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36 FIT YOGA August 2008 FIT YOGA August 2008 37

Iyengar senior teachers


James Murphy, Robin Janis,
and Carrie Owerko practice
Eka Pada Urdhva Danurasana
Y
oga keeps the mind and body young. But this
admission may date meI started doing yoga in
high school during the late 1960s, not long after the
Beatles jetted off to India to study Transcendental Medita-
tion with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Our local YMCAoffered
a yoga class, so I begged my father to drop me off every
week. If the Beatles could do Headstands, so could I.
From the very beginning, I loved yoga; it challenged my
body and focused my mind. Ever since then, Ive continued
studying yoga, trying just about every style with many dif-
ferent teachers. I liked all of them for various reasons, but I
favored the Iyengar method, the most challenging. It suited
me because it was logical and thorough, and promised a
solid practice from its well-trained teachers.
I began practicing Iyengar yoga in 1992 when I took a
yoga class at Columbia University, where I work, on my
lunch hour. One day, we had a substitute teacherand some-
thing about the more careful attention to the various parts of
the body really appealed to me. It wasnt just some haphaz-
ard series of postures strung together, and we didnt just lie
around relaxing, although, of course, we ended in Savasana.
So, I sought out qualifed instructorsand discovered
the Iyengar Yoga Institute and its wonderfully talented
teachers, some of whom are pictured in this articleMary
Dunn, Robin Janis, James Murphy, and Carrie Owerko. All
of them have been instrumental mentors in my growth as
a yogini. They even inspired me to become a teacher-in-
training in the Iyengar method.
Iyengar
Yoga
A personal odyssey
by Gerry Visco
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L I G H T O N
38 FIT YOGA August 2008 FIT YOGA August 2008 39
Tadasana Parivrtta Sirsasana ply 100% of myself and be present in the poses. With ev-
eryone working so hard, a great spirit suffuses the room.
Sometimes, I imagine if we concentrated hard enough,
maybe we could levitate.
Ive always been more strong than fexible, and be-
cause I sit at a desk all day, Im one of the stiffer mem-
bers of the class. Poses such as twists come more easily
now, especially after years of working to open my chest.
My Downward Facing Dog has improved since my dor-
sal spine doesnt protrude like before.
Then, theres Handstands. Even though I started do-
ing them in 1993, I lost the ability to kick up after I took
some time off for abdominal surgery. It took a number of
years, but now I get up most of the time. And I still cant
reach my hands together in Gomukhasana (Cow Face
Pose), though I try every day. And who knows when Ill
achieve full Padmasana (Lotus Pose)? My pelvic area
is especially tight. But thats what I like about Iyengar
yoga. Im there to practice, not to show off how accom-
plished I am.
Open to change
Its not easy to get into the Iyengar teacher-training pro-
gram; in fact, I failed my frst audition. But after a few more
years of practice, I was accepted in 2005. The program,
run by Mary Dunn and James Murphy, was rigorous, but I
enjoyed learning more about yoga and how to teach it.
My frst teaching experiences, though, were a bit dis-
maying when I realized that many students are reluctant to
try something new. Wheres the fow series? Why arent
you playing music? they asked. Although Iyengar yoga
includes jumpings that fow, it is mostly about holding a
pose in ideal alignment. And while music is great, its easier
to focus without distractions. Nonetheless, the students
kept mentioning how their old teacher did things.
Since yoga is about allowing change to happen and
being open to new things, my job was to show them why
this method works. The fexible students jumped easily
into Headstands, but they were wobbly once they got there.
They thought just getting up was enough, but the challenge
is to hold a solid Headstand. That means its better to do
it against the wall than be in a banana shape, where the
back bows and the body is out of alignment. In Headstand,
your chest needs to be open, the legs active and balanced
evenly. Aproper Headstand fows in one straight line, from
a frm foundation, with every part of the body extended
toward the ceiling like the spire of a cathedral. With this
alignment, some Iyengar practitioners can hold Headstand
for 20 minutes or more.
Something for everyone
Yoga is not exercise. Mr. Iyengar says yoga is the art
of living. Its a method where you transcend your limita-
tions. It teaches you how to observe your own body and
mind, which can help you in all your other activities.
Iyengar yoga is often mislabeled as the style practiced by
dancers or teachers. The truth is Iyengar yoga speaks to
all types of bodies and capabilities.
Im no dancerIm just an average athletic person who
likes to work hard. My yoga has evolved over the years,
and at this point, I could be classifed as an intermediate
practitioner. In the beginning, my main challenge was
to open my joints and relax the stiffness in my hips and
shoulders. Virabhadrasana II used to be so painful for me.
Should I mention Im a wimp with some inversions, too?
