Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Hate yoga that’s too hard? Iyengar makes it easy on your body

Iyengar is all about making yoga easier so it is accessible for all, but don't expect a chatty, touchy-feely experience.
Suzette Garza uses a rope, anchored to the wall, to ‘open’ her back and chest. Courtesy Samar Al Sayed
Suzette Garza uses a rope, anchored to the wall, to ‘open’ her back and chest. Courtesy Samar Al Sayed
It doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, but hanging from a simple loop of a rope suspended from an iron hook in the wall can do wonders for your body and mind.

That’s what I discovered when I walked into my first Iyengar class three years ago. I had finally found a way to love yoga after struggling through fast-paced, impersonal vinyasa classes surrounded by nimble others, or alone in front of a flat-screen TV at home.

I was amazed that I no longer had to suffer in even basic postures, such as downward dog, since I could simply place the rope around my hips, thereby stretching the back and hamstrings without having to worry about heaviness in the arms.

And that is what Iyengar is all about: making yoga easier so it is accessible to all. It was founded by the late B?K?S Iyengar, who has been named among the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Iyengar was sick as a child and developed his method with a focus on using props as a way to heal the body.

When I moved to the UAE recently, I struggled to find teachers, and eventually resorted to travelling to classes in Dubai from my home in Abu Dhabi. But Iyengar is slowly is catching on: there are now at least six teachers in Dubai, with classes available at the Noor Disability Centre and the Exhale Ladies Fitness Centre, but I am still searching for one in the capital.

A warning: if you are used to traditional yoga with chirpy teachers, the Iyengar experience can be a bit jarring. Do not expect banter or music – Iyengar trainers are stern, and serious discipline is their mantra.

While vinyasa-style classes move quickly through numerous poses in a single sequence, in Iyengar, individual classes form part of a larger plan. “Each class focuses on one area in the body,” says Sumaya Dabbagh, who was born in Saudi, raised in London and now lives in Dubai, and who has been teaching Iyengar for almost a decade.

“Such a structure gives students a better understanding of different body parts. People who are attracted to this form of yoga are people who have a desire to get to know their bodies.”

Iyengar emphasises alignment and precision with the help of props, from broomsticks to align shoulders in standing postures, to blocks, chairs and straps for shoulders and legs.

“The use of props allows people at different levels to do the same poses as more advanced students without feeling inadequate,” says Dabbagh. “When I had tried other forms of yoga, I found that the classes were full of young and healthy students. Students who suffer from stiffness or injury, however, would find it very difficult to follow such classes.”

Using blocks means that students with tight hamstrings can hold a pose without having to worry about reaching the floor. Straps around the feet are used in seated forward bends, where emphasis is shifted from reaching the toes to lengthening the back, while blocks are also used to effect challenging inversions, such as bridge pose. I find the techniques allowed me to fully concentrate on aligning my shoulders without having to worry about strain on the thighs and shoulders.

Cecilia Morosi, a self-employed Italian architect in Dubai, joined Iyengar classes in Dubai after suffering from cervical problems for years. “I started off in regular vinyasa classes, but nothing helped my condition like Iyengar yoga, because teachers walk around the class correcting students to ensure that every finger and every angle is correct,” says Morosi. “By contrast, I often felt lost in faster-paced classes, where there was minimal correction. My cervical problems have greatly improved thanks to this huge focus on alignment.”

According to Dabbagh: “Through detailed instruction and emphasis on position, students can experience the various postures with conscious awareness of the body and the mind.”

Of course, Iyengar isn’t for everyone, particularly students who take up yoga for a workout.

“The variety in sequences makes classes interesting for some,” says Dabbagh. “This may not be for students who prefer a repetitive routine.”