Iyengar Yoga 101: What Is It, Health Benefits & How To Practice
While Iyengar might not be as common a name as vinyasa or yin, it's actually the most widely practiced (and arguably the most accessible) style of yoga in the world. But what makes it different from other types—and why is it so loved by beginners and advanced yogis alike? Below is everything you need to know about Iyengar yoga, along with tips you need to start practicing it for yourself.
First, what is Iyengar yoga?
Iyengar is a form of hatha yoga that focuses on proper alignment and precise technique. Through slower movements and an emphasis on quality over quantity, Iyengar yoga combines asanas (poses) and pranayama (breath) to build strength, stamina, and flexibility.
Founded by B.K.S. Iyengar in the 1960s (and later popularized with his book, Light on Yoga), Iyengar yoga is based on the yoga sutras and works to strengthen the connection between body and mind. "Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured," Iyengar once said. He believed that a balanced body led to a balanced mind—hence Iyengar yoga's unique blend of both meditation and movement.
What are the health benefits?
There are a lot of reasons people choose to practice Iyengar yoga, including its many physical, mental, and psychological health benefits. These are seven of the most common ones as shown by scientific research:
Holding each pose for longer (often upward of a minute) will strengthen and tone your muscles. Standing postures, in particular—like tree pose or warrior 2—can help increase the strength of your lower body and core.
Yoga, in general, is known for improving flexibility—and Iyengar is no exception. A study found that after just six weeks of practicing Iyengar, participants saw a significant increase in their spine and hamstring flexibility.
With its strong focus on alignment, a regular Iyengar practice can help you develop better posture. It focuses on correcting weaker or stiffer areas of your body, especially in your neck and back.
Boosts energy levels.
One study—which analyzed the effects of Iyengar on patients with chronic respiratory disease—revealed that by practicing yoga, the patients noticed a marked decrease in their fatigue. This could be due to the release of endorphins or increased blood flow to your brain.
Decreases stress and anxiety.
Iyengar yoga increases the production of a mood-boosting chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in your brain, a recent study discovered. Participants in the study reported lower levels of anxiety and better overall well-being after three months of Iyengar yoga.
Reduces chronic pain.
A lot of chronic pain is caused by improper alignment, whether it's slouching or slumping. Iyengar realigns your body (especially in your neck, back, and spine) which, according to research, can dramatically reduce aches and pains.
Lowers blood pressure.
Scientists have found that Iyengar yoga triggers the relaxation response in your body (as opposed to the fight-or-flight response). This both slows your heart rate and decreases your blood pressure, both of which can keep your heart healthy and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
How to practice.
To practice this style of yoga at home, you'll first need to create a sequence using the over 200 different poses and 14 breathing techniques that exist in Iyengar. While you can mix and match the poses as you choose, Iyengar yoga typically starts with a meditative warm-up, followed by standing postures, and then ending with restorative, supine poses.
Many Iyengar classes also have a "peak pose" that dictates which postures you choose to practice leading up to it. For example, if your peak pose is eagle pose, your sequence may include more one-legged balancing postures to prep your body whereas if your peak pose is king pigeon, you'll want to include more hip-openers and backbends.
Unlike vinyasa styles of yoga, in Iyengar, you won't flow through poses breath to movement—instead, you'll hold them for an extended period of time. This gives you the chance to get into the correct alignment and then move deeper into each pose.
Props are also incredibly common in an Iyengar class, as they make poses more accessible for beginners. You can use blocks, straps, bolsters, and blankets to help you get into proper alignment.
Another pro tip: There are plenty of resources for practicing Iyengar at home. However, if you've never done Iyengar yoga before, it's worth taking a class at a studio first. All Iyengar teachers must undergo rigorous training and they'll be able to give you guidance and adjustments that you won't get in a home practice.
Who is it good for?
Because it was founded on the belief that yoga should be for everyone, Iyengar yoga is great for anyone of any age or skill level. Plus, of all the different styles, Iyengar is most ideal for people who like variety in their practice, as each class is different (unlike Bikram or Ashtanga, for instance, which have set sequences).
Iyengar is also beneficial for anyone with injuries or chronic pain, thanks to its slower movements and attention to form and alignment.
The bottom line.
No matter who you are, if you're interested in starting (or deepening) your yoga practice, Iyengar yoga is one of your best options. Not only will you get a good physical workout, but you'll also learn to be more mindful and self-aware, both on and off your mat.
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Amanda Tarlton, RYT-200, is a contributing writer for mindbodygreen. She earned a B.S. in Business Management from Wake Forest University and her RYT-200 certification from Yoga Alliance. She is currently a yoga instructor at CorePower Yoga in Baltimore and has previously written for USA Today, Self, Scary Mommy, Taste of Home, Reader's Digest, Fox News, and Girls' Life Magazine. Her sankalpa (her purpose) is to create a space for other people to feel comfortable being their most authentic selves, whether it's through writing or through teaching a sweaty hot yoga class. In addition to writing and teaching, Amanda is also an eating disorder and mental health advocate. She hosts the Baltimore NEDA Walk every year to raise awareness.