There were at least 30 people in the room in the first Iyengar Yoga āsana class that I went to. In those first few months,I was grateful for the opportunity to hide in this crowd – towards the back of the room – or behind a column. Even though I had some experience of āsana practice, the instructional style in the Iyengar tradition was a bit overwhelming to begin with. The instructions went DEEP as well as WIDE. It wasn’t enough to somehow touch the fingers to the floor – the legs, back, shoulders, face, breath, all were addressed. Straight did not mean somewhat straight – it meant absolutely straight. Looking back, I don’t think the instructors really expected us to DO everything ALL the time, but it was the start of a training to ‘Observe’ and ‘Acknowledge’ with ‘Honesty’. As I have graduated to teach in the tradition myself, certainly this is how I intend the instructions to be taken. In any case, in those early days, I was furiously concentrating, and doing with all my might. And yet I was nowhere near being done. I certainly did not want a closer inspection – I wanted to be given some space to wrap my head, more than my body, around everything that needed attending to. Sometimes the sharp eyes of the instructor would land directly on me, and those brief instances of personal attention were powerful enough to give me enough material to continue work not just in class, but also in my self practice. Over the years, there have been many instances of personal interactions and adjustments with teachers. Either in a class, or outside of it. All of them have been for very short duration.
Over the years as I have started instructing in this tradition, I have always taught group classes. Individualised advice/ support has mostly been done during the class. With the more enthusiastic students, or for those with injuries/ imbalances, we have spent time during the self-practice sessions. Most of this has been done informally, without any payment in return. Sometimes implicitly and often explicitly, we have refused offers of ‘private lessons’. In addition to everything mentioned earlier, we have believed that the democratic and non-elitist class environment is an important aspect of the learning process. That participants often learn from observing and helping each other. It builds a shared sense of purpose and progression. We have also believed that too much personalised attention runs the risk of developing a narcissistic sense of perfectionism in the student, and it compromises with their ability to observe and modulate their practice in the long run.
Cut to 2020. Live classes are suspended and all the teaching has moved online. Speaking both as a student and a teacher, this is a challenging medium for this subject. Among many other changes, for the first time, we have started taking on Personal Consultation/ Private Lesson assignments. We share here the considerations we had in mind when we offered this service, our experiences of doing private lessons the last few months, as well as the experiences of a few students who have taken these lessons.
The case for Personal Consultations – especially NOW
We cannot self-observe and self-correct all the time – even when we think we can: The online medium does not allow for close observation either by the student, or by the teacher. Demonstrations are not very effective, and are logistically messy. Freed from close scrutiny, students lose specificity of action, a cornerstone for the efficacy in the Iyengar tradition. As mentioned earlier, this specificity is not so much for the sake of executing a ‘perfect asana’, but more for developing the faculty of honest observation and acknowledgement. The results are quick in coming – over the past few months we have seen the quality of the complex asanas deteriorate as the simple parts have got diluted. Even as we have widened the vocabulary of what we instruct (since it is not quite possible to go too DEEP in the online medium, the only option is to go WIDE to keep things interesting), leaving aside exceptions, we see handstands, headstands and shoulder stands diminishing in quality. As instructors, there is not much that we have been able to do as we have watched legs no longer straightening, backs curving and elbows dropping over the months. There is something in a live session or hands-on adjustment that just cannot be replicated online. While the online mode can be a convenient supplement, at least occasional in-person lessons are absolutely necessary to make consistent progress.
Being ‘Digital’ all the time is energy-sapping. We have an enthusiastic and engaged student community. With little preparation and little notice, when we moved the classes online, most of them also accepted the challenge – clearing up pracitce spaces in their homes, and configuring screens and speakers. We have many accounts of how much they have benefitted from this online support over the last several months. But, these have been extra-ordinary times for most of us. Our digital exposure has gone beyond all desirable limits. Exhaustion is bound to set in, and motivation levels are bound to drop. The question is how long will it take. This is a double-edged sword. Our pracitce keeps us grounded in these challenging times. But when the practice itself is totally dependent on a digital medium, it can in fact, contribute to the stress. At such time, we have privately advised backing off from the race to attend all ‘zoom classes’, and instead take a few private lessons to re-focus on one’s individual practice. For those students who have taken up this option, this has given them the opportunity to re-experience a human connection with the teacher ( another casualty of the digital medium), and has re-energised them at least for the next few months.
