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My Adventures in Iyengar Yoga

There is No HATE like YOGA HATE

We are all in this alone.

— Lily Tomlin

Okay, I am desperate. I can’t believe I have found my way to a blogging site but that’s where I am on this Friday evening. I have been frustrated by narratives being controlled on social media. I am sick of the righteousness, viciousness, and greed of yoga communities. I want to get my voice out there so maybe, just maybe, someone will look for another side to the story. I have no idea of the life span of a blog, but maybe in a decade when things settle down, some researcher will find my blog and unearth some truth and another side to the story.

My yoga adventure started unceremoniously in the year 2000. There was a yoga studio down the street from my house. I was in great emotional pain because I was in an unhealthy relationship and needed to find my way out of it. I ran four miles a day but that wasn’t even making a dent in my overcast outlook. So I wandered into the yoga studio. I think if the studio hadn’t been down the street from my house I would have likely never have started the practice.

Anyway, I found the courage to go to a class. I think the hardest yoga class is the first because it takes a lot of courage to step through that door of judgement (perceived or real) The studio looked like a crazy torture chamber with ropes and tresslers and all kinds of weird shaped wooden accutrements. The teacher was a beautiful, petite and buxom flexible “doll”. I mean she bent like some sort of gumby doll. I will never forget how she had us sitting in dandasana (staff pose) and told us to spread our toes. My toes were aliens to me. I willed them to spread, but I had no intelligence in my toes. The teacher quickly pointed out I did not have intelligence in a lot of places. I felt somewhat embarrassed about my lack of flexibility and “intelligence”, but I kept going to class because I liked the challenge and the way I felt after class. It seemed for a nano second my mind would be at peace. I came to find out eventually, the yoga I was being taught was called Iyengar Yoga. When I told one of my male friends about my budding interest in yoga he said, “There is not hate like yoga hate.” I laughed at the time but I never forgot his words. It’s a paradox.

The Iyengar Yoga Police

Over the years, I have noticed the high-mindedness of yoga practictioners on the rise, especially in the Iyengar yoga community, which already feels superior to other yoga systems. I blame social media. Previously, there was no avenue for yoga practitioners to post perfect asana pictures captioned with a morally superior statement. It’s possible that the caption relates to something which they aspire, but it doesn’t always come off like that. It’s offputting and imposing, and and what’s worse- it creates separation. Paradoxically, yoga means union. What brought me to yoga all those years ago was the feeling of inter-connectedness with the universe. It was that feeling of total absorption that enticed me to practice.

So when the allegations against Manouso hit the airwaves thanks to a biased report from a bay area radio station, the Iyengar Yoga facebook groups had a cyber field day. Any support for Manouso was attacked with a viciousness incongruous to the sattvic image of yoga. It was strange and disturbing. I noticed the situation attracted loud voices into the fray that were outside the Iyengar yoga community. The groups vibrated with moral rightousness and hyprocrisy. One example was one gray-haired guy outside of the Iyengar system insisting that Manouso was a sexual predator on the Iyengar yogi site, and conversely defending Pathabi Jois’s innocence on another site. In one instance, a woman defending Manouso had her entire post torn apart line by line by my favorite charlatan Yoga Pundit. Yoga Pundit is author of this line:

“The hermeneutic flow from de-familiarization to open-source and demystification tends to have an embodying effect.”

Yoga Pundit has many other gems equally incomprehensible. Yoga Pundit has 5000 women followers looking to him to keep them safe from spiritual bypassing and somatic dominance. By all accounts somatic dominance is a term YP made up. What’s interesting is that some of the other Yoga Police are picking it up like it’s a medical diagnosis. Both Yoga Police and Yoga Pundit have the YP acronym so don’t get confused. I will always spell out Yoga police! Yoga Pundit will be abbreviated due to lack of importance. Interestingly, YP is part of the Yoga Police!!!

Here’s one of my favorite posts for a long time Iyengar yoga teacher and practitioner.

