Iyengar I with Lara Brunn at Hip Joint Studio

Lara Brunn
Lara Brunn

Last night I treated myself to a drop-in class at the Iyengar studio nearby. I’ve been feeling a little wonky and uneven in my poses lately, and haven’t been able to figure out why. Time for the Lion’s Roar.

(Kung Fu Hustle style! Watch 9:02 on. Or the whole hilarious thing.)

Iyengar yoga is famously strict. Iyengar himself is called “the Lion of Pune.” The furrow between his brows never seems to depart. His students inherit it. They range from friendly and normal, to straight up mean. If you don’t like to be yelled at, you might want to check a teacher’s reputation. Or your baggage.

But I’ve acquired an occasional taste for teachers who yell at me it expresses a certain concern for my well-being. Even if they’re in mid-sentence, leading the class, adjusting someone across the room, they still have the presence of mind to see (and communicate) that it would be good to stop that particular habit RIGHT NOW. And if they have the chutzpah to yell, they (hopefully) know their stuff.

Iyengar is the most detail-oriented practice I know. If you want to know how to align every single joint in each pose, go for it. The teacher training is two years instead of the standard six months, and extremely anatomy-focused. Most other schools base their alignment instructions on Iyengar’s. I’ve heard “you can always spot an Iyengar student they’re the ones with a beautiful practice who look like they’re not having any fun.” It’s also nicknamed “furniture yoga” since it uses so many props: belts, blocks, bolsters, boards, multiple blankets, even rope walls. Mr. Iyengar wanted every body, no matter what condition, to be able to experience each pose.

So what do you get out of all this? A spiral through the hips that begins in the outer edge of your foot. A release in the belly that spreads up the whole ribcage. An outward rotation in the upper arms that brings your head back over your shoulders, centered.

I couldn’t have taken it five years ago. Perfectionism goes CRAZY with the myriad details. You’ll never get them all right. You’ll freeze up and stop breathing.

But now, slowing down, I find it fascinating and absorbing. The energy isn’t geared to moving forward or around; you’re arranging the systems inside the skin. It’s incredibly intense, and burning, as you lift lift lift and hold the pose. That’s true of many classes, but here there are ten more directions engaging ten more layers of mind/body. You can feel the muscles wrapping around each other, weak and strong. You can feel the transfer of weight upward, backward, or in spirals. You can feel the connection of each distant limb to the floor, through new pathways (superficial or deep). There are enough sensations that you’re not bored, and so you work even harder and breathe. And later relax.

Here’s an interview with John Schumacher describing a similar feeling.

Or maybe it’s just the teacher, Lara Brunn. She narrates nonstop (with only occasional yelling). She can demonstrate the wrapping of a muscle down to its root. She’s high energy, but with passion/compassion, as if she just can’t stand for you not to know all the things she knows, she just wants to get them across as directly as she can.

I walked out of class with new posture. (And a crazy openness in my belly that left me loopy.) I literally felt like I was inhabiting someone else’s skeleton.

Yoga changes how we interact with the world. Literally, in our physical forms and the way they take up space, and conceptually, in our mental constructs and the way we direct our attention through the cloud of stimulation. But it’s rare to have a flashbulb moment and see these changes. I was reinvigorated with possibility. I’m grateful for the reminder.

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