I study regularly with Carrie Owerko, this issues
cover model. Her arduous classes have taught me to ap-
The Light of Yoga
Iyengar teacher Mary Dunn pioneered
the style in the U.S. with intelligence,
empathy, and a stalwart spirit
Since she began teaching yoga in
1974, Mary Dunn has taught thou-
sands of students at all levels from
total beginners to senior citizens to
advanced practitioners and teach-
ers. Dunn, a founding organizer of
the rst Iyengar Yoga Association in
the United States, was instrumen-
tal in establishing the Iyengar Yoga
centers in San Francisco,
San Diego, and New York.
From 2003 until 2005, I
took the teacher-train-
ing course she ran with
teacher James Murphy
at the Iyengar Institute in
New York City.
Sitting in her airy
Upper West Side apart-
ment, Dunn reminisces
with me about her begin-
nings in yoga. I never
planned on being a yoga teacher,
she says. Back when she was a
young mother of two daughters,
Dunn couldnt even touch her toes,
although she regularly participated in
ice skating, swimming, team sports,
and tennis. You should try yoga, her
mother, Mary Palmer, encouraged her.
Its the most amazing thing!
A bit skeptical at rst, Dunn began
taking a local yoga class once a week.
A half-hour into her rst class, she
decided this was just what she needed
to physically express herself and give
her mind an intellectual workout.
Dunn moved to Berkeley in 1973
with her family and began teaching
yoga when her teacher left. In the
meantime, her mother, inspired by
BKS Iyengars Light on Yoga, traveled
to study with him in India. When
Iyengar came to the US for the rst
time to teach yoga in 1973, he stayed
with Mary Palmer in Ann Arbor,
where he taught hundreds of students
at the local YMCA.
Dunn took his classes when he
went to California in 1974. He put
me on the stage, she recalls. I was
nave and didnt have any bad habits
he had to break. I said to myself, This
person knows so much. I trusted him
from the beginning. Dunn
still marvels at her early
encounters with Iyengar.
He was dynamic and
strong, demanding yet also
good-natured, she says.
He demanded a lot from
his students from the be-
ginning, allowing them to
have the wonderful experi-
ence of doing more than
they thought they could.
Meeting Iyengar
changed her whole life. It wasnt
until I studied with Iyengar that the
scope of the subject began to reveal
itself, says Dunn. I became aware
there were pathways in the body al-
lowing the intelligent understanding
of movement, the creation of silence.
Asana and pranayama opened doors
to awarenessemotionally, physi-
ologically, intellectually, and spiritual-
ly. Her studies made her realize the
universality of the human condition
and helped her cope with her own
difculties. To become a teacher,
you have to have both detachment
and profound empathy, she says.
When Dunn and her mother trav-
eled to Pune to study with Iyengar, he
set the tone by telling Palmer, Out
of class, she is your daughter; but
in class, she is my daughter. Dunn
treasures the experience. Mother
and I laughed in the dark when we
fell into bed exhausted after full days,
delighted in what we were learn-
ing, she says. We got to know each
other in many new ways that set the
basis for a marvelously satisfying
adult closeness. Since then, Dunn
has made many trips to India to work
one-on-one with her teacher.
Her own teaching style has always
been clear, direct, and accessible.
An article for the IYAGNY newsletter
about Tadasana (Mountain Pose) re-
veals the former high-school English
teachers poetic economy of words:
From the very rst direction, Join
your feet we learn to transfer focus
from our head to what is most distant
from it, our feet, Dunn wrote. As we
develop our connection with the foots
system of arches, our feet become
wellsprings of energy we can use to
fuel our entire being.
Teaching has given me a lifes
work of which Im proud, she says.
I feel Ive made a difference, and its
given me innumerable friends and a
wonderful sense of purpose. Being a
yoga teacher is a way of connecting
with people about the things that mat-
ter most, not only for my own life but
to look at the big questions.
Diagnosed with advanced
peritoneal cancer in 2007, Dunn has
since had three major surgeries and
chemotherapy. She maintains a blog
where she talks about her ongoing
treatment (marydunn.blogspot.com).
Our thoughts and hearts are with
Mary at this difcult time. G.V.
40 FIT YOGA August 2008 FIT YOGA August 2008 41
Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York

150 West 22nd St., 11th oor
New York, NY 10011
(212) 691-9642
iyengarnyc.org
Where it all began
Living master BKS Iyengar, one of the foremost teachers
of yoga in the world and creator of this eponymous style, be-
gan teaching in Mysore, India, at the age of 18 and was then
sent to Pune. Often called Guruji, for beloved teacher, he
will turn 90 in December. Assisted by his daughter Geeta and
son Prashant, Iyengar continues to teach at his center, called
Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI).
Most Iyengar teachers make a pilgrimage to Pune to
study with him, but Iyengar yoga centers extend all over
the world, with several thousand certifed teachers and
hundreds in the United States alone. Mr. Iyengar has writ-
ten many best-selling books on yogic practices and philoso-
phy including Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama, Light on the
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Light on Life, and others. All these
books are essential study tools for most yoga teachers and
practitioners of all styles everywhere. Whats most amazing
about Mr. Iyengar, though, is his willingness to go beyond
his limits. He uses his own body as a laboratory of sorts,
which is why the Iyengar method continues to evolve.
If you go to an Iyengar class, be assured that youll be
guided by an experienced and knowledgeable teacher.
Iyengar teachers are required to undergo an ongoing cer-
tifcation process throughout their careerswith assess-
ments on six levels from Introductory to Advanced Senior.
The Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United
States (IYNAUS, iynaus.org), a national non-proft group
dedicated to the teachings and philosophy of BKS Iyengar,
oversees the certifcation process. The Iyengar Yoga
Institute of New York, located in New York Citys Chelsea
area, where I study, is a non-proft group affliated with
IYNAUS and is the headquarters for the Iyengar Yoga As-
sociation of Greater New York, which includes New York,
New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Students and
teachers from any style of yoga can certainly beneft from
the Iyengar methodand who knows, if you try it, you
just might want to continue.
Gerry Visco is a freelance writer and photographer and
completed a two-year yoga teacher-in-training at the Iyengar
Institute in New York City.
Take time to explore
As my practice matures, I discover new things about
myself every day. Afew years ago, I realized I wasnt stand-
ing properly. Id grip my stomach, and I wasnt keeping the
middle of my torso longwhich made me wonder whether
this constriction was what caused the
abdominal issues that led to my sur-
gery. Ditto my chest: Alifelong habit
of caving in my chest and collapsing
my rib cage could have contributed to
my asthma.
As all my teachers emphasize, the
best way to go beyond your limits
is with a daily home practice, even
if its a short one. Although it can be
diffcult to juggle a full-time job and a full life with all the
New York City distractions, I developed a basic routine.
Every day, I swim at the gym on my buildings rooftop
and spend as much time as possible before or after doing
an asana sequence. Sometimes, Ill pick one or two poses
Im having trouble with and keep at it. Ive managed to
improve my balance in Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon
Pose) and Vrksasana (Tree Pose). Its great going into class
with confdence that I wont fall. And after a month or two
of daily attempts to stand tall and grab my toe in Utthita
Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand to Foot Pose), I
can fnally do it. And if I can do that with daily effort, then I
can do any pose if Im diligent.
Yoga is not about achieving the
perfect poseits about intention. Its
being in the moment, but its also the
process, the effort, the concentration.
Being able to touch the ground in Ut-
tanasana (Forward Bend) or drop back
into Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward
Facing Bow Pose) is not any better
than doing the simplest poses with
devotion and intelligence.
Yoga is an exploration of your body and mind. We try
to bring freedom, lightness, and space into the body as we
strengthen it. Through Iyengar yoga, Ive learned not to
rush but to concentrate and give the process my all. Half-
effort and half-attention to anything will result in medi-
ocrity. Developing my practice with my Iyengar teachers
provided a foundation that helps all my poses as well as
my own life challenges.
Roped In
One of the tools Iyengar relies upon is Yoga Kurunta,
the use of ropes, as part of a regular yoga practice.
Geeta S. Iyengar, his daughter, describes seven rope
techniques in her book, Yoga: A Gem for Women. The
word kurunta means puppet, describing how the yoga
practitioner suspends on the ropes.
Practicing yoga this way opens the body, releasing
tension in the spine and pelvic area, and allows easier
access to even the most difcult poses. An effective way
to work with elderly or stiff practitioners, the ropes also
help correct scoliosis. People with neck problems can
practice Sirsasana (Headstand) with ropes.

Some other benets of Yoga Kurunta:
Good for backbends and concave back postures,
forward bends, Downward Facing Dog, remedial or
restorative work
Spinal traction helps relieve back pain and tension
Excellent for stretching hamstrings, shoulders,
and chest
Adds speed, lightness, agility, range of motion
Although using ropes can be a bit daunting at rst,
James Murphy says, Its actually a lot of fun. He uses
them often in his classes at the Iyengar Yoga Institute
of New York because the gravity and movement in
rope work awakens the body and brings freedom to
the joints.
Practitioners should learn the art of Kurunta with an
experienced teacher. Ropes provide a great tool for any
yoga studio but, of course, they need to be securely
bolted to the wall by a professional carpenter.
Being able to touch the
ground in Uttanasana...
or drop back into Urdhva
Dhanurasana...
is not any better than
doing the simplest poses with
devotion and intelligence.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana Variation