“Yoga Pundit, please know that the Iyengar community is reading closely what you write…Please coach us where you see appropriate. Please hold us accountable…”

The Iyengar Yoga police were starting to close ranks around the Iyengar Yoga community. I must be careful with my posts because I am afraid the Iyengar Yoga Police will come after me!

Manouso Manos Allegations and Geeta Iyengar

I love Geeta Iyengar so much. The first time I went to India to study at RIMYI (Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute) Geeta was not well and was not teaching. BKS Iyengar was not well either but would show up at the practice hall. I had waited a long time to go to India and study with the Iyengar family. It was a big deal for me. I had to take a month of work (no pay for two of those weeks) and had to find care for my daugher who was in elementary school at the time. It was this first trip to India that I realized the Iyengar family was a bit like the Beverly Hillbillies, but I would not dare say that aloud. Most of my classes for the month were with Prashant Iyengar and after about a week and half I stopped going to class with him. I hated it. He talked incessantly and when he stumbled onto a clever turn of phrase, he would repeat it endlessly with a proud smirk. He would put us in triangle pose on one side for 3 minutes and the second side for twenty seconds, if he remembered to do the second side at all. If we didn’t move to get the props fast enought he would fly into a rage and scream at us with a contorted face. I kept thinking maybe I wasn’t smart enough or experienced enough to comprehend the complexity of what he was teaching, so I would listen harder and try more. Then I realized, whatever he was teaching, I wasn’t learning. Meanwhile, Abhijata Iyengar would petulantly march around the practice hall talking on her cell phone, and ordering the Indian staff around. Occasionally she would give a disdainful look at a middle- age female practitioner which is about 95% of the Iyengar yoga demographic. Scolding seemed to be her skill. I couldn’t shake the feeling that that I had been had. I couldn’t shake the sinking feeling of disappointment.

It was a long fucking month. I kept wondering why I spent all this energy and money on this trip to India when I had the best teacher in the world in San Francisco. But then came along the first Yoganushsanam. I jumped at the opportunity because I wanted to give the Iyengars another chance, and I had never studied with Geeta. Also, it was only 10 days so I didn’t have to find a month of care for my daughter. Geeta’s teaching was exquisite. She was demanding and profound. It was no surprise to me that when IYNAUS decided to open an independent investigation in response to the appeal to the ethics complaint against Manouso Manos, Geeta reacted like this, ” Maybe you have taken this decision out of nervousness because of the havoc being created in the social media. Even though we don’t want to be judgmental it also seems like there
is an animosity that is driving all this. You cannot assume that an individual is guilty and go all out to prove that. Yoga teachers and Iyengar yoga Associations should act with more responsibility. A month later she she was dead.

THE YEAR OF YOGA HATE! MANOUSO MANOS ALLEGATIONS

My Iyengar yoga practice changed a lot in the year 2019. The shift came when in 2018 a student a longtime student of Manouso’s filed a sexual assault complaint against him for an adjustment in a public class in 2013. Initially the accuser opted for anonymity , then violated a confidentiality agreement with the Ethics Committee and brought her case directly to the press. This unleashed a hate-filled onslaught of attacks and commentary, and as been the case so often on social media, it created a a situation in which the person being attacked, Manouso in this case, had no opportunity to defend himself. Two pseudo yoga pundits, outside the Iyengar yoga system but with thousands of followers and an ax to grind with Iyengar yoga, added their voices to the fray. When the four capable women on the Ethics Committee determined that there was not enough evidence to substantiate the claim, all hell broke loose on social media. The complainant filed an appeal citing that a student of Manouso’s was on the ethics committee. I found out later that she had, in fact, been told that Manouso’s student was on the ethics committee. In fact, she had been told by the very person she called into question. These two had formed a quasi-friendship during Manouso’s three year therapeutics program. In any case, the complainant filed an appeal citing that she didn’t get fair treatment because Manouso’s student was on the ethics committee, even though she had known that at the start. The crowd went wild on social media– I saw IYNAUS board members liking her Facebook posts as well as other well-known teachers in Iyengar yoga such as a stocky Australian therapeutics teacher whose main competition is Manouso, and a Sanskrit scholar who makes bank teaching at Iyengar yoga workshops, not to mention the current president of IYNAUS! I thought it might have been more appropriate for these high ranking teachers to maintain a neutral stance, but there they were giving the big thumbs up from the comfort of their homes. The one that really got me was the senior teacher who has youtube videos of her half-naked self doing yoga poses. She claimed she was offended by the sight of Manouso’s buttock in a legitimate yoga demonstration. That one reeked of hypocrisy more than the others but it might be because I saw her buttcheeks so many times in her videos. The expression there is no hate like yoga hate was becoming a reality.

Iyengar Yoga Teacher Training

Eventually after teaching for a few years, I decided to pursue Iyengar Yoga certification more seriously. The studio owner decided she wanted to change the name of her studio and wanted to use the Iyengar name. In order to do that all teachers must be certified and no other styles of yoga can be taught, so the vinyasa, bhakti and pilates classes were invited to leave. I can’t say I have ever enjoyed a yoga teacher training and I have done many, but I can say unequivocally that Manouso Manos showed the most patience and compassion in teacher training. Yoga is an art, and the artisty really can’t really be taught. Sure, you can spit out the instructions in a methodical and robotic way, as was pushed in Iyengar yoga teacher trainings, but I think teachers should inspire. I found tremendous inconsistencies from one teacher training to the next and usually it was all about semantics. One teacher might insist that I say press your feet into the floor in tadasana while another teacher would tell me that that instruction was non-sensical. Often I left Iyengar yoga teacher trainings feeling confused, uninspired and unsure of myself.

It’s a strange dichotomy to practice and teach yoga while simultaneously over analyzing ever word and action. You can’t be free and rigid at the same time.

Manouso always says, “You can’t change and stay the same at the same time.” I think he might have been keenly aware of some of the paradoxes between the art of yoga and the business of yoga.

Happy Birthday BKS Iyengar

Today BKS Iyengar would be 101 years old. He died 5 years ago at 96, and so much has changed since then. Like, for example, Iyengar Yoga joined forces with Yoga Alliance just this week. This is a shock to many of us and certainly a slap to BKS and Geeta Iyengar because Yoga Alliance was formed in the 90’s to get some kind of control over quickie certification programs. Back when Yoga Alliance was formed, an Iyengar Yoga student had to be a student of Iyengar yoga for 6 years to become eligible for Iyengar Yoga teaching certification. There was no quickie path to becoming an Iyengar Yoga teacher. BKS Iyengar referred to what he was doing as “yoga”. He didn’t name it after himself, the name developed over time because what he was doing was so unique in its artistry and precision. He wrote the book “Light on Yoga” which is the bible for yoga instructors of all kinds all over the world. It was published in 1966 and continues to be relevant today. I have at least 5 copies. So now in this month of Iyengar’s birthday and his daughter Geeta’s year anniversary of death, IYNAUS (Iyengar Yoga National Association of United States) has given up the power of Iyengar Yoga to Yoga Alliance. I can’t help but think that Geeta and BKS Iyengar would be turning over in their graves if they had been buried instead of burned.

My First Iyengar Yoga Workshop

I was an eager and devoted student in my early days of Iyengar yoga. Maybe too eager.

The owner of the yoga studio was sponsoring a senior Iyengar yoga teacher’s workshop at the studio. I had been doing Iyengar yoga less than a year at that point, but the requirements for the workshop stipulated at least 6 months experience with Iyengar yoga, and I had nearly double that. I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited to attend. The teacher was a very tall and boyish looking woman. She seemed to talk with a slight accent which I coudn’t place until she revealed that she had been in India so many times that she developed an accent. It felt affected to me. She put us through our paces, and I was struggling to keep up. I didn’t know many poses by their Sanskrit names so I had to look around the room if she didn’t demo the pose. Then it came: Uttanasan (intensve forward fold). I knew that name because I hated the pose due to it’s difficulty for me. I struggled because of tight hamstrings, and the tall teacher saw me struggle. She called me to the center of the room to do the pose for all the participants to see. I did the pose and then she asked “What is wrong with this pose?” There was a frenzy of comments. The comments just kept coming. I felt a flush of shame wash over me-and said, “I am a beginner. Please don’t pick on me!” For the rest of the class, she had me go to the corner and work on uttanasana. I felt humiliated. If I tried to join the class she said, “You go work on uttansana.” That night I took 4 ibuprofen before bed. I really hated this teacher. She didn’t inspire; she humiliated.

