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Usha Devi is a reputed Iyengar yoga teacher in Rishikesh who conducts her classes at Patanjala Yoga Kendra. 
She has been living in India since 1985, serving at Omkarananda Ashram in Himalayas. Since 1993, she has been a student of B.K.S. Iyengar. She continued to study with Iyengar Ji until his death, now Usha Devi continues her study with his daughter Gitaji.

In 1998, Usha Devi was in a car accident that inflicted severe injuries. After six month in the hospital being confined in bed, and having undergone numerous operations, she could return to normal physical activities only in 2001 and resume her yoga study with Guruji in Pune. Five years later she has suffered another traffic accident that fractured both her femurs, again forcing her to undergo numerous operations. 

Usha Devi is a source of inspiration for all her students as her vigorous yoga practice helped her regain control over body and recover from these accidents. She has no doubt that the recovery occurred only due to her study with Guruji, his guidance and blessings.

In her classes, Usha Devi is precise and strict. She makes sure that everyone understands and follows the instructions properly. This approach, while appearing harsh at the beginning, delivers astonishing results. Under her continued guidance, students are able to achieve deep levels of understanding and bodily control, and learn lessons of yoga practice that serve them for life. That is the reason why her classes are always full with students who come from all over the world, and intensive courses are booked several months in advance. 

Read TopYogis' interview with Usha Devi

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Certified Iyengar Teacher

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Usha Devi is a legendary Iyengar teacher in Rishikesh. Every person and yoga practitioner in Rishikesh knows this woman that has gained a reputation of being THE teacher one goes to study Iyengar yoga and push their yoga practice beyond current limits.

I have started to go to Usha Devi’s classes about 7 years ago, and now every time I come to Rishikesh I try to study with her. Sometimes her classes are so full that getting there is quite a challenge. But every time I study with her, I confirm again and again that nothing works on the body level as deeply and profoundly as Iyengar yoga as taught by Usha Ji. Before I visited Usha’s class for the first time, I studied with many hatha yoga teachers in Ukraine and in Rishikesh, and they all are great masters, but one cannot help but notice the difference of Usha’s classes as compared to anyone else. She makes your body work much deeper, reach the muscles you did not even know you have, and gain control of the subtlest movements. She makes your mind focused on the task and immensely concentrated during the entire class. And she makes you push your limits in terms of perseverance, flexibility, strength and stamina. When I say “she makes”, I mean it literally. There is no sleeping or day-dreaming in the class, there is no possibility of performing less that what is required from you. Usha keeps an eye on everyone and she somehow feels everyone’s limit and things one is capable of, and she makes sure that one gives their 110%.

This is done quite in a military style, and you will often hear words like “Hey, what are you doing?”, “Are you sleeping?!”, “Hey, what is this, I said open your fingers!”, etc. You may also get occasional slap on the buttocks or on the back if you aren’t following her instructions. For some very sensitive people, such style of class may seem like a bootcamp, too stressful and not conducive to the spirit of yoga, where one is supposed to relax and let go of all the tension. But it surely serves the purpose of perfect body alignment and concentrating all mental attention within the body, on particular parts of the body that you’re currently working on.

So why does one need to learn perfect alignment in yoga poses? I guess, the purpose is not so much to look beautiful in the asanas, as very often Iyengar students use heaps of props like blocks, belts and chairs that are not actually appealing for a hot yoga selfie. In my experience, a good alignment in yoga postures serves several goals:

1. Safety in the class. By following instructions of Iyengar teacher that are very precise and almost anatomical, one can push their physical abilities to the limit without the risk of such nuisances as spine compressions, shoulder dislocations, torn ligaments, and similar problems. It’s very important to listen to the instructions though and follow them to the tee, as wrong application can actually result in injuries when we push our bodies too hard.

2. Enhanced awareness, mental focus and control over your bodily processes. Iyengar students are very attentive to what is going on inside their bodies. They learn to listen and activate muscles that are hard to control for an average person. They learn to synchronize breathing and movement, and pay attention to what their body is doing in every position inside and outside yoga hall.

