Book Review

Iyengar Yoga Asana Alternatives: The Neck and Shoulders
by Lois Steinberg, PhD

Reviewed by Jesse Moore Kelsch

Without a doubt, Lois Steinberg understands the background tension that sufferers of neck and shoulder trauma experience on a regular basis. This is why the first several poses in her new book, Iyengar Yoga Asana Alternatives: The Neck and Shoulders, are very targeted and deep releasing poses—so releasing and opening that I, with my own complicated history of shoulder injuries, imbalance, and mobility limitation, almost cry in gratitude when practicing them.

Even though her prescribed sequences start with exceptionally releasing poses, she goes farther than this because there is work to be done. Quite specific work, in fact. An example is Ardha Parsva Hastasana, where the palm is placed on the wall at shoulder height, arm straight out to the side. Lois directs the student (and the Iyengar instructor who is assisting the student) to rotate this, press that, move this here… and she tells us to feel the actions in the arm all the way to the sternum and upper back. This pose is a foundational, active reliever of chronic misalignment for the upper body, and it’s clear to me when practicing, when I feel the actions she describes, that it should be repeated often. Lois’ clear instructions help students organize the actions that they wouldn’t have been able to discover for themselves because of the tamas and the lack of consciousness that have built up in the joints over time.

Lois also addresses the difficulties that multi-part poses present to students with upper-body trauma. For example, Anantasana (Vishnu’s couch) is presented, but only in its intermediate stage. She instructs the student to lengthen the armpit to the elbow to close the gap between the armpit and the floor. This preliminary action can be unobtainable to those with stiff shoulders, so the student is instructed to practice this stage regularly. For Chaturanga Dandasana, Lois gives explicit directions for the hands, knuckles, elbows, shoulders, and sternum—directions to be maintained with repeated practice from a nearly vertical position (hands on the wall at shoulder height) progressively toward the classical pose. The reason I (and maybe others) don’t come into the full pose from straight arms is an instability in the shoulders that causes last moment misdirection of correct actions into incorrect ones. Through repetition of the correct actions as we build up to the final pose, “strength will build intelligently,” Lois tells us. I will certainly testify that I stand taller with a more expanded chest after practicing this progression of variations even once.

This book, like the first edition from 2000, is organized as a series of photos with captions, although this edition is much more extensive. The instructions are unequivocal, leaving no doubt in the student’s mind about what to do and how to do it. Lois also provides reasons for the instructions, including both immediate and long-term effects. For me, an Iyengar yoga student with long-time shoulder trauma, this collection exemplifies the satisfying thoroughness with which the Iyengars continue to “discover improved and innovative ways to address what ails the human race through the art and science of yoga.” As a teacher, I believe that therapeutic instructors will find this book indispensable. The teachings in this volume are so valuable because they thoroughly address the anatomical problems students with neck and shoulder issues struggle with, and they provide clear solutions.

Jesse Moore Kelsch has been practicing Iyengar yoga for eleven years and teaching for five. She has passed her Introductory I teaching assessment and is pursuing Intro II. She teaches at the Granada Yoga Studio in Alpine, Texas. Earlier in life, she carried a heavy backpack on one shoulder, had low self-esteem resulting in poor posture, had an unaddressed case of whiplash from a car accident, used to reach for gallon jugs of water behind the passenger seat while driving, liked to throw a baseball without warming up, sat (and still sits) at the computer a lot, forgets to put ice on her injuries…