I showed up the next day for a couple of reasons: 1) I had already paid and 2) I wanted to give her a second chance. My hamstrings were screaming. Before class started she looked at me and said, “Go work on your uttanasana.” she gestured to the corner where I had been stationed the day before. Eventually, she invited me to join the class. She had us find a partner, and everyone sought someone they knew. I was just standing there when the oldest woman in the room appeared out of nowhere and introduced herself and asked to be my partner. I felt like crying. I knew this woman to be certified at the hightest level in our town. I was inspired by her grace and kindness. She saw how I was feeling and she shared my humanity. This was right action.

I finished the 3-day workshop and hated the teacher even more by the end. I swore I would never study with her ever, though she came back to our studio year after year. There was pressure from the studio owner to attend workshops by senior teachers when they came through so eventually years later, I attended another workshop. The tall teacher didn’t remember me, but I felt slightly redeemed from my humiliating first experience when she complimented my parsvottanasna (intense side stretch).

Years later the tall teacher started teaching workshops with her husband so I decided to check it out because it had been years since I attended her workshop. As much as I disliked her, I really hated him. He never stopped talking. I remember thinking he was like a shark only he had to keep talking to stay alive.

One morning as I was seated for the chant, one of our students, who happens to be a priest, entered moments before class was to start and all the blankets were being used so he didn’t have one for his seat for the chant. I was sitting on three blankets for my stiff hips, and I offered one to him. The tall teacher’s husband didn’t witness this, but his eyes focused on me. He look directly at me and asked, “What is your name?” I told him. He then spoke for about 15 minutes using my first name over and over again about how I was doing violence to myself because my knees were higher than my hips. All heads turned to look at me, because I was in the back of the room and everyone wanted to see who he was yelling at. I had never heard my first name used so much in a yoga class. I didn’t flush with shame but I did flush with anger. By the end of the workshop I had bruises on my arms where he had violently adjust my arms in dwi pada viparitta dandasana (two legged inverted staff pose). I never ever studied with them again. I felt he was a very dangerous and abusive yoga teacher and she was not much better.

Teaching Iyengar Yoga

BKS IYENGAR ADJUSTING A STUDENT

In retrospect I probably started teaching Iyengar yoga too soon, but I was so enamored with the practice that I thought teaching would inform my practice. And it did. I started teaching a free class at the nearby community center and people started coming. The floors were dirty and we didn’t have props but people came. Soon a student donated blocks and straps for everyone. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I learned a lot and nobody got injured so I felt it was a success. Soon I was being asked to sub at the yoga studio where I took classes. Before long, I had my own class there. I remember feeling like an imposter. I am not naturally flexible so I wasn’t able to intimidate students with advances poses. Now I think that was a plus but at the time I associated yoga with flexibility of body only. It took me a while to realize that yoga is more abot the flexibility of mind than body. This is a hard thing to keep in mind with the advent of Instagram. Geeta Iyengar said: “Whenever we find stiffness in the body, our mind should be especially supple. It is never the stiffness in our bodies that limits our practice, it is always the stiffness of our mind.” I was beginning to get glimpses of total absorption in my practice regarding the interconnectedness of all things.

Manouso Manos Workshop

After my daughter was born, I took refuge in yoga. My teacher would not let me do any asana for the longest time, but eventually I was back to an active practice. Being a new mother had its share of stresses, and I loved escaping for that hour and a half to calm my mind and open my chest. I would go to three classes a week or more. I have very fond memories of those times when all I did was take care of my baby and go to yoga class. It was dreamy. When my daughter was about two-years old, Manouso Manos was coming within 5 hours of where I lived. I couldn’t resist the chance to study with him, so I enlisted my best friend to come along and to take care of my child while I went to class. I couldn’t be away from my daughter because I was still nursing, and we had never spent a night apart. I was so excited for this adventure. Manouso was teaching in an old church not far from the Iyengar yoga studio. The place was packed with students from every walk of life, but I noticed most students were older than I. The place was atwitter with excitement until Manouso barked out the words, “sit straight and tall.” Silence and focus enveloped the room, not in a weird creepy way but in a beautiful respectful way. It’s like the room knew the importance of the teachings.

The pollen count was absurdly high that day and Manouso led us through a series of poses and then stopped to explain. “Yoga is to take care of you. When you are faced with circumstances such as a high pollen count, you have to take control.” He taught a sequence of poses that reduced inflammation and opened up the sinuses. My head felt clear and open. I could jot down the poses here, but it wouldn’t be the same. It’s the way Manouso brings the asana that seems like he’s inside my body. He seems to describe a sensation moments before it surfaces in my consciousness. He’s got a gift for making the sequence tailored to each student in the room. I know that sounds absurd, but I can’t tell you how many times I have encountered students after class who thought the sequence was specifically for them.

My teacher and a few friends were with me. We were inspired and giddy after each class. We couldn’t get enough Manouso Manos.

Skillful Action

I think what I loved most about my early days as a student of Iyengar Yoga was the transformation I recognized in myself. Those were the days when I woke up regularly with a crick in my neck. After a few months of practice, it occurred to me that I hadn’t had one in so long I couldn’t remember. I also became much more aware of my posture and my breathing. I had suffered from acute anxiety as a young adult, and now I could control my breathing to control my inner tension. Over time the practice of yoga took the place of distance running though there was no clear line of delineation, except possibly the birth of my daughter. My daughter was breach in my belly and the midwife was concerned that I would need a caesarean section. She didn’t hold out much hope for a natural delivery. My yoga teacher contacted her teacher Manouso Manos about using asana to help the baby to turn. I trusted the skills of my yoga teacher so much that I gave a try to what Manouso told her to do with me. I didn’t understand what she was doing at the time, but I do now. It’s variation of setu bandha on the bench. It takes two teachers– one to hold the student’s shoulders down with their feet and while the other teacher moves the bench to the side that the baby’s head resides. The idea is that moving to that direction will make the baby want to scram to the other side. Then the bench is moved to the other side so the baby ends up head down in the position for a natural birth. I had no idea what she was doing, but I was game to try.

A few days later at my scheduled appointment, my midwife was astonished that my baby had moved and was in a perfect position for a natural birth!

My perfect baby was born three days after her due date and we were both happy and healthy.

My teacher quotes the Bhagavad Gita in that yoga is skillful action. The struggle of figuring out what is the right thing to do in any given situation is the human condition. The practice of yoga brings the mind body connection which quiets the ever-distracted mind. These glimpses of clarity allow us to distinguish what is the right action. That is the hope anyway.

Parampara

The word parampara means something like the transmission of the yogic teachings from the guru to the guru’s successor without dilution or distortion. Parampara is the primary means by which the teaching of yoga has survived the ages. It has allowed generation after generation to receive powerful, undiluted teachings in yoga and other spiritual matters. My yoga teacher expertly transmitted what she had learned from her teacher Manouso Manos. At the time, I was not remotely interested in where she got her chops, I just knew that what she was teaching really inspired and transformed. In time, I learned that her teacher Manouso Manos was the most senior teacher in Iyengar Yoga and that his teacher was BKS Iyengar himself. Manouso Manos was one of two teachers in the world who BKS Iyengar bestowed with the highest certificate of Senior Advanced teacher. What I didn’t know at the time was that every class my teacher taught was a sequence from a class that Manouso Manos taught, which likely was from a class BKS Iyengar taught. I didn’t realize until years later, after my teacher stopped teaching, that she had mimicked Manouso Manos to a T. I thought she was the biggest badass there ever was. She later told me she felt like an imposter because she knew she was trