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Iyengar yoga therapy builds hope

Here a student uses foot placement against the wall in parighasana to access movement of the thigh and low back. She is holding a wall rope with her right hand.
Here a student uses foot placement against the wall in parighasana to access movement of the thigh and low back. She is holding a wall rope with her right hand.
Christie Hall

Within a room in Los Angeles, two senior Iyengar yoga teachers and their assistants create a sanctuary for healing. The students who come each Tuesday evening often come after despairing of further help from doctors.

“You can return to this quiet place anytime that you want, anywhere you want,” said Lisa Walford, during savasana, corpse pose, at the end of class she led on June 17.

Prospective students apply to attend the Yoga Therapeutics classes on Tuesday evenings at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles. Each week one or two students are allowed to join the class. Lead teachers Lisa Walford and Marla Apt limit the numbers because each student will receive an intricate sequence designed for his or her problem.

Before the first session, teachers meet with the new arrival to get an in-person understanding of why the student has chosen this route.

One new student on June 17 answered Lisa’s question this way: “I’m here because no one else can help me. No one has any answers. The doctors don’t have any answers.”

“We hear that a lot,” Lisa responded.

At work within the sanctuary

The room as a whole is a sanctuary, and within it students create their own spaces for practice and healing. These spaces are private, even within the context of a studio, and confidentiality is constantly maintained. (For this reason, the student quoted for this article is not named.)

Many of the sequences include intricate use of props or weights or straps. In one corner, a person uses the wall ropes for a pose. In another area, a person uses a chair to assist poses.

In the center of the room, a device called a trestler, which looks something like a balance beam, supports practitioners in assorted standing poses.

Students receive a written list of poses with some guidance on specific modifications. On the first session, Lisa and Marla give further instructions on specific work or alignment guidance to the practitioners and the teachers assisting them.

The assistants are all certified Iyengar teachers and include Lori McIntosh, Introductory 2, Allen Mulch, Intermediate Junior 1, and Aida Amirkhanian, Intermediate Junior 3. Lisa and Marla are both Intermediate Senior 1.

Gradually students take increasing charge of their own sequences. The assisting and lead teachers remain available for questions and for adjusting the sequences. Typically, a student attends for eight weeks and is permitted to apply for an additional four weeks.

Hope for change

The once-a-week sessions, however, are meant only as a foundation for a consistent home practice.

The student who started on June 17 was there for what doctors considered a neurological problem, although they had no explanation of a cause. They had diagnosed two strong drugs which had eliminated most of the pain. By June 25, with a daily practice and two sessions under her belt, the woman, who is in her 30s, had ceased needing one of the two drugs and had cut the dosage of the other by two-thirds.

The woman says she keeps thinking about a story told by another of her teachers, Manouso Manos, about the story of Pandora. He notes that most stories tell about Pandora opening the box and releasing all the plagues of humankind, but they do not mention the postscript. After Pandora closes the box, she opens it one more time, and the last thing to come out is hope.

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