Some actions just cannot be learnt remotely – at least not by most people. At the end of an (Online) session of handstand preparations comprising half handstands, adhomukha svānasana with feet raised higher etc., we were poignantly asked by a student if she would be able to kick up into a handstand if she did enough of these preparations, Probably some of us will be able to do so. Most of us, who have started an āsana practice as adults, and for whom asana this is the primary physical activity, probably won’t be able to do so. I was reminded of my early days when both my feet felt stuck to the ground, and my shoulders felt frozen every time I thought of taking that leap into a handstand. I would not have kicked up into that first handstand had not the teacher encouraged, coaxed, and metaphorically leaned on me, even as I literally leaned on her.We have consistently refused to instruct headstand (sirsāsana) in the online format. Trickily, sirsāsana and Sarvangāsana are also the pivotal āsanas we consider when we demarcate our class levels into ‘Beginner’ and ‘Intermediate’. So we haven’t yet figure a way for our students to transition from the ‘Beginner’ to the ‘Intermediate’ level, even if they have been regular in attending the Online Program. For now, the private lessons is the only work-around.
When looking for a specific and time-bound outcome. These few months have given us the opportunity to examine our own beliefs, and to question our assumptions. We have seen the value in private lessons even apart from the pandemic-induced restrictions.
Of course therapeutic work is often done through personalised lessons, and we have done this in the past as well.
But in the past few months, we have had the opportunity to work closely with professional sportspeople one the last few months. This group is often very highly motivated, are clear about their own weaknesses, and quick to sense improvements. It has been an unexpected source of joy for us to work individually with such people, and to notice the tremendous improvement that yoga can bring to their game in very short period of time.
These following accounts are not meant to to share the first-hand accounts of personal consultation experiences, not to extol our skills as instructors. However, we did not want to tamper with writers’ expressions, and present here the unedited accounts.
Student Experience #1 is from a student who we first met online. Jaggi came to us for personal consultation because he wanted to deepen his practice, and realised the limitations of the online medium. Jaggi Nadig and I am 46 years old. He is an avid sportsman having played badminton competitively, and also actively plays tennis, cricket, table tennis and golf.
“I have been practicing Iyengar yoga since 2017 in Singapore. In 2019, I had to return to India and was actively looking for a teacher. I did try out a couple of teachers, but, unfortunately, things did not work out. I continued to self practice given what I had learnt in Singapore.
In Apr 2020, in the heart of the covid pandemic, I chanced upon The Practice Room. I was very excited as they were offering online classes. Despite the challenges of teaching yoga online, Jaya and Mohan have developed an amazing yoga curriculum that guides both beginners and intermediate level students. They are both wonderful teachers and have great depth. They are also very keen students and incorporate their learnings in the classes. I was waiting for the covid restrictions to relax and at the first opportunity signed up for personal consultations in Sep 2020.
It was the first time I had seen Jaya and Mohan in real and the first time I had seen the studio. I was like a small kid fascinated by all the props and the overall ambiance of their well designed yoga studio. Jaya and Mohan had wanted me to address why I was seeking personal consultations and to also think about what I wanted to achieve through these sessions.
Keeping my goals in mind and my background, Jaya designed my sessions. The most striking part of these personal consultations is the depth of the learning. The finer correction in one of the basic asanas such as Adho Mukha Svānāsana, was fascinating. I had trouble with my leg lifts in Ardha Candrāsana and with the help of the trestsler and guidance by Jaya, was able to get a better lift. Inversions such as Sirsāsana need very careful inspection and guidance and is best done in a personal consultation.
Given the new world we live in, online classes will become part of our lives. However, I strongly feel that personal consultations are a must if you would like to deepen your practice.”
Student Experience #2 is from a student who attended live Classes at the practice for a few months before having to take a break. She re-joined us in the Online Program. Sonali came to us for personal consultation because she wanted to deepen her practice, and realised the limitations of the online medium.
“It is difficult to see oneself in rooms without mirrors, understandably. And that takes a different meaning when doing yoga as part of a virtual live session. In the past almost five months, I have been able to carry out the instructions to correct postures from a “feel” of alignment in my body, and some times I have been sure of the outcomes. Not too bad overall, as I start to un-scrunch myself from the sitting-in-front-of-laptop-at-home position of the past many years (I WFH-ed extensively even pre-COVID-19) and hope to start running again. But the stiff, obstinate, constantly-present, left ankle always gives me pause when feeling the glimmer of success of any physical movement.
This is why I signed up for the personal consultation with Jaya. And it was all that I hoped for. While I had no major specific things in mind other than a desire to learn what I can do better or more, Jaya worked with the observations she made, and of course, we ended up focusing on strengthening my legs. That ankle, I say, has created all sorts of imbalance! I came away with ideas on how to do some frequently-used asanas better than I was able to do by myself in the isolation of my home, especially adjustments I could make on my own slightly more intelligently. Ideas for personal practice were very welcome too, as I have always been flummoxed on what I should do (I often just end up repeating one of the two live classes, when I want to add another day of yoga to the week).
The three sessions also ended up being perfectly timed, with the welcome Dussehra break immediately after the increased intensity of the two weeks. And the weekend workshop of two hours yesterday felt like a great way to come back to the routine.
I am looking forward to go back for another set early December or early January.”
Student Experience #3 is from someone who has been studying at the Practice Room for a few years, and came for the personal consultation sessions because she was quite fed-up with being online all the time. Name withheld on request
“I have been a student at the Practice Room for three years before the pandemic hit us. In these three year, this practice has become a very important part of my life. So when Jaya and Mohan started offering online classes at the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdown, I was overjoyed. For 3 months I did not miss a single zoom session or a recorded session. And indeed, the yoga kept me sane as my work as well as home situation went through many turbulences. However, in the 4th month, I had a an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. Although it was largely due to my work and personal situation, it started feeling as though I could not cope up with the online yoga classes either. I struggled for a few weeks and then confided in Jaya that I wanted to take a break. She advised me to back off from the regular classes for a couple of weeks and to book a few personal consultation sessions. We did four sessions spread over 2 weeks. For me, just going back to the Practice Room studio after months brought a sense of relief. The first two sessions, we focussed only on quiet restorative work. By the third session I felt re-energised and Jaya guided me through a couple of strong and exhilarating sessions addressing my specific weak-points. I was surprised that this strong, tiring work rejuvenated me as much as the earlier slow, restful work. I was also surprised at how much weaker I had become in the previous three months even though I had been following all the online classes religiously. With Jaya’s instructions and adjustments, I felt again the enthusiasm and excitement of my initial days as a yoga student. After these sessions, at Jaya’s advice, I have not been hard on myself about attending all the online material. I have been doing the two zoom classes. And I have been finding time to do some short practice sequences by myself on a couple of other days. For now, I have found my balance. And I know that I can go back to rejuvenate myself if required.”
Student Experience #4 is from a student who started attending live classes at the practice room and was making quick progress. As we observed his progress even with the Online Program, we realised that he was getting stuck in the Beginner Level because we have not been able to introduce him to the basic inversions. Karthik Deendayalan signed up for the Personal Consultation sessions to learn the basic inversions
“During the tough times of pandemic the sessions continued on online mode. However, in the online format it is quite difficult to do the adjustments in the inversions. I must thank you for providing me an opportunity to attend the one-one class and also a special thanks to Mohan Ji for recommending for this personal consultation. I discovered it as the most powerful and an impactful personalised session. I was able to learn the fundamentals of inversions under your guidance. Now, after attending the personal consultation I feel confident to further improvise on the pose.”
Student Experience #5 is also from a student who joined our beginners program in the Live classes. After 4 months in the Beginners Online Program, Vijay felt that he was ready to move on to the Intermediate Level, and invested in the Personal Consultation sessions.
“I am injury free and in good health, and I was ready to tackle the inversions. 6 sessions spread over six weeks. Jaya and Mohan drew up a program focussing on teaching me headstand and shoulder stand, even as I continued with the regular online program. At the end of the sessions, I am able to safely go up into sirsasana with the support of the wall, to observe my alignment in the pose, and have started taking baby steps towards leaving the wall. I have also learnt some significant corrections in my shoulderstand and its variations. I now appreciate their insistence that this cannot be done online.”
Student Experience #6 is is an exception. Anil is not enrolled as a student at the Practice Room. Iyengar Yoga is widely recognised for its therapeutic application, and many of the larger Iyengar yoga centres run regular therapy sessions. The Practice Room does not have the resource to do this, and we have only taken on therapeutic work to help our students through their life situations – the inevitable accident, injury, illness, pregnancy etc. Anil’s spouse has been a part of the Practice Room family for many years, and we met Anil a few times to help him tide over a lower back episode.
“Jaya and Mohan are absolute professionals – their way of teaching is amazing. Instead of making you do 10 things at once; they identify the problem that you’ve come for and make you do 4-5 things but do it well. I went with a severe lower back and now (touchwood) post their personal sessions it’s reduced considerably, thanks to their personal attention. Thank you Jaya. Thank you Mohan. See you both soon.”
Student Experience #7. Rohan Bopanna needs no introduction to the Sports enthusiasts in this country. In this chat with HT ahead of the 2020 French Open, India’s highest ranked player talks about his experience of working with us in learning Iyengar Yoga. Rohan talks about how yoga has helped him – from hitting the ground running, to visible improvements in his specific problem area, and to quick recovery after matches.
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Personal Consultations can be booked through our website on the following link: