
Pose Ardha Chandrasana (half-moon pose)
Also good for… Easing backache by toning lumbar spine; relieving gastritis; and helping with menstrual problems.
Cautions Avoid if you suffer from migraines, have eye strain, varicose veins, diarrhoea, or insomnia.
Ardha Chandrasana steps
1 Stand in Tadasana (see pose 4 below), spread legs 1m apart, feet facing forward, and extend arms out to your sides at shoulder level, wrists directly above your feet. If balance is a problem, you can use a wall as support.
2 Turn your right leg completely out to the right, with torso facing forward.
3 Bend your right leg, keeping knee in line with foot, then place your right hand on floor (see tip if you can’t reach floor).
4 Move your torso towards your right hand so your left heel lifts. Settle your weight onto your right hand and foot, and then take a breath.
5 Exhale and lift your left leg parallel to floor. Straighten your right leg and keep it firm, torso facing forward.
6 Extend your left arm up to ceiling, in line with your shoulder, and continue looking forward. Hold for 20 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
Top tip: If you’re stiff, put a support block on floor to reach for.
4. To correct posture
Pose Tadasana Samasthithi (steady-and-firm mountain pose)
Also good for… Grounding; reducing anxiety by centring the mind; improving the alignment of the body.
Cautions Avoid this pose if you suffer from migraines, have eye strain, low blood pressure, insomnia, diarrhoea, or osteoarthritis of the knees.
Tadasana Samasthithi steps
1 Stand erect, with your feet and ankles joined and your weight balanced evenly on both feet.
2 Tighten your knees, thighs and buttocks, so legs are firm.
3 Keep your head and spine erect in a straight line, stretching your neck without tensing.
4 Lift and open your chest. (Your abdomen will lift and move back naturally as you elongate the spine.)
5 Straighten your arms along the sides of your body with palms facing thighs and fingers pointing to floor. Then take your shoulders gently back and down.
6 Look straight ahead and soften your gaze. Then relax your jaw and tongue – hold for 60 seconds.
Top tip: If balance is an issue, stand with your feet 25cm apart.
5. To tone digestive system
Pose Marichyasana III (Marichi’s pose)
Also good for… Relieving backache; reducing fat around the waist; and toning the abdominal organs, including the kidneys and liver.
Cautions Avoid during menstruation, if you have a heart condition, high or low blood pressure, suffer migraines, insomnia, depression, or have diarrhoea, constipation, or osteoarthritis of knees.
Marichyasana III steps
1 Sit evenly on buttocks bones, legs together, stretched in front of you. Put palms on floor, on either side of body, fingers forward. Use hands’ support to lift body up, opening chest.
2 Bend right leg, placing foot close to right buttocks bone, with that knee facing ceiling. Keep left leg stretched, toes up to ceiling.
3 Exhale and turn torso to right, take left upper arm onto outside of right knee, look over right shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat all steps on the other side.
6. Ease migraines and headaches
Pose Adhomukha Virasana (downward-facing hero pose)
Also good for… Relieving dizziness; easing sore back or neck by stretching and toning spine; reducing high blood pressure.
Cautions Avoid if you have breathlessness, diarrhoea, knee osteoarthritis, or incontinence. For migraine or stress-related headaches, wrap bandage round eyes and forehead before pose.
Adhomukha Virasana steps
1 Kneel down and sit back on heels. Keep feet together, moving knees apart, with hands on floor in front of knees.
2 With buttocks on heels, walk arms forward, palms on floor, till arms are stretched fully. Keep hands at shoulder width, and head in line with spine. Rest forehead on floor or on rolled towel.
3 Anchor weight backward on heels as you extend upper body forward. Hold for one minute, then walk hands back towards knees before sitting upright.
7. Rev up immunity
Pose Viparita Karani (inverted lake pose)
Also good for… Easing IBS symptoms; stopping varicose veins; soothing nerves.
Cautions Avoid during menstruation. Only do this with an Iyengar teacher if you have back or neck issues.
1 Put bolster near (not against) wall. Sit on side of it, parallel to wall, hands behind you. Roll sacrum onto bolster, turning torso towards wall while lifting legs, slightly bent, up wall. Move bottom closer to wall, palms supporting weight.
2 Lower shoulders and head to floor (edge of bolster touching bottom of shoulder blades). Keep chest open and back of neck stretched. Put arms at side, palms up. Straighten legs, soles of feet facing up. Hold for five minutes.
Main image credit Gallo/Getty Images
Yoga poses images credit Hema Patel