CSOCS 3452 Yoga: Theory, culture and Practice
February 21, 2011
For my Mid-term Project and Presentation I chose a yoga studio that is within walking distance from my home. I had heard about the Iyengar yoga classes being offered by Patricia Walden at St. Mary’s Church on Inman Street in Cambridge and thought that this would be the perfect opportunity for me to explore and experience her style of Iyengar yoga. I knew that Patricia Walden has been teaching yoga for a long time, in Massachusetts and that she is a popular and much loved yoga teacher. However, I had no Idea how much she has contributed to the yoga community and how well respected she is.
Patricia’s own history with yoga began when she met Mr. Iyengar at his yoga class during his second North American Tour in 1976. Instead of feeling frightened or intimidated by Mr. Iyengar, as others sometimes were during the class, she felt “seen” and hence accepted by him. This was a profound experience for Patricia . She made her first trip to Pune, India just months after meeting Mr. Iyengar and has continued to visit every year since then. (www.yogajournal.com/wisdom/2515) Patricia states in an article in the Yoga Journal that “Under Iyengar’s guidance she made peace with her self-perceived shortcomings and learned a new way of being in the world—and sharing it with others.” (http://life.gaiam.com/article/patricia-walden-bio-yoga-saved-her-life) She is one of the most well respected yoga teachers in the United States and was honored by Yoga Journal in 2004 as one of the “25 American Yoga Originals who are shaping yoga today”. She has also co-authored several books and created many DVDs. Her most popular DVD being Yoga for Beginners, the best class you’ll ever take is now on video.
In 2003 Patricia Walden opened the BKS Iyengar Yogamala center at St. Mary’s Church in Cambridge. The yoga center (without walls) is for people with different levels of physical ability and belief systems and is dedicated to the work and teachings of Sri B.K.S. Iyengar. Iyengar himself learned hatha yoga from his brother-in-law and yoga master Sri T. Krishnamacharya. He was very rigorous and hard on Iyengar, who was a weak and sickly young man, because he did not want to teach him. He agreed to take him on as a student only because his wife, Iyengar’s sister, asked him to. Krishnamacharya forced Iyengar to perfect each pose in order to improve his physical health. After eight years of intense study of the physical poses with Sri T. Krishnamacharya, in 1936 Iyengar began teaching yoga.
Before describing my class experience at the Yogamala Center, I wanted to add some of the history of St. Mary’s church to give a sense of the heritage and unique energy of the Center. In my research I found St. Mary's acquired the church, home to the First Universalist Church, in 1954. It is the second oldest church building in Cambridge. St. Mary's Parish is currently located at 8 Inman Street in Cambridge. However, the church building originally graced the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Main Street, approximately one half-mile from its current location. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, The Universalist congregation had the entire building moved from its original location. The reason for this move is lost in the mists of history. But the moving process which was quite extraordinary for the time drew reporters from far and wide and was recorded for history. The original building was cut into two pieces, front and back. The pieces were levered onto two huge flat-bed carts and hitched to a long train of draft horses. The caravan proceeded at a slow pace one half mile down Massachusetts Avenue to its current location on 8 Inman Street. Along the way, newly strung telegraph cables had to be cut to allow for the passage of the tall structures. A basement foundation a level-and-a -half deep had been excavated and the church was reassembled atop the stone preparations. Sometime before St. Mary’s acquisition of the church, hurricane winds had toppled the landmark steeple and the cost of its replacement was prohibitive. That, coupled with the fact that by 1954 the Universalist congregation had dwindled to a few individuals, provided the opportunity for the parish of St. Mary’s to acquire the church and use it to service in the Orthodox worship of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which it continues to do today.
As I set out to walk to class, I was imagining the serene and peaceful setting that I would be walking into. I was anticipating a blissful experience of flowing, relaxing asana poses and breathing exercises. However, as soon as I walked through the front door and into the room, I quickly realized that the class was not what I had imagined it would be. Although I had arrived early, there was already a large group of people in the room. Along the sides of the room there was some pre-class instruction and demonstration taking place between Patricia and her student assistants and the energy pace was bustling and high. I watched as people busily gathered the various props that they would need for the class and then, following their lead, I gathered my own set of props. I chose two blocks, a strap, two blankets and a bolster pillow thinking surely this would be enough. I observed that the large groups of people attending class were made up of various age groups, fitness levels and sizes. The females outnumbered the males. The yoga outfits were just as varied but primarily simple yoga pants or shorts and tee shirts, nothing fancy. As I sat and watched the action happening around me, I found myself wondering when quiet would finally come into the room so we could begin. The yoga room is large and simple yet manages to be warm and inviting at the same time. The warmth of the wooden floor and the natural light streaming in through the windows contributed to the comfort of the room.
My first view of Patricia Walden was when she came to the front of the room to begin class. She is a tall, slender woman with a matter-of-fact energetic personality and a great sense of humor. Patricia began the class by discussing the focus of our physical work together for the evening. The theme for this first class was working through what she called inertia of the body and mind by doing “tapas”. Tapa means doing something with zeal or lots of energy. She instructed us to keep asking ourselves with each pose “can I do this without too much aggression or without overworking myself”? She reminded us of two ways to warm the body at the beginning of our practice. Heat is created by pressing the hands together and also by focusing on the inhalation of the breath. The class started with the invocation chants of Om and after that we were instructed to go to the wall for dog pose. We used the props to assist us in the proper alignment of the pose. It was a challenge for me to incorporate the use of these props in the poses since I have not done so in the past. Throughout the practice that evening the props were used as an aid in obtaining the proper alignment in the pose. I have never used yoga props before in a class and even though I know they are helpful they just felt like they were in the way. Yet I did feel drawn to Iyengar yoga’s approach to working with the poses to develop physical strength and stamina. I felt a sense of empowerment in trying to create a strong and flexible body by trying to perfect a pose instead of just flowing into the next asana pose. Our culture in the United States promotes the idea of strength and power of the body through various forms of media and the idea that fit strong bodies are the ideal bodies are engrained in my mind. Therefore, I could feel the urge to join in the quest for the perfect alignment of a pose and to develop the physical body.
In important discovery for me about the Iyengar style of yoga is that there is no or very little flow. For example, flow is defined as moving from one pose to another without pausing to perfect each pose or using a fluid transition from one pose to the next in conjunction with either an inhale or exhale of breath. In Iyengar style yoga the poses are held for a long period of time while the alignment is perfected. My research confirmed that the focus in Iyengar yoga is on perfecting the proper alignment of each asana to obtain physical and curative effects. Even though the cardiovascular experience is less intense, the poses are strenuous and do build body strength, and increase flexibility. Iyengar yoga practice can bring yoga within the reach of a broader population and it can be a great place to start for people who are not physically fit enough to do a flow style practice. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Iyengar continues to be one of the most popular styles of yoga.
Although the practice room is in a church, I found this type of yoga practice was lacking a spiritual focus. The meditative, soothing and relaxing quality that I had experience in other classes did not seem to be present. The church itself is a very pleasing, soothing structure and I was expecting that when I went into the building.
Culturally, Iyengar style yoga is a more acceptable form of yoga because of its physical athletic poses and because the spiritual part is not promoted. It seems to me from my experience of the two classes I have attended with Patricia Walden that Iyengar yoga is more physical rather than spiritual. In fact in the article the Analysis of Yoga Practice: BR. Smith (2007) he states that “most of the metaphysical doctrine, even the ethical assumptions of Iyengar’s teaching, are found in his publications and not taught overtly in classes.” (Smith, B.R., p. 307) In conclusion, I think that the theories of yoga and the manner in which Sri T. Krishnamacharya taught Iyengar resulted in the the curative and physical nature of Iyenger’s teaching style.