Iyengar: a different kind of yoga

Yogis celebrate the opening of the Iyengar Yoga Institute on Sutter Street.

Yogis celebrate the opening of the Iyengar Yoga Institute on Sutter Street.

By Barbara Kate Repa

THE IYENGAR YOGA INSTITUTE of San Francisco, a venerable organization with an imposing moniker, moved to the neighborhood recently in search of an updated space, better access to the community — and a new image.

Iyengar yoga, a style developed by Indian yogi, teacher and author B.K.S. Iyengar, now 95, emphasizes precision and alignment. But the nuances that distinguish it from other forms of yoga are largely lost on much of the public, and sometimes puzzling even to practitioners.

The students in Iyengar classes generally skew older, less outfitted, less frenetic, less apt to text while on their mats awaiting class.

“To be frank, that is a difficulty we face,” says John Hayden, executive director of the institute and a longtime certified instructor. “This culture says to everyone: ‘Give me a quick fix, an operation, a pill. Make me feel better and don’t make me work for it.’ People are looking for a happening, an event — for hot stones on a sternum,” he says. “But the philosophy of yoga is a practice — continued without interruption for a long period. It’s contrary to what the culture now demands. And we’re up against that.”

While Hayden knows firsthand the physical benefits of doing yoga, he says Iyengar runs deeper. “About 95 percent come to yoga from the standpoint of the physical body,” he says. “But those who stay at it 10 to 30 years do it because they know it is a spiritual, transformational practice.”

The local Iyengar Yoga Institute, now located at 2201 Sutter Street at Pierce, is one of three in the country; the others are in Los Angeles and New York. All focus on teacher training, yoga workshops and public classes.

“The rub I also get is that Iyengar Yoga in particular is too cerebral, too serious,” Hayden acknowledges. “We have some tendency to act as if we’re the only ones who know how.”

The arrogance comes honestly. Iyengar Yoga Institute instructors endure a rigorous training process of daily practice combined with a year of study of poses, anatomy, physiology and philosophy — and that’s only the first level teachers. They are judged in a series of evaluations in which others observe them teaching and in practice. Most other types of yoga instructors are given the green light to teach after only 200 hours or less of classroom instruction.

“It’s a brilliant system because it puts you in the position of a pressure cooker: Who you are and what you know has to come out,” Hayden says. “Our organization had the first yoga teacher training in the United States. There is no question of the value and integrity of who we are and what we do.”

Patty Dinner, a longtime neighborhood resident and a certified instructor at the institute who has been teaching yoga for 12 years, admits she found the teacher training much tougher than the mental gymnastics required to get through the Haas Business School at UC Berkeley.

But she says the rigorous training is what differentiates Iyengar from other styles of yoga — that, and the common use of props such as belts, blocks and blankets that help emphasize proper alignment.

“A lot of people don’t like Iyengar as much initially because of the emphasis on alignment. And a lot of people call it Nazi yoga because it’s a real discipline. But the discipline is imposed to help prevent you from hurting yourself while doing yoga,” Dinner says.

She also agrees that those attracted to Iyengar usually crave more than a toned physique. “It takes a bit of maturity to embrace a yoga that’s not in a gym and offers a spiritual practice,” she says. “But fairly immediately, the newer students I teach are okay with the quiet nature of lying over a bolster for 10 minutes.”

Years ago, in a former life, John Hayden was a building contractor specializing in constructing custom homes in Big Sur. His last big project took two and a half years — and a toll on his psyche.

To recoup, he took time off to tour the country and pursue his love of rock climbing. It was then that he was introduced to yoga, and in the most prosaic way: by a magazine article that touted its ability to build strength and balance.

He dabbled in various forms of yoga, but eventually became a certified Iyengar instructor. He opened a studio in Carmel, but traveled to the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco, then located in the Outer Sunset, to teach and take classes.

“The reason I’ve been willing to donate time, commuting to San Francisco from Carmel twice a week, is because Iyengar Yoga changed my life,” he says. “No — it saved my life.”

Hayden went on the institute’s board and took a seat as vice president in 2007. “I took charge of an organization that was in a serious declining state,” he says. “It was after the dot-com bust, and there was also suddenly all kinds of competition — a yoga studio on every corner.”

The studio at 27th and Taraval was in a declining state, too. “It was located on the corner, and the streetcar went by, which was its worst quality,” recalls Dinner, who taught there for years. “It was also dimly lit, with a leaky acoustical ceiling and a noisy mounted heater. There was nothing attractive about it — not a pleasant place to do yoga.”

The governing body hoped a move to a new space would also help reinvigorate Iyengar’s elitist image.

“We needed to reimagine what the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco could be,” Hayden says. “Relocating was an opportunity for us to practice yoga on ourselves — to find a way we could be less exclusive and more inclusive.”

At length, they set their sights on the Sutter Street space, in the heart of a residential neighborhood and close to the medical community starting to embrace yoga’s therapeutic value.

After six months of negotiations, the lease was signed in May 2012, revealing another type of challenge: The space was filled with construction materials, plywood and insulation. The 120-year-old Douglas fir floor was buried under moldering carpet and three layers of linoleum.

But Hayden, the former contractor, was undeterred as he relocated from Carmel to San Francisco to manage the buildout and structural upgrades. “I walked in and was able to see what it was. I drove a lot of nails in this place,” he says, surveying the spacious, light-filled rooms at the new Sutter Street studio.

The move is already reaping rewards, with classes and workshops attracting both newbies and seasoned practitioners. “Being here in this neighborhood is a huge bonus,” Hayden says. “The other day I was here for two hours for a meeting and I saw 15 people walk in off the street during that time. That didn’t happen in two years on Taraval.”

There is also pride of place, with pristine new equipment and gleaming resurfaced floors. “I want people to come in and say, ‘I didn’t know Iyengar Yoga could be this cool.’ ”

Then a tiny imperfection in the threshold of the doorway catches his eye. “It bothers me that the edge of this concrete is not completely smooth,” he says, turning a little sheepish. “I guess that’s why the Iyengar method appeals to me so much.”

  • Nancy Akter

    Iyengar yoga, is one of the most popular forms of yoga, is particularly well-suited for people with back problems and for people who suffer from stress and want to cope with mental and spiritual stress.

    Nancy
    http://www.ANAMAYARESORT.com

  • abbey hope

    I learned Iyengar yoga at the IY Institute of NY; after 15 years of study I am certified and teaching in Maine. But my brother lives in SF and I can’t wait to visit your new studio!

  • http://www.ddccsf.com/ Diana

    I always wondered why some people gave me a funny look when I said I liked Iyengar Yoga. Now I know it’s because I’m a Nazi :P Great post on the new space!

  • emw12

    I call it Anal Retentive yoga, and I love it!

  • D

    I am pleased for the overall positive tone and the attention this article brings to the method. But I’m disappointed to hear the director nearly apologize. Iyengar teachers are remarkably generous, and maybe it’s the other styles who need to rethink, since venerable, highly-trained iyengar teachers are constantly fixing their mistakes!