3. Health benefits. When you practice regularly in intensive mode, applying principles of safety and listening to your body at every moment, improvement of health is an expected outcome. Iyengar yoga taught by a great teacher is an excellent tool for rehabilitation from injuries and disabilities, for enhancing one’s range of movement and vitality overall. Usha Devi is a perfect example of this. She had the misfortune of getting into two traffic accidents that caused grave injuries to her legs and pelvis. She has undergone numerous operations and doctors expressed doubts of the possibility of her ever being able to walk again. Usha has brought herself back on feet with the help and strict guidance of her guru, B.K.S. Iyengar, and now she is teaching classes helping many people overcome their limitations. In her class, I saw several people of age definitely over 60 who were as light and flexible as Russian ballerinas. One woman who was around 70 and performed like a gymnast told me that some 5 years ago she felt completely old and incapable of even bending forward, and thanks to Usha’s classes she feels like a 20-year-old again.

4. Developing dharana through concentration of attention inside one’s body. During Usha’s class, you have no opportunity to day-dream or think of anything else besides the task you’re supposed to do. All your mental focus and effort is directed towards observation of your body and control of your movement, activation of your body muscles and engagement of your breath. All these processes are rooted in the body, and during entire Usha’s class, your attention will stay inside the body. Yogis believe that where your attention goes, there your energy flows. Constant practice of concentration inside the body trains the mind to be more stable, to focus, to be attentive. That helps any practitioner, even the ones that don’t see Iyengar as their favorite style of practice.

All these benefits of perfect alignment are possible only with the right teacher. Classes of some Iyengar teachers can be quite boring, devoid of action, self-repetitive or focused on obvious things, not challenging and not engaging. All these things are not conducive to progress. I must say that Usha Devi is an exceptional teacher as she provides excellent demonstrations (on other people), detailed explanations and instructions, and keeps the classes highly engaging, dynamic and very challenging.

Practical recommendations:

1. Usha’s classes are not for the beginners. If you are a beginner, you are likely to get overwhelmed by the amount of details you need to keep an eye on, and by the physical demands of the class. You might also push yourself too hard and get some injury, if you come to Usha’s class completely unprepared for the intensity of the practice. You need to practice yoga at least for a few years to be prepared to attend Usha Devi’s teaching.

2. People who are very sensitive may find the atmosphere of the class quite harsh in the beginning. They might perceive that there is a lot of strictness and shouting. One needs to understand that there is no negative energy involved in Usha’s attitude. Outside of the class, Usha is soft and kind person and it’s obvious that her style of teaching is developed specifically for the purposes of the deep immersion and learning.

3. People who practice yoga to relax, may be find that visiting other teachers in Rishikesh may be a good option. As though the benefits of Usha’s class are numerous, increased intensity leads to increased nervous strain, which may lead to some nervous tension or even breakdowns for unprepared students. Of course, with time both body and psyche adapts to the level of intensity of the class, and there are many devoted students of Usha who feel great and attend her classes every day. Other people however, need some rests from these classes. In any case, it’s very beneficial to have additional meditation sessions, as shavasana in Iyengar’s class is very brief and may not be enough to relieve all nervous tension.

