The Making of a Yoga Studio Part 2: The Essentials of an Iyengar Yoga Studio
(This is the second blog in the two-part series written around the time the practice room moved to a large, better equipped studio.)
A place of strong practice is imbued with strong energy, palpable as soon as one steps over the threshold. Iyengar yoga studios are usually places of strong practice (tapas) and by stepping into a studio – whether for a class or just for practice – one can be carried upwards and onwards on the wings of the accumulated energies of practitioners and the blessings of the teachers.
Like our practice, our yoga studios tend to be stark in their beauty. Studios across the world reflect the personalities of the community and the culture that they are set in, yet there are many similarities. Expect to find the following:
Not so much an object of devotion as a source of constant inspiration, the idol of the sage Patanjali graces many yoga studios. It is interesting to note that most of the black stone idols of Patanjali seen in yoga studios around the world, come out of a small village near Bellur.
The ‘Light On Yoga’ Wall
Decades after its publication, this book still remains the gold-standard in Asana presentation. Photographs from the book, showing Guruji in poses from the simplest to the most complex, are often hung up on the walls of yoga studios – not just to inspire, but for practical reference
(Most of the following text is taken from the 2013 calendar published by RIMYI, where Guruji narrates the stories behind the invention of the props.)
“In 1937, when I was in Pune, the then principal of Fergusson College came to me with some problems and sought relief. He was around 85 years old and I was 19. I wanted to make him do standing poses, but his age compounded with his problems deterred him from even standing correctly. It then occurred to me that I could make him do Trikonasana and Parsvakonasana lying down. His legs however did not stay apart. So, I kept a long wooden rod between his feet to stop his legs from coming closer. That was my first creation of a prop – a wooden rod.
Since then, many props have been created – some designed uniquely, some inspired from household gadgets or instruments available. Many refinements have been made and many ways of using them thought of. What remains unchanged is its purpose – a help in one’s yoga sadhana.
Whenever I thought of making a new prop, I would call home a carpenter I knew. I would ask him to measure the dimensions of my pose. For example, for Setubandha Sarvangasana, I told him to measure the height of my buttocks and chest from the floor. I would tell him the design and he would make a rough structure with wood. I would go visit his workshop, test the sample and suggest any improvisations. Since the product was a rough sample, there used to be chips of wood or nails projecting. However, I had to endure all the hardship back then because money was scarce. I did not have the leisure of trying as many samples as I wanted. Then the final piece would be made, which I would test again. I always followed this method on my body alone, because I knew the movements. That is how the props came into existence.”
“In 1960’s, when I was in France, I saw people were using belts to carry or tie their luggage. They were holding their bags together with them. My bag was also tied with it and I returned home. Then I thought, ‘this luggage belt is good for yoga also. If the bags are tied so firmly, I can use it for my legs too’. I immediately tried it. With that grip, it held my legs and I could hit them out in a confined space. That is action with resistance.
The next year, when I went back to France to buy those belts, I learned that those particular belts were ‘out of fashion’ and taken off the market. Thankfully, since I had that one belt. after I returned home, I got belts with those buckles manufactured here in Pune.
Later I began using the belt to give my muscles a sense of direction.
Everything can contribute to yoga is my ardent conviction. It is not the size of the object or the complexity of its arrangement or the content which is important, but the intention and attitude which convert a simple gadget into a prop.’
“Nowadays bricks are an integral part of standing poses, but they were first used for Sirsana to reduce pain in the neck and heaviness in the head. Many people could not do Sirsasana so I used to give them one horizontal and one vertical brick. The vertical one was for the back near the wall and the horizontal one offered exact support to the shoulder blades. It proved to be very effective.
Brick is helpful in other postures too.
For standing poses, I advised the round brick for people with a flat foot.
In Supta Virasana, the back does not touch the ground completely, especially in the region of lumbar spine. To support this area and to make the asana comfortable, I was trying different materials like blankets, pillows, rolls of mattresses, etc., but they were not helping. I expected something firm and circular at the top, which every material failed to deliver. A soft support only provides a cushion. This style is needed for people who have soreness or tenderness in the muscles. Otherwise dense props like the ones I designed made of wood are better.
I thought of converting the Sirsasana brick and made it suitable for Supta Virasana. A design for semicircular brick was made and it provided what I wanted. Once the semicircular brick came into action, other versions developed rapidly.”
At RIMYI, specially made foam mats are often used instead of blankets. However, the purpose is the same – to support the delicate cervical vertebrae is positions like Sarvangasana and variations.
Blankets have many other uses – notably to raise the seat that elevates the spine
The Rope Wall
“Sirsasana is the ‘king’ of all asanas, but not all can do it easily. In the process of learning it, many students develop fear, and are reluctant to even give it a try. In order to solve this difficulty, I used to hold people in Sirsasana by the legs, supporting their backs. As and when they could attempt Sirsasana independently, I used to make them do at the corners of the walls, which gave them a sense of direction as well as confidence that they were not going to fall.
Still many people complained of heaviness in the heads, pain in the neck and BP also increased with shortness of breath as they hardened the diaphragm.
So I tried the pose with the support of bricks for my shoulders. I felt smoothness in my neck. But there was a problem with bricks – not all could do on the bricks either.
One day while practicing, I put a rope between two wall ropes and did Sirsasana on that. The brain was relaxed, neck was free and back of head, spine and buttocks were supported with the wall.
In those days, Mangalore tiles were used for the roof and flooring. At the roof, there used to be a log of wood, which projected beyond the wall. On seeing that, it struck me that if I could tie a rope on to it and do Sirsasana, it would be a better support, as on the wall ropes, the wall put a brake. I thought students should do Sirsasana in a space where there is no brake, no stress. In order to attain this, I climbed up a ladder, used the rope that is tied to a bucket to draw water from wells to do Sirsasana. This was the solution.
I had decided that whenever an institute comes into existence, I would put rings on the ceiling during the construction itself to hang the ropes for Sirsasana, which I did when this institute came up.”
“Viparita Dandasana is one of the asanas which prompted me to think about various alternatives to develop different props.
The chair was also first used for Viparita Dandasana. After doing it on the drum, I thought of this asana on two chairs for people who found the drum difficult because of the position of the legs. Only later did I realize that even one chair is sufficient for Viparita Dandasana. It offered firm support and also created a sense of security and stability.
This can very well be seen in Kapotansana on a chair.
In Light on Yoga, I have used only one prop – a bench for Sarvangasana, which I saw in the photo studio where the photo session for the book was on. It supported the back and the hands rested underneath. Then I started using the chair for people to do Sarvangasana. In the initial period, shoulders used to go to the ground and the weight of the student was directed wrongly. To overcome this, came the bolster under the shoulders, which helped in achieving neck flexion too. The seat of the chair offered an excellent lumbosacral support and stopped that area from sagging down. Students could adjust the posture by gripping the seat of the chair with shoulders rolled back actively. Many people could not do Halasana then also. So i used to give another chair for the feet.
The idea of sliding down from the chair came much later.”
“The story of weights dates back to sometime in the 1940’s. Everyday I used to cycle over 25 miles to reach out to students from one corner of the city to another. At the end of the day, I used to get fatigued. My legs used to shiver and my entire body used to be restless with shakiness in my nerves.
In order to have some relief, I used to keep 3 – 4 rolled mattresses on my legs and a drum filled with water on top of them. Sometimes I used to tell my wife to sit on my legs to give them an auto – massage. I encouraged my children to sit and play on my legs. I tried and experimented with so many things.
While teaching, I observed some students experienced restlessness and uncontrollable shaking in the legs. This led to anxiety with poor confidence.
I kept on thinking what help can I offer and how? I integrated my personal experience with the student’s problems. I tied their legs together with a piece of cloth and kept some weight on them. The shaking stopped and the students experienced tremendous relief.
I realized then that weights will help people whose nervous system has to be quietened.”
“Initially as a yoga teacher I made students do standing poses, like Trikonasana near the wall. I observed then, that the lumbar area remained far away from the wall. This was creating an evident discordance between the legs and the trunk. So, the wall was not providing adequate support. I started reasoning this inadequacy out.
In those days, I had to visit many offices for various reasons. There, the managers never had a separate room, but their area was cordoned off with a metal or wooden rod. One day I thought this rod was good for Mayurasana and I did it with my hands on the rod. Then I tried Trikonasana with my back towards it. It supported my back which created movement in my spine, plus I could use my hands skillfully with that rod. It was possible to change the heights and breadth of the bar as per requirements to offer a precise support. The only disadvantage was that the feet were slipping away. For that I decided to create a support laterally.
Wall, bar and lateral support were the three components I orchestrated together. Combine them together and you can see the horse. I called it a ‘horse’ because one could sit on it the way one sat on a horse.”
Viparita Dandasana Bench
“Yoga is for all. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to experience its benevolence. It is this thought that impelled me to think of all these props.
Back problem is not just a modern-era story. In those days, many people came to me with back problems. How to make them do back-bending without any injury to the spine?
When I saw road rollers parked on roads, I used to lie down on their wheels. This led to the idea of doing Viparita Dandasana on a drum, which was meant to hold water. However the drum was made of steel, so not all could endure that. Then came the idea of doing the pose on circular stools with blankets on them. The students liked it. They felt extension and relaxation at the same time.
So I thought, if they can enjoy this pose, why not introduce the drum? This led to the prop-drum.
But it had its shortcomings–it was not congruent with the anatomical curvatures of the spine, secondly on the drum, the legs are down, not all can do that. Then came the design of the Viparita Dandasana bench where the anatomical curvatures are taken care of, and the students could come up or go down depending on their elasticity.”
Viparita Karani Box
Appearance of the asana may be perfect, every criterion fulfilled, every point addressed to, but internal communication, circulation and awareness need more careful attention. Most of the times, when the so-called ‘correct asana’ is achieved students tend to become complacent and start ignoring the essence of the asana thinking they can voluntarily ‘perform the pose’.
Complacency and ignorance are silent killers of sadhana. One has to be extremely aware of both of them.
Setubandha Sarvangasana is a very beneficial asana. I could stay in this asana for 10 to 15minutes. However, others could not stay in the independent pose for even 2 or 3 minutes. On the bench, the intensity was lacking. So I started to ponder over how the pose could be done with support, yet be effective, true to the inherent value of the pose. On my body I understood that, when the kidney area is supported with my hands and arched, the pose showed effectiveness. Therefore, I designed the Viparita Karani box, first for Setubandha Sarvangasana wherein the kidneys have to be arched on the box.
A new thought or an idea may be vague in the beginning. One has to be patient and observant to develop it into something. I refined props at every step, at times discarding the product completely and starting afresh.
Perception, sensation, observation and wisdom should be reflected in anything one creates.
“A great philosopher and thinker, J. Krishnamurti in his lectures used to speak of ‘alert passive mind’. In shanmukhi mudra, I felt this state of alert passivity in the brain and mind. Kirshnamurti came to me for learning yoga. He used to say that attaining that state is very difficult and would take years to cultivate. While discussing the ‘alert passive mind’, I demonstrated Shanmukhi mudra on him. He too felt that this was the same condition and was happy to experience it.
I told him the story of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Some hatha yogis crossed a river and came to meet him. They told him that after years of sadhana, they attained a siddhi by which they could walk on water and that is how they came to meet him. Ramakrishna told them nonchalantly, ‘Oh why did you take all the trouble for so many years, when, if you had given a boatman a few paisas (unit of Indian currency that was formerly in use), he would have brought you across!’
I also tied a necktie around his eyes creating the same feeling and told him that, using a tie or a handkerchief can give one the same effect immediately, so why struggle for years? We both had a good laugh!
Shanmukhi mudra is the commencing point for the development of bandage as a prop. Not all can do it, as it is painful and difficult to keep the fingers on the eyes and face for a long timewithout any strain. In a class, it used to be difficult to offer Shanmukhi mudra to everybody due to time constraint. ‘How can everybody experience Shanmukhi mudra simultaneously?’ was the question lingering in my mind.
Those days, men used to wear ‘hanuman langot’ (a three to four feet long and four to five finger-breadth piece of cloth with a triangular extension at one end, worn as an inner wear to support genitals.) I found it to be a very versatile appliance. I wrapped it around my eyes trying a range of pressures. With some adjustments, I felt the same condition of ‘alert passive mind’ when the temples were relaxed.
I tried different materials as the Hanuman langot would not have been accepted by the society. Finally, the elastic bandage offered me the desired result.”
“Is the prop useful only for people who cannot do a particular asana?’ The answer is ‘no’. Props are helpful for the adept too. When one thinks he has attained ‘perfection’ in an asana, he should use the prop to attain sense of direction and a higher level of sensitivity.
In back bends the centre of gravity is in the lumbosacral area for it to curve.
When students started performing back bends on the chair with ease, in order to increase the intensity, I created the stump. This stump is to be positioned at the lumbosacral area. But there existed a probability of injury to the back due to its intensity.
How could that be avoided?
The problem was the hard and sharp projection of the stump. So the second stump was devised with a depression in the centre. This helped the outer buttocks to rest comfortably. When students could use it with ease, came the idea of a curved stump to lift, curve and arch the tailbone. The props also motivate one to stay longer in an asana so that one evolves the asana and matures in one’s practice.
The props can thus contribute to deeper observation and understanding of the intricacies of the posture as well as the mind.”