Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 58* out of 60*

Tiriang Mukhottanasana (Intense Backbend Stretch)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 60* out of 60*

Ruchikasana (Leg Behind Head Forward Fold Pose or Pose Dedicated to Ruchika)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 18* out of 60*

Durvasana (Standing Leg Behind Head Pose or Pose Dedicated to Durvasa)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 21* out of 60*

Vatayanasana (Horse Face Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 11* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Sit on the floor. Bend your L knee, externally rotate your hip, and place your foot against the root of your R thigh in half lotus (Ardha Padma) position.
  2. Place your hands on the floor beside your hips. On an exhale, lift yourself up and place your L knee on the floor and your R foot close to your L knee. Keep your R thigh parallel to the floor (in other words, R hip at the same height as R knee).
  3. Move your pelvis forward rather than allowing your hips to sink back and down. Lift your hands off the floor and extend your spine to become as upright as possible.
  4. Bend your elbows and raise your arms to chest-height. Wrap your L arm under your R arm so that your elbows cross. Then bring your hands towards one another and place your R fingers on your L palm. Your arms are now intertwined.
  5. Remain in this shape for 30 seconds. Balance and breathe normally.
  6. Release yourself back down to the floor slowly and carefully before attempting the other side.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar is capable of placing his R heel right next to his L knee. I cannot do this without lifting my heel and externally rotating my R leg dramatically. Some of this may be anatomical and impossible to change; my femurs (upper legs) are relatively long compared to my tibias (lower legs). With his longer tibia, notice how Iyengar is able to flex his ankle and rest the top of his foot on his opposite thigh. I cannot do this because my ankle falls well below my thigh.
  • Though it's hard to tell from the pictures above, I am letting my hips move backwards somewhat to assist my balance and protect my weak knee. Staying more upright, as Iyengar suggests in his technique, is a struggle but deepens the stretch and creates a stronger balance in the long run.
  • Iyengar is relaxing his elbows down below his GH (shoulder) joints. I am actively lifting my elbows up to shoulder-height or higher.

Garudasana (Eagle Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 1* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana. Bend your knees slightly.
  2. Bring your L leg over your R thigh. Rest the back of your L thigh on top of your R thigh.
  3. Tuck your L foot behind your R calf. Touch your L shin to your R calf and subtly hook your L big toe inside and above your R ankle. Your legs are now intertwined.
  4. Balance in this shape on your R foot.
  5. Bend your elbows and raise your arms to chest-height. Wrap your L arm under your R arm so that your elbows cross. Then bring your hands towards one another and place your R fingers on your L palm. Your arms are now intertwined.
  6. Remain in this position for 15-20 seconds. With deep breathing. Return to Tadasana before attempting the other side.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar is allowing his hips to turn and shifting his weight to one side in order to wrap his lifted leg. I typically attempt to keep my hips square and distribute the rotational forces of this pose evenly between both legs.
  • I usually attempt to deepen this pose by bending my knees more, sitting lower, and working to keep my spine relatively extended. It's hard to tell whether Iyengar is doing the same, or whether he is actually emphasizing standing tall in the shape.

Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana (Half Bound Lotus Standing Forward Fold Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 9* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana. Engage your quadriceps to tighten your kneecaps.
  2. On an inhale, raise your R leg and bend your knee. Externally rotate your R leg in the hip socket until you can put your leg into the half lotus position - the knife edge of your R foot resting on or above your L hip crease, with the sole of your foot facing straight up. You may need to use your hands to help maneuver your R foot into place.
  3. Hold your R foot in place with your L hand. Then bring your R arm behind your back and catch hold of your R big toe with your index finger, middle finger, and thumb.
  4. Release your L hand from your R foot. On an exhale, fold forward at the hips and place your L hand on the floor next to your L foot. Lift your chest and keep your spine in extension; "make the back as concave as possible."
  5. On an exhale, fold deeper and rest your head or chin on your L knee or shin.
  6. If you cannot rest your whole palm on the floor, start with fingertips and gradually progress down onto your palm over time. Similarly, you may only be able to touch your forehead to your knee at first; as you continue to practice, progress towards the tip of your nose, then your lips and finally your chin.
  7. After a few deep breaths, inhale and straighten your L arm, returning to step #4. Breathe here.
  8. Rise up, then slowly release your R hand from your foot, lift your R leg out of half lotus, and return to Tadasana.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar is able to externally rotate his R leg more than I. As a result, my R knee is in front of my hip socket. His R knee is on the same plane as his hip socket. Do not assume this means he is doing the pose "better." These comparisons are observations without any judgement! Excessive external rotation is not necessarily a good thing; every individual has a differently-shaped bones in their legs and pelvis. Attempting to externally rotate beyond the range your bones allow is not only fruitless, it can be deleterious to your hip labrum. And even if your bones aren't stopping you from going further, aggressively pursuing deeper and deeper shapes can sometimes be an expression of resistance or lack of awareness, rather than a sign of progress on the path.
  • My toes and arches are far more active than Iyengar's.
  • Iyengar has chosen to extend his neck so that his chin moves towards his shin. I have chosen to flex my neck and bring my whole face closer to my shin.

Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 6* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana.
  2. On an exhale, fold forward at your hips. Place your L hand on the back of your R ankle. Place your R palm on the floor next to your R foot. Rest your chin and chest on your R knee or shin.
  3. Lift your L leg as high as possible. Engage your quadriceps and tighten your kneecaps to keep your legs straight and strong. Your L leg will attempt to externally rotate so that your knee and toes point to the side; attempt to minimize this.
  4. Remain in the pose for about 20 seconds with even breathing.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar has less external rotation in his lifted leg than I.
  • Like most other forward folding poses, Iyengar's legs are straighter than mine. At the time of this shoot, I would microbend my knees to avoid hyperextension and inflammation in the posterior knee capsule and popliteus muscle.
  • My weight is further forward on my foot, which has allowed me to fold deeper over my standing leg.
  • Iyengar is resting his chin on his shin and maintaining a curve in his cervical spine. I am touching my forehead to my shin and flattening my cervical spine. Neither is necessarily wrong, but in general, I tend to think maintaining that curve - as Iyengar is doing - is a better bet.

Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold or Intense Stretch Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 8* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana. Engage your quadriceps to tighten your kneecaps.
  2. On an exhale, fold forward at your hips. Place your fingers on the floor. With your legs still straight, move your hands back until your palms approach the floor behind your heels.
  3. Lift your head and stretch your spine into extension - a concave, backbend-like position. Shift your hips and weight forward so that your hips are directly above your ankles.
  4. Remain in this shape for two deep breaths.
  5. On an exhale, fold forward and rest your head on your knees or shins.
  6. Take just a few breaths before exiting the way you entered.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar's leg bones are not vertical - his hips are somewhat behind his heels. This is not necessarily a problem, but for me, it increases strain and likelihood of hyperextension if overdone. By shifting my hips forward and allowing more weight to rest in the front of my feet, I distribute the stretch more evenly between my hamstrings and calves.

Padahastasana (Hand Under Foot Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 6* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana. Separate your feet about 1 foot.
  2. On an exhale, fold forward at your hips. Without bending your knees, place your hands under your feet with your palms facing up and touching your soles.
  3. Lift your head and stretch your spine into extension - a concave, backbend-like position. Originate this backbend from the tailbone and emphasize anterior pelvic tilt.
  4. With your legs stiff, bend your elbows and fold forward more until your head is between your legs. Leverage yourself into the shape by pulling your palms up into your soles.
  5. Breathe evenly for about 20 seconds.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar's legs are truly straight. I have a tiny bend in my knees to avoid hyperextension and pain behind the knee joint. Since this photo was taken, I have learned how to use muscle engagement in the hamstrings and calves to straighten the legs completely with no ill effects.
  • Iyengar is able to fold into this position more deeply than I. His hands are so far beneath his feet that he curls his fingers up and around the outside of his ankles.

Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 3* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana. Separate your feet about 1 foot.
  2. On an exhale, fold forward at your hips. Hold your big toes between your thumbs and first two fingers, palms facing in towards one another.
  3. Lift your head and stretch your spine into extension - a concave, backbend-like position. Originate this backbend from the tailbone and emphasize anterior pelvic tilt.
  4. With your legs stiff, bend your elbows and fold forward more until your head is between your legs. Pull up on your toes but keep them resting on the floor.
  5. Breathe evenly for about 20 seconds.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar's legs are truly straight. I have a tiny bend in my knees to avoid hyperextension and pain behind the knee joint. Since this photo was taken, I have learned how to use muscle engagement in the hamstrings and calves to straighten the legs completely with no ill effects.
  • Iyengar's weight is closer to his heels, which causes his femurs to angle back and his hips to remain behind his midfoot in space. My weight is towards the front of my feet, which keeps my hip sockets directly above my midfoot.

Utkatasana (Chair or Formidable Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 2* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana. Stretch your arms straight overhead and join your palms.
  2. On an exhale, bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  3. Rather than folding forward, keep your chest back and your spine straight and tall.
  4. Remain in this pose, balance, and breathe for up to 30 seconds.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar's knees are way in front of his ankles! This alters his center of gravity and allows him to move deeper into this pose than I can. My primary limitation is at the ankles, which simply don't want to dorsiflex that much.
  • To assist me in balancing, I'm drawing up on my toes and the transverse arches of my feet. Iyengar's feet are much more relaxed and soft.

Parighasana (Gate Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 4* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Kneel on the floor with your ankles together.
  2. Stretch your R leg out to the R. Place the sole of your R foot on the floor with your toes pointed out to the side. Tighten your quadriceps to keep your leg strong and straight. Keep your leg in the same plane as your L knee and your torso.
  3. Extend your arms to the sides. Keep them at shoulder height.
  4. Exhale and bend your torso sideways to the R. Turn your R palm to face up and rest your forearm and wrist on your shin and ankle. Let your R ear rest on your upper arm.
  5. Reach your L arm up alongside your head until it touches your L ear. Deepen until your palms touch.
  6. Breathe normally here for 30 to 60 seconds.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar and I have remarkably similar form here. The largest difference is that his sidebend is slightly more compact and integrated (energy drawing in), while mine is more extended (energy shooting out). His chest is also angled down, while mine is angled up.

Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 4* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana.
  2. On an inhale, place your hands on your waist and step or jump your legs apart 4.5 to 5 feet.
  3. Tighten your quadriceps and draw your kneecaps up. On an exhale, fold forward at your hip joints and place your palms on the floor directly beneath your shoulders.
  4. Inhale and lift your gaze. Maintain spinal extension (keep your back concave and your chest lifting forward and up).
  5. On an exhale, bend your elbows and rest the crown of your head on the floor, keeping weight in your legs. Adjust your head and palms so that they are directly between your feet (feet, palms, and head in a straight line).
  6. Remain in this pose for 30 seconds. Breathe deeply and evenly.
  7. To exit, inhale, raise your head from the floor, and straighten your arms as you return to Step #4.
  8. Exhale and stand, returning to Step #2.
  9. Jump back to Tadasana.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar's stance is wider than mine, and his femurs are more internally rotated. Internal rotation of the femurs helps broaden the back of the pelvis, permitting deeper forward folds without rounding the spine. However, excessive internal rotation may increase the potential for irritation at the hamstring attachments, hip labrum, and ankles. I have chosen relatively neutral femurs for this shot, meaning a clear balance between internal and external rotation.
  • Iyengar has tucked his chin towards his chest in order to place the back of his head on the floor. I have placed the crown of my head down and am emphasizing length and release in the neck.
  • My hands are not where Iyengar's instructions suggest - on a straight line between the feet. Instead, I have moved my hands back behind my heels. This allows me to maintain 90-degree angles in my shoulders and elbows, and also keeps my elbows from splaying out. These choices decrease tension in my neck and upper back.

Parsvottanasana (Pyramid or Intense Side Stretch Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 6* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana. Stretch your chest forward and arch your back.
  2. Join your palms behind your back and "draw the shoulders and elbows back." Then turn your wrists and bring your fingertips up to the level of your shoulder blades, as if you were gesturing "namaste" behind your back.
  3. Turn to the side and jump your legs apart 3 to 3.5 feet.
  4. Turn your hips and chest 90 degrees to the R. Turn your R foot out 90 degrees and L foot and leg 75 or 80 degrees to the R. Keep your legs stretched strong and "throw the head back."
  5. Fold forward and rest your head on your R knee. Stretch your spine longer and longer so that your nose, then lips, then chin touch your R shin. "Tighten both legs by pulling the knee-caps up." In other words, engage your quadriceps.
  6. Stay here for 20-30 seconds.
  7. Then, remaining in a folded position, swing your head and chest around to your L leg. At the same time, turn your L foot out 90 degrees and your R foot and leg in 75 to 80 degrees, so that you are in the full pose on the other side. Now lift your chest and head upright and into a big backbend. Do everything in step 7 on one inhalation (good luck)!
  8. Fold forward and repeat the instructions listed in steps 5-6, only this time on the other side.
  9. Swing your chest and head back around as in step 7, then return to Tadasana.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar's R leg is completely straight and at the end of its range of motion. In my picture, I'm "microbending" my R knee in an effort to avoid hyperextension and posterior knee pain. In the time since this picture was taken, I've learned how to activate my muscles in such a way that I can skip the microbend with no adverse effects.
  • Iyengar's forearms are resting against his back. My forearms are several inches away from my back. This is either because my wrists are much less elastic than Mr. Iyengar's, or he is being less diligent about keeping his palms pressed together than I am. From the photo, it's difficult to tell.

Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand To Big Toe Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 16* out of 60*

Note: due to a technical mixup, we didn't end up taking a picture of the final form of Iyengar's Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana! The pictures above are of a prep pose achieved by following steps 1-4 below. Steps 5 and beyond will guide you towards the final form.

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Stand in Tadasana.
  2. Raise your R leg, bend your R knee, and hold your R big toe between your thumb and fore and middle fingers on the R hand.
  3. Rest your L hand on your L hip. Take two breaths.
  4. Stretch your R leg forward while resisting by pulling back with your arm.
  5. Then wrap both hands around your R heel and lift your leg higher.
  6. Keeping your leg lifting, bow forward and rest your head, then nose, then chin on your R shin.
  7. Take a few deep breaths, then return to Tadasana.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar looks much more relaxed than I do! This pose is strenuous for me this early in a sequence. I often need more time and warmth for my leg muscles to release.

Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 5* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Assume the final form of Utthita Trikonasana with the R leg forward.
  2. Bend your R knee deeply and move your L foot forward so that you can place your R palm on the floor in front of your R foot. Take two breaths.
  3. Lift your straight, strong L leg away from the floor by pushing into and straightening your R leg.
  4. Place your L palm on your L hip and stretch up. Keep your shoulders open and lifted. Turn your chest up and to the L.
  5. Keep your weight in your R foot and hip. Use your hand solely to control your balance.
  6. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then return to Utthita Trikonasana.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar's arms are much longer in proportion to his body than mine. Keeping my palm on the floor was extremely awkward and challenging. I vastly prefer getting a few extra inches of length by balancing on my fingertips.
  • Iyengar's R leg is completely straight and at the end of its range of motion. In my picture, I'm "microbending" my R knee in an effort to avoid hyperextension and posterior knee pain. In the time since this picture was taken, I've learned how to activate my muscles in such a way that I can skip the microbend with no adverse effects.
  • Iyengar is plantarflexing (pointing) with his L ankle. I'm dorsiflexing (the opposite of pointing). I was always taught to dorsiflex in this pose, and I like what it does to activate the muscles of my lower leg. But now I'm curious to try plantarflexion and see how that feels.

Virabhadrasana III (Warrior 3 Pose)

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 5* out of 60*

Iyengar's Technique:

  1. Assume the final form of Virabhadrasana 1 with the R leg forward.
  2. Bend forward and rest your chest on your R thigh. Keep your arms straight and palms together. Take two breaths.
  3. On an exhale, simultaneously lift your L leg and push down to straighten your R leg, "making it stiff as a poker."
  4. Turn your L leg inward so that the front of your thigh is faces straight towards the floor.
  5. "While balancing, the whole body (except the right leg) is to be kept parallel to the floor. The right leg, which should be fully stretched and stiff, should be kept perpendicular to the floor. Pull the back of the right thigh and stretch the arms and the left leg as if two persons are pulling you from either end."
  6. Hold for 20-30 seconds, then return to Virabhadrasana I.

Comparing Forms:

  • Iyengar's R leg is completely straight and at the end of its range of motion. In my picture, I'm "microbending" my R knee in an effort to avoid hyperextension and posterior knee pain. In the time since this picture was taken, I've learned how to activate my muscles in such a way that I can skip the microbend with no adverse effects.
  • Iyengar's toes on the back leg are flaring strongly. I'm pointing my toes. I play with both depending upon the day, but I find that pointing my toes often gives me a little more power and control in my quadriceps muscles.

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior 1 Pose)

virabhadrasana-i-yoga-pose-iyengar

Iyengar's difficulty rating: 3* out of 60*

Look at that pose! From where I stand, this image of Iyengar in Warrior 1 is among the most striking photographs in Light On Yoga. It's also one of my favorite postures to practice. And yet, for many students it seems to be a painful, inaccessible mystery: it hurts their low backs, it tweaks their hips or knees, and it seems impossible to go deep... might as well just do a lunge with the back heel up, right?

I used to feel the same way. Then I made one little change that blew this pose wide open for me: I stopped listening to teachers telling me to “square the hips.”

To square the hips in Virabhadrasana 1, most students (including myself) try to bring the hip point of the back leg forward and inward. This action tends to cut off the stretch and energy flow through the back leg, like a kink in a garden hose. That action may also torque the knee by forcing the thigh to internally rotate while the shin externally rotates to keep the heel on the ground. What to do? Most students simply shorten their stance. This might make the hips easier to square and solve the torque problem, but in my experience, it may irritate the low back and diminish some of the strengthening and energetic benefits of the posture.

Iyengar doesn't say anything about square hips. He does say to “stretch out the (back) leg and tighten at the knee.” When I begin focusing on this stretching action and stop obsessing over perfectly square hips, Warrior 1 blossoms.

When I teach the pose nowadays, I encourage my classes to keep the pelvis roughly square, yet emphasize stretching out and externally rotating the back femur in its socket. Given these instructions, students report all sorts of breakthroughs: no more back and knee pain, lovely opening in the psoas and hip flexors, deeper access to breath through the chest, and much more.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating getting all sloppy and loose in Warrior 1. I've simply stopped caring whether my hips are truly square... and started focusing on creating a powerful, steady arc that moves from an open position (in the outside edge of my back foot) to a forward-facing position (in my upper chest).

Some teachers and yoga therapists might be squawking right now. “But your SI joints!” they're saying.

I'm not a prescriptive sort of instructor. I suggest certain alignment principles not because I think I'm objectively "right," but rather because I believe these cues may give you access to new sensations, ideas and sources of strength and ease. I've found overwhelming success with this form in my own practice and teaching. For me – right now – practicing Warrior 1 this way is “better.” But if you think this version of Virabhadrasana 1 doesn't suit you or your students, more power to you. Experiment and find your own answers! That's all I'm doing.

And that's what this is really about. I'm not interested in “rules” in yoga. My experience tells me that the only constant in my life is change, and that's why I'm interested in discernment. I'm interested in figuring out what works – what empowers – what transmits.

How to improve your Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose):

  • Take a long stance, then stretch out through your back leg and activate your quadriceps like you mean it! Explore this action in postures like Virabhadrasana (Warrior 2 Pose), Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), and Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Flank Stretch or Pyramid Pose)
  • Open your quadriceps and hip flexors with postures like Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) and Supta Virasana (Reclined Hero Pose)
  • Strengthen your back body – from glutes to upper spine – with postures like Makarasana (Monster Pose), Salabhasana (Locust Pose), and Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3 Pose)
  • Expand your chest and open your upper spine with postures like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-facing Dog Pose), Paryankasana (Couch Pose), and Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose).

Virabhadrasana 1 (Warrior 1 Pose) prepares you for:

  • Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose) and many other backbends
  • Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Flank Stretch or Pyramid Pose), Urdhva Prasarita Ekapadasana (Standing Splits), and many other forward folds
  • Pretty much every arm balance and twist
  • Okay, this pose prepares you for nearly everything.

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2 Pose)

Virabhadrasana II (Warrior 2 Pose)

Attempting the shapes of yoga poses (and nothing more) can provide a great deal of benefit to lots of people. But my style as a practitioner and teacher is all about going deeper than that (eventually). It's about engaging subtler actions, discovering different nuances and methods.

I believe that practicing the shapes of yoga is body literacy; safely deepening and playing with those shapes is body fluency. And the more fluent we become in the languages of our bodies, the more we can understand them – and make peace with them.

With that in mind, Warrior 2 is a great foundational pose where lots of fluency-building work can be done. Lately I've been playing with its power as a deep hip opener similar to Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose).

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