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.
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.