Eddie Modestini, a longtime student of B.K.S. Iyengar who will lead Yoga Journal's upcoming online course, Vinyasa 101: The Fundamentals of Flow (sign up now to be the first to know when this essential guide to vinyasa yoga launches), shares the 3 most important lessons he learned from the late guru behind Iyengar Yoga, from not running away from your pain to the importance of skin.
3 Lessons from B.K.S. Iyengar
1. Chase your pain.
Pain is a topic that comes up all the time in yoga. Is it bad? Do we need to hurt ourselves to get someplace in yoga? Not every pose hurts, but some do, and how do we cope when there is pain? If we run from our pain, the pain has the power over us. It’s about turning around and facing our pain when it is there. We need to navigate through our pain intelligently. But instead, we do things to avoid our pain, such as bending our knees in forward bends. This forces the stretch to go higher in the hamstrings — from the pink tissue that stretches (muscle) to the white tissue that doesn’t (tendon) — and it’s one of the reasons why there are so many hamstring tears in yoga.
In addition to risking injury, when we avoid the emotionally agitating pain in the middle of muscle, we are avoiding the Self that we are doing yoga to discover. That agitation is a part of us, and there is something under it that can bring clarity to our understanding of ourselves. To avoid the "back side" of ourselves (as opposed to the joyful front side) is dangerous — it’s like avoiding the mess in the basement and living in the living room, pretending the whole house is clean. The subconscious, or what’s emotionally hidden, can become toxic to us if we don’t work with it — it’s going to surface through our practice, and there is an opportunity here to look at our whole being and discover things we cannot readily see about ourselves.
When I stopped Mr. Iyengar and told him “I’m really hurting in this pose,” the first thing he would say is, “Let me see it.” Then he would assess if the pain was in a safe place or a dangerous place, and what I could discover about myself from this sensation. He would then often start laughing and say, “You’re just avoiding yourself! Go with it. You’re fine.” If the pain was in a dangerous place, he had the intelligence and vision to adjust it so the sensation was in the correct place and say, “Now work there.”
2. You have to play before you stay.
I once read an interview with Mr. Iyengar in which he was asked why he didn’t do Vinyasa style yoga anymore. He responded, “I used to play, now I stay.” Vinyasa yoga is so important for the heat and the movement in the first stages of our yoga practice. It’s extremely beneficial for cultivating strength and flexibility and training the mind. Once we have a flexible body with a mind that’s capable of deep observation because it’s been trained over many years of practice, the longer we stay, the more we can see. This is a very profound teaching that only comes through time.
Vinyasa yoga really targets the connective tissue and the stiffness of modern culture. But in later years, after many years of practice, Mr. Iyengar stayed in poses for extremely long periods of time to work on quieting his whole being. (At 90, Mr. Iyengar told Yoga Journal he was still holding Headstand for half an hour). Vinyasa yoga balances the body and mind; once the body is balanced and the mind is clear, then staying in poses for a long time is healthy. But to stay in poses for a long time before the body is balanced might be dangerous, as it can put pressure in the wrong places.
3. Watch the skin.
It’s important for us to observe the skin in our practice, because the skin can reveal what is happening under the surface. The first thing we look for is how the skin is stretching over the joints. We look at how the pores are being pulled (a deeper way to see which way the skin is stretching), and where the wrinkles are (another way to see how the skin is stretching). The way the skin stretches is different for everyone, but it should always be pulled in the direction of balancing all the joints so the pressure is in the middle. If the joint is to the left and the skin is being pulled to the left, that’s not balanced.
Skin color is also important. If skin turns white, that means there’s no blood there. Redness can be a red flag also, because it indicates a concentration of blood. Fleshy pink is ideal as it indicates balance.
Eddie Modestini is the co-director and co-owner of Maya Yoga Studio in Maui. Want to learn more ways to injury-proof your practice, whether you're a teacher or a student? Sign up for Modestini's upcoming Vinyasa 101 course, which will cover the anatomy of the spine, how to adapt asana for various body types, and much more.