"Physical health is not a commodity to be bargained for. Nor can it be swallowed in the form of drugs and pills - it has to be earned through sweat. It is something that we must build up."
B.K.S. Iyengar was the founder of Iyengar Yoga and is considered one of the foremost yoga teachers in the world. He lived to the age of 95, and over his 80 years of dedication to yoga practice he refined and perfected the technique of doing yoga poses that is widely taught throughout the world. Iyengar began life as a frail and sickly child; in contrary, in his 90s, the yoga master would stand on his head for 30 minutes to start his morning yoga practice.
In his book, Light on Life, he explains how physical weaknesses led him to take up the ancient practice of yoga: "My poor health was matched, as it often is when one is sick, by my poor mood," he writes. "A deep melancholy often overtook me, and at times I asked myself whether life was worth the trouble of living. Seeing that the general state of my health was so poor, my brother-in-law recommended a stiff regime of yoga practice to knock me into shape and strengthen me up to face life's trials and challenges as I approached adulthood."
Over the next eight decades, Iyengar's genius lay in using his own body as a living laboratory to experiment on how different yoga poses (asanas) can alleviate health problems. He used props such as ropes, belts and bricks to help even the elderly, weak, and inflexible experience yoga's therapeutic effects, often allowing yoga student to hold positions for longer periods than might be possible without them. If a student has not yet achieved the strength or flexibility necessary to perform the final form of an asana, the props can be fantastic learning aids, as through their use one can understand the correct action required for its execution.
Iyengar yoga appeals to a huge range of people, of all fitness levels, and is particularly well-suited to yoga students who have a meticulous approach to yoga and an interest in the body’s anatomy. It is excellent for people with back problems and for people who suffer from stress, two conditions that often go together, but in reality anyone can benefit from it. It is a particularly good form of yoga for beginners, because so much emphasis is placed on the best possible alignment of the body. Alignment and symmetry are very important, for the safe and optimally beneficial practice of the poses, as is intensity of execution of the asanas, which captures concentration to the physical sensations of the present moment, drawing the mind away from everyday worries. Furthermore, the poses in Iyengar yoga are done with great attention to detail. As a result, the increased body awareness developed allows one to become more aware of posture and its direct effects on psychological states, and to carry this awareness off the yoga mat into everyday life. Practiced regularly, Iyengar yoga is a wonderful, natural way to cope with physical, mental, and emotional stress.
Pranayama, or the control of the vital energy, covers a wide range of breathing tecniques and is part of the foundation of all types of yoga. With Iyengar yoga, breathing is used to maximize the physical benefits of the various asanas. In addition, pranayama itself helps tone the circulatory and respiratory systems, while aiding proper function of the nervous and digestive systems. The result is a pervasive feeling of calm as well as increased energy. Pranayama brings the senses and the mind under control so that the student is ready to experience the meditative aspects of yoga.
According to Iyengar, yoga's scope is indeed beyond the physical motions: "The practice of yogasana for the sake of health, to keep fit, or to maintain flexibility is the external practice of yoga," he continues in Light on Life. "While this is a legitimate place to begin, it is not the end... Even in simple asanas, one is experiencing the three levels of quest: the external quest, which brings firmness of the body; the internal quest, which brings steadiness of intelligence; and the innermost quest, which brings benevolence of spirit. Often, we hear people saying they remain active and light when they do just a little bit of asana practice. When a raw beginner experiences this state of well-being, it is not merely the external or anatomical effects of yoga. It is also about the internal physiological and psychological effects of the practice."
In recent years, researchers have started measuring some of yoga's effects on health, and -not surprisingly- the results are fascinating. A consistent practice of yoga was the requirement underlying all the following studies:
- Studies by the Oregon Health and Sciences University found that a six-month Iyengar yoga program helped people with multiple sclerosis combat fatigue, and also improved the energy levels and quality of life of healthy seniors.
- A study evaluating the effectiveness of Iyengar yoga therapy on chronic low back pain found it to reduce pain intensity, depression, and usage of pain medication, while improving how functional the patients were. [link]
- According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, practicing yoga helped improve grip strength and reduce pain in patients with carpal tunnel syndrome. [link]
- Adult asthma patients practiced yoga in clinical trials to help reduce the use of inhalers and induce more relaxed and positive attitudes.
- Transcendental Meditation, a form of meditation widely practiced nowadays, was found to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and is more effective than heart disease education programs in reducing fatty buildup in arteries, according to a study in the journal Stroke.
- Researchers at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey are working to support the finding that yoga can someday help keep breast cancer survivors pain- and cancer-free. [link]
- A study shows that regularly practicing yoga exercises may lower a number of compounds in the blood and reduce the level of inflammation that normally rises because of both normal aging and stress. [link]
- Regular yoga practice has been found to ease the pain of scoliosis. [link]
- Lastly, it is worth noting that prisoners in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh are being freed early if they complete yoga courses. The authorities say the lessons help to improve the prisoners' self-control and reduce aggression. [link]
Aubrey, A. (November 10, 2005). 'Light on Life': B.K.S. Iyengar's Yoga Insights. In NPR Books. Retrieved February 19, 2015 from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4979052
Iyengar, B.K.S., Evans, J. J., & Abrams, D. (2006). Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.
Iyengar, B.K.S. (2007). Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health. London: DK.
White, J. (n.d.). Benefits of Iyengar Yoga. In Joan White Yoga. Retrieved February 19, 2015 from http://www.joanwhiteyoga.com/benefits.htm