If you decided to visit Usha’s class, be prepared that her classes are often full and even getting there might be a challenge. Several times per year she conducts intensive courses, the lists of participants are often full a few months before the start of the course. When there is no intensive course, she conducts regular classes in the evening hours. You should sign up for the next week class on Friday or Saturday, at 7 :30 PM, if you have place after all the students participating in previous week’s classes have signed up.
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Ушу Деви в Ришикеше знают многие. Про нее рассказывают истории, а некоторые, начинающие преподаватели йоги (местные индийцы), даже ходят к ней заниматься. Я жила в Ришикеше в 2011-2012 году. Ришикеш не такой большой и есть возможность походить к разным преподавателям и сложить свое представление. Не смотря на то, что до этого я 3 года занимала йогой айенгарой в Москве, на занятиях у Уши я чувствовала себя просто бревном и тормозом. Она очень строгая, требовательная, невероятно держит энергию зала и дисциплину во время класса, может легко долбануть, если увидит, что асана выстроена криво, или вообще выгнать с урока - если вы где-то косячнули, по ее мнению. Короче, это Айенгар во плоти. Айенгар был суров в йоге и Уша собой воплощает всю серьезность и дисциплинированность практики йоги. Классы у нее лучше букить заранее, так как много людей любит подобный хардкор :). Руки после ее занятий поднимаются сами, а тело ощутимо вибрирует от такой нагрузки. Я люблю более мягкую йогу, ввиду индивидуальных особенностей и предпочтений. Но кому нужно full power hard идите к Уше - не пожалеете. Прокачает так, что мало не покажется.
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The best in Usha Ji’s teaching is that she is very focused as a teacher and she makes sure that the student is also focused. She so much tries to make sure that we are aligning our body, and the precision is very important to her, and when we do that as she instructs, we ourselves try to think inwards, and make sure we are delivering to her what she is expecting of us, and that’s an extremely difficult task to do. It’s not easy. Because you see, we know that we have to straighten the leg, for example, but we cannot always deliver to her expectations, because everybody is different. So she makes sure that we put the focus and our entire attention into that body part, and make sure that we do as per her instructions. And what happens is, because of this, it’s not just our physical body, but our mind also gets aligned. There are many teachers who say, “OK, you concentrate, you do pranayama, you do dhyana”, but just by saying “you do dhyana”, the focus is not there. You might be thinking of something else. So Usha Ji’s guidance is extremely practical. You try to focus on your body, and automatically you are in the state of dhyana. Automatically you are trying to concentrate on your breath, which is pranayama of course. So it’s not just sitting in one place, it’s yoga in action. We do the asanas, we think, we concentrate, and then, internally our mind aligns. So, the breath aligns, the mind aligns, the body is aligned, and automatically you move towards the state of dhyana. Many people say “I want to reach samadhi”. But that’s not easy. You have to go through the process. And she makes sure that we go through the process. And then, the rest of the things automatically come.
I mean, there are very few people who are born into sixth, seventh state of yoga - dharana, dhyana, samadhi. But then, all the stages before these are most important, because that’s the foundation. And Usha makes sure that our foundation is extremely good. She focuses mostly on asanas, and everything else comes automatically. Because in asanas, you have to concentrate, you have to balance. The fact that you have to balance means that you have to control your breath. And that’s where the Iyengar yoga system transforms the individual. You become in that one state, and after two-three years you start seeing the transformation. For example, there may be many people over here who have some kind of addictions, they may be smoking or drinking alcohol. So, the focus is not like “OK, leave alcohol, leave smoking”. The focus is, go through the process, do your asanas, do your breath, do your meditation. And automatically they are kind of getting away from their vices and addictions.
Usha Ji is one of the first students of Guruji Iyengar. So whatever she has learned, it’s directly from the guru. It’s not like from second or third person, or something like that. Directly from the guru, she exactly tells the students what to do, and how to go about it. That’s the most important part, the process.
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5
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I’ve been practicing Iyengar for 6 years. I also have practiced ashtanga, but I always come back to the Iyengar for that precision and the feeling of safety. I found that particularly with Usha Ji, the body learns to be strong as well as flexible. So it depends on the body type. My body tends toward the flexibility with no strength, so that gave me awareness. I would say that one of the major benefits for me was developing the strength and the resistance to actually be able to support the pose properly instead of just going into the pose in the way that might be injurious. In the ashtanga system the meditation happens through the repetition and actually the dynamic, but here it’s quite different kind of way to be meditative, it’s more about focusing on detail. Single-pointed focus allows you to channel through and penetrate the body. It’s a very different feeling that the other.

I can say that Iyengar yoga is the safest style. You learn how to practice safely, and you’ve also got different props to help you. And it’s not so much about doing. Many people have injuries and they think they cannot practice yoga anymore. And here, you can have injury and you can come here and learn to feel your body, because you can still move, you can move within the system that is represented as a really safe and respectful towards whatever you’ve got going on in your body.
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This is my fifth season with Usha. I stay all year round, I live here permanently. When I first came to Usha, I had very little experience with yoga. I maybe studied only for 5 months in Korea, and so when I came here, I was doing everything wrong. She told me that she could not help me at all and that I should go away. But when I showed persistence, she really helped me so much, just like everyone here. She gives a lot of guidance. If you come to the morning practice, she sees that you are trying, and she will slowly give you some tips, and then you slowly find out some things for yourself.
The idea is that it is a type of practice that takes a lot of time, because the changes are slow, and also because it takes time, it is much safer, stable and stronger practice. I think it takes a lot of time commitment, but then it is much more sustainable. I’m quite flexible, so it’s easy for me to just jerk my body around in whatever kind of shape I need to be making, but I had absolutely no awareness at all of what I was doing, so Usha really helped me learn to have awareness, which I think is the very key. And then I can bring this awareness to my breath and my mental state, so in this way this practice really helped me a lot.
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5
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5
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5
I was here for the first time in Rishikesh in 2007, and in the last part of my stay I met Usha Ji. Then I came back here after 7 years. Now it’s my third time here with Usha Ji. Before 2007 I was practicing another tradition of yoga, and my first contact with Iyengar yoga was with Usha Ji. When I came back to Europe, I started to study Iyengar there.

In Iyengar style, there is the capacity to develop the faculty of the mind to be aware. Because the asanas are the same in different style, but the approach to the asana is different here, it’s about awareness of the body. And not just the awareness, but the alignment as well. And thus we develop a faculty of the mind: the capacity to understand what is happening in the body, and capacity to correct the body. I remember that the first sensation I had in Iyengar yoga was some kind of refreshed energy, because the practice is so intensive, and the intensity is different from other kinds of practices, because the way in which you use the body in Iyengar style is the intensity with purpose to bring your awareness on what is happening in the body. And this refreshes the mind. Iyengar yoga gives you the possibility to understand what you are doing, not just intellectually, but experientially. In fact, Usha Ji often explains something in the class and asks “Do you understand?” And we say yes, because it’s not difficult to understand intellectually. And she says: “OK, if you understand, show me”. So it’s this kind of understanding that the practice with her develops in our mind. Internalizing the concepts that she explains. For example, she may say in the class: “You have to extend the inner side of the arm”. Intellectually it’s easy: this is my arm, this is inner side, extend. But you have to observe in the body, what is happening, if you really can move this understanding into the body.
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(This review is a transcript of the conversation TopYogis had with Eddie about Usha Devi)
I started studying with Usha Ji six tears ago. I came one year and then I started to come every tear. Usha Ji follows the method of BKS Iyengar. I think there is maybe two actual Iyengar teachers here (in Rishikesh) who studied with Guruji, one is Usha and one is Rudra. I really liked Usha’s method in teaching, the way she pushes her students. She’s able push you to your maximum limit without hurting you. She understands when you’re being lazy, when your tamasic nature sets in, and she pushes you beyond that. There are very few teachers who do that. Most teachers want to give you some kind of comfort.

My practices changed greatly over the last 6 years. And I have been studying Iyengar yoga for almost 20 years. My primary teacher at home does a little bit different approach, she does not push you. So she does not fully see that in her students, the potential her students have. Usha is able to see deep inside the students, see their potential, and push them to whatever that potential is.

Question: How does this type of practice, when you put a high demand on your body and mind, how does it help you in other things in life? Many people practice yoga for different things, not just being able to do this or that asana. How does this approach enriches you?

It’s not an approach, it’s the Iyengar method that he developed over 67 years of practice. And we see it as a meditation in action. So only after there’s a certain level of asana reached, you can go into pranayama, and then from pranayama into pratyahara, then dharana, then dhyana, then samadhi. So basically the thing is, you need to get to this level of meditation in action, and only then you can go on to meditation. When I’m in India, all I do is practice. We come in the morning, and you can implement things from your own practice, and what you’ve learned through the Iyengar method. So you might need to do restorative one day or something like that as a counterpoint to the pushing that we do in Usha’s class. And she does teach pranayamas also - in certain time, you have to be very open. There’s a whole sequence that goes into that. Usually the pranayama is given in the intensives.

Studying with Usha has enabled me to push my students also a bit. Because when you are a teacher, you get intimidated about pushing students to the limits, it’s a big responsibility. This experience has given me the opportunity to really see how I can help my students progress.

Question: Have you had any injuries in your yoga practice?

Yes, I had injuries that are my own fault, but then I restored them with my yoga practice. I never had an injury in Usha’s class. When people have injuries and come to Usha’s class, she’s not gonna make you do what you should not do. For example, if you have a back problem, you have to approach forward bends differently. But you have to tell her before the class about your problem. You have to take a personal responsibility, because otherwise she is going to still push you, like the other students.

Usha is the best teacher I have ever experienced, and I had a lot of the senior Iyengar teachers. I say thus because she has made me see my potential. And it's frightening sometimes, it’s not always that fun, and it can be very uncomfortable. I feel like I haven’t gotten even 5% yet, after 20 years. You need to understand, Iyengar taught to such a broad spectrum, to so many students, in so many different places, in so many ages that, maybe there’s ten or fifteen teachers in the world now that really can convey his teaching, when there’s a lot of certified Iyengar teachers and a lot of teachers that were with him. And Usha Ji is one of those few.