It was with some trepidation that Yoga Sleuth entered James Murphy’s Level 4 class at the Iyengar Yoga Institute. James is not only the director of the Iyengar Association of Greater New York, but an Intermediate Senior III (that’s kind of like being a starting pitcher of the worldwide Iyengar all-star team).
It was tough. You don’t go to a Level 4 class unless you’ve been practicing with Iyengar teachers for a long time. Sleuth has been at it for about 10 years. This was my first Level 4 class.
It’s not that the asanas we took in class were complicated. But uncomplicated doesn’t mean the class was simple or easy, by any means.
It is clear that James starts out with an expectation that students in this class will know the poses called. There was no demonstration and it was apparent that if we had an injury or needed to adapt a pose for some reason our practices were mature enough that we could find the alternatives we needed.
James had us start sitting in Sukhasana. He asked us to observe our postures fully. He wanted us to compare the heights of our shoulders and sit with a long length of the spine, keeping our own curves for a complete sense of the back body. After chanting the “Invocation to Patanjali,” we went to the wall and took a vigorous series of Adho Mukha Vrksasanas, held for about a minute to two minutes each.
As we held these poses, James, a combination of graceful ex-dancer and military drill sergeant, chided us to challenge our senses of feeling with our eyes. To find symmetry in the poses. To watch what parts of our bodie were working harder and where we were not putting any effort.
With strapped ankles we held Vajrasana, with the tops of the feet on the floor, and then flexed feet for what seemed like a half hour. All the while we did Gomukhasana, Garudasana, and other arm variations to open our shoulders and free our necks. Each minute, we observed our alignment and watched the patterns of our thoughts, going deeper with each breath.
In each pose, James asked us to find the "place of balance." In Uttanasana, rocking back and forth on our feet finding the midline. Examining the equal weight on our hands and feet on four different variations of a strenuously held Adho Mukha Svanasanas.
He also extolled us to “go go go” further and further in every pose. Instead of backing off, he asked his students to immerse themselves in the asana more and more.
Sleuth recognized many Iyengar teachers in the room. James kept enthusiastically suggesting that they sharpen their poses, dropping the buttocks more and more in twists so that the lift of the spine could be more vibrant. In fact, I felt like a corkscrew was pulling a cork out of the bottleneck of my spine as we did Bharadvajasana and Marichyasana III. They were among the deepest poses I had ever taken.
In Sirsasana, we took our habitual hand-clasping first, twisting with both legs straight. Then we came down and took the opposite clasp. I noticed how different the two were. And, as I twisted again, this time with outstretched legs, I noticed the asymmetry of weight on my shoulders much more.
After two hours of going at my asana practice full-on, it was time for a rest. Viparita Karani never felt quite so sublime.
After a short Savasana, Sleuth got up and was immediately congratulated by my friends in the room. I had done it. I had conquered my fear of Level 4 Iyengar yoga. A virgin in this territory, no more but a beginner again, I was filled with the realization that the further you go in yoga, the more there is to learn and the higher the mountain rises.
—B. Erica Spraos for Yoga Sleuth
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