Like most yogis I know, I didn’t just take up the practice of Iyengar yoga in the very beginning and stay true blue through the years leading up to now. My first ever yoga class was…dare I say it…a Bikram yoga class. Yes, I willingly admit it. I went with a group of girlfriends who all wanted to try this thing called yoga and the only studio we could find near our workplace was Bikram. It didn’t take long for me to realize the heat just wasn’t for me, but there was something to it that hooked me and luckily I didn’t give up on it. I just moved on to another style.
In those days I was more concerned about proximity to work and the cost of classes, so I hopped around from studio to studio, teacher to teacher, perusing the different styles and partaking of anything that would fit into my schedule and go easy on my wallet. Then a good friend recommended I try ‘It’s Yoga’ , an Ashtanga studio in San Francisco, south of Market St. The studio is gone now, but at the time it had quite the cult following and Larry, the owner and a teacher, was practically considered a celebrity. Hordes of people poured into the classes, rushing in from their jobs, mat and yoga pants in hand, desperate to sweat out the day’s stresses and office politics. That place was like an addiction and I soon found myself high on the euphoria of Ashtanga yoga. The pace, the sequence, the sweat, that lovely mix of work-out meets calm, peaceful mindedness. I also loved the fact that I could do it anywhere, anytime. Because there were no props involved and the sequence was more or less set in stone, I could do it on my back porch on the weekends when I didn’t want to drive into the city from my apartment in Berkeley, or when I was traveling around Europe for 4 months one summer. I didn’t have to think about what poses I should practice or if I could find blankets or even that much space. I’d just roll out my mat and do the modified primary series. I was hooked.
But then came the dreaded injury! It didn’t actually happen because of my practice, it was a work-related injury that just built up over time, a sort of repetitive stress thing with my wrist. But I became painfully aware over time that by the end of the sun salutations I was gripping my wrist and finding it harder and harder to keep going without my wrist nearly giving out. Arm balances, backbends, chattarunga, my wrist just couldn’t take the weight or the constant strain. I could do these poses separately, for short periods of time, but not after 10 to 15 sun salutations. It was excruciating. I finally asked the teacher one night about it and he told me to just keep going, that my wrist would eventually strengthen. So naively, I kept going – but not for long.
I started searching again, going through the myriad of studios dotted around the East Bay and San Francisco. So many to choose from, it was a fun adventure. Classes with music, classes at the gym, classes with uber-hippy teachers, classes done entirely with a partner, classes that ended with crashing cymbals -you name it, I tried it. I found a vinyasa flow class at my gym that had a great teacher, so I wrapped my wrist in an ace bandage and got through the sun salutations as best I could. She didn’t have us do many and I managed to modify them enough to get by. This seemed to work ok until one day I came out of class and I thought “I’m not really going anywhere with this.” My practice hit a plateau. The sequences in class didn’t feel exciting anymore and my poses weren’t changing. I was going through the motions. Oddly enough, around this time I changed jobs and was given a discounted rate to join a super fancy-pants gym downtown near my office. I had been tossing around the idea of not joining a gym and just having a membership at a yoga studio because I couldn’t afford both. Not to mention I was battling with the idea that as a ‘serious’ yogi I should really be practicing at a proper studio, not at a gym alongside Fabio and his thong-wearing girlfriend who just wanted to stretch their quads ( I was a little bit of a yoga snob then). But the fancy-pants gym won me over with its long list of yoga classes, beautiful new equipment, SAUNA, swimming pool, and provided towels. Thank the heavens that I did, because that is where I found my beloved Iyengar teacher, Athena. I had taken an Iyengar yoga class a while back when I was experimenting with studios and such, but I found it excruciating to spend 2/3 of the class time working on triangle pose. I just wasn’t ready for it. I couldn’t grasp the importance of such a thing. But in walks Athena and all that changed! Her class was tough, well paced, challenging, deep, and FUN! She was giving me instructions left, right and center, and I was barely able to keep up. Rotate my inner thigh outwards and my outer calf inwards! Who thinks this is possible? Everything I knew about my poses I could throw out the window. She was re-programming everything I knew about yoga. As I watched her deftly teach all levels of students, alongside pregnant women, folks with injured backs, busted knees, the stiff, the weak, I realized this was the real deal. I had found what I was looking for. Within weeks my practice changed dramatically. It wasn’t about doing pretzel poses or even flexibility, it was about learning to do poses properly, with attention and mindfulness, and doing them safely. I was able to refine my poses immensely, to really get in touch with my body and my mind. My practice began to grow again and it continues to grow every day. I can not say a big enough thank you to my teacher, Athena, for this gift. It is because of her that I have begun to truly understand what yoga has to offer. She planted the seed that grew into a desire to teach. She continues to inspire me all the time.
I try very hard not to be a yoga snob these days or to put down any other system or practice of yoga. All rivers run to the sea, as all paths of yoga lead to the same destination. I simply tell my friends who are training to become teachers or wanting to try yoga to give an Iyengar class a try. There is something to be said for its foundations for learning, whether you use it to enhance your practice and continue on a path of other styles or systems. It certainly can’t hurt to add a little something to your experience.