Internal Form, External Form: Structure vs. Flow
One of the challenges in teaching asana lies not only in sequencing different postures but in deciding how long these postures are to be held. Styles like Astanga vinyasa and its “power yoga” derivatives move students along at a fairly rapid clip, often eschewing props and assigning only one to ten breaths per posture. By contrast, Iyengar yoga and the “alignment” focused styles generally demand much longer holds. They also dispense with the dance-like transitional moves between postures that are the trademark of the vinyasa styles. Jumping ones’ feet together from a wide-legged pasarita padotanasana is about as racy as it gets!
Which style is better? One answer is this: it depends on the nature of the student—their age, temperament, and physical ability. Generally speaking, younger students(30 years old and under) have less patience for long holds, whereas older yogis aren’t as inclined to jump around rapidly and throw their limbs about with wild abandon. But age, of course, isn’t the only factor.
Unbeknownst to many, BKS Iyengar practiced vinyasa-style yogi back in his younger days, prior to developing the legendary, alignment-based system that he left as his grand legacy. There is a wonderful video of the young Mr. Iyengar, jumping in and out of advanced postures with the skill of a gymnast and the flexibility of a contortionist. Rumor has it that his teacher, the legendary Krishnamacharya, would simply show him a pose, and then B.K.S. would spend the next day or two trying to figure it out on his own. But his real genius evolved later, when he started working with students who were not able to perform asana at his level of expertise. Through the development of props and the experiential anatomy he had gained through self- practice, he began to delineate the deeper layers of the asana experience—trading speed for attention to detail and depth of perception. Or, as Patricia Walden, one of his primary devotees, once quoted her teacher as saying: “When I was younger, I played; when I got older, I stayed.”
The shala of Krishnamacharya was populated mainly by young boys who needed to be “tired out” by rigorous physical exercise. This is reminiscent of most “gym yoga” in the US, where people go to get a “work-out” and release stress via intense movement. Hot yoga, too, can increase the intensity and strain on the cardiovascular system that many people in the West seem to crave. Another one of Krishnamacharya’s students, Pattabhi Jois, developed the vinyasa system known as Astanga yoga, which also grew in popularity here in the West. As a former athlete, I gravitated toward vinyasa yoga, including Astanga, and I really loved it. Occasionally, I still do. But when I started to hit my mid-forties my body began to tell me to slow down and pay more attention. Plus, I started to listen more to senior teachers who were giving me anatomical cues that allowed me to go deeper into the experience of the pose, instead of passing through it like a tourist.
When I started practicing Iyengar yoga, after years of Astanga, one big adjustment I had to make was not only dealing with the slower pace, but altering the mechanism by which I was producing effort, or tapas. In Astanga the physical challenge of stringing sun salutations and postures together in concert with the breath almost automatically builds heat. There is a lot of jumping back and forth between postures and counter postures, and these transitions provide as much of a challenge as the asanas themselves. In Iyengar, however, attention to the multiplicity of actions and counteractions that exist within each individual posture become the main focus, and (in my mind) they are what produce heat. After all “tapas” can be produced through physical or mental effort.
When I practice Iyengar yoga, I often feel like I am engaged in an elaborate chess game with myself. Mentally and physically, I have to concentrate intently on the various actions and counteractions that maintain steadiness, or stira. As anyone who has practiced Iyengar yoga knows, this effort can be quite challenging, but it can ultimately lead to a greater understanding not only of anatomy, but of something much deeper. Done properly, with the aid of a good teacher, the body itself becomes the tool for self-reflection, and each asana provides a mirror from which you can observe some new aspect yourself. This could be something as banal as a fear of backbends, or something much more profound. And so, out of intense effort, freedom and knowledge are born.
The ultimate challenge, of course, is to integrate this knowledge and move toward the freedom that more awareness can bring. To be honest, many of the serious Iyengar devotees I’ve met seem so fixated on exterior alignment that they seem challenged by the very notion of “letting go” of all the methodology and physical holding patterns they have learned for each posture. It is sort of catch-22 of this style of yoga, perhaps, but sometimes the Iyengar practice can feel very dry, intellectual, and mechanical.
My experience with Astanga, on the other hand, is that it creates tapas via breath, internal seals, or bandhas, and challenging transitional movements between the asana. The postures themselves manifest and dissolve as more temporary structures within the framework of the sequence, punctuating the “dance of energy” that is happening within. Unlike in Iyengar, there is not much attention to external details, but to be fair, structural adjustments are made by experienced teachers. These are generally non-verbal and can be rather brutal. I remember listening to a group of seasoned Astangis talk openly about the injuries they had sustained from being “adjusted” by Patabhi Jois. They were like a bunch of soldiers comparing battle scars, which they relished with great savor!
While the sort of hyperawareness to external detail seen in Iyengar is generally absent from Astanga, it has other things going for it—primarily, the stringing together of postures with the coordination of the breath, intricately linked to the internal core muscles known as the bandhas. This complex juggling act alone provides a mental focus that can be equally intense and rewarding. As Richard Freeman recently stated, doing Astanga yoga properly is like observing yourself on many levels simultaneously. Additionally, the fact that the astanga sequences are always done in the same order and need to be memorized by the students also allows eliminates some of the distraction that listening to a teacher can bring. Mysore style practice is really a self-practice, done in a room full of other people. You may be aware of them in the periphery of your practice, and get inspired by their dedication and energy, but you are really focused on your own process.
Circling back to the start of this inquiry, I think we can side-step (if not entirely avoid) the question of which of these two styles is better by instead considering the larger paradigm, or paradox, of stillness vs. movement. Does a vinyasa yoga style, for example, necessarily omit the quality of stillness? Conversely, does a lack of apparent movement in asana always imply that there is stillness? I think any experienced yogin or yogini would easily answer "no" to both of these questions by admitting that the definition of movement and stillness also includes the realm of the mind.
"Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind," says the opening line of THE YOGA SUTRAS. How you get there is really a matter of personal preference.