Hierarchies of practice

The practice of Iyengar Yoga emphasises a high level of repetition in practice. Far from being a method of perfecting asanas, it is a method of clarifying one’s perception. We do more than just study the asana; we study ourselves in relation to the asana.

In a talk given in 1998, Prashant Iyengar made the following statements:

One of the most important aspects of Iyengar Yoga is hierarchy in practice. A beginner may be taught Trikonasana in his very first class while Guruji also practices Trikonasana after 70 years. Both these asanas are Trikonasana but the quality of the asana is totally different. For a beginner, the asana is totally on the skeletal plane whilst Guruji’s Trikonasana would be in a state of mediation in Trikonasana. A beginner’s Trikonasana would be controlled and guided by his/her teacher whilst Guruji’s Trikonasana would be guided by his citti.

Thus, as students of Iyengar Yoga, we have to practice asana and progress in the hierarchy of our practice. We should align our sharira. It is imperative to mention here that sharira which is loosely translated as body in English, in reality encompasses our breath, mind, senses, intellect and emotions. So although we start with physical alignment, we have to progress to include the complete meaning of the sharira.

We should evolve so as to time our practices not only by the clock but to perform them to attain sthirata and sukhata with the practice being progressively being governed by the will, mind, breath, intelligence and finally the citti.[1]

From this talk we can note the ascending levels of refinement whereby we develop a practice from its gross presentation in the physical plane through refinement to become a more subtle practice. This physical practice where the body is positioned with alignment and precision engages the senses (jnanendriyas) so that gradually the senses become absorbed in the activity. Patanjali describes this process as inverting the senses – to internalise the senses (pratyahara). When the jnanendriyas become absorbed in the activity of practice the mind becomes steady. The mind, which normally jumps from thought to thought and follows its own oscillations, becomes quiet. And so our practice, which is so much formed by the physical, should encompass the other sheaths (kosas) of our existence.

It is through repetition that we begin a process of involution. Iyengar refers to this as the means by which we refine and culture the consciousness. He says:

The culture of consciousness entails cultivation, observation and progressive refinement of consciousness.[2]

When considering the statements above, the application of repetition as a method can be understood as a means of directing students’ experience towards:

  • observation;
  • refinement of senses (jnanendriyas);
  • knowledge from experience; it confirms or refutes.

[1] Prashant Iyengar, Yoga Rahasya Vol II, No. 2, 2004, “Understanding the principles behind Iyengar Yoga”

[2] BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Thorsons, 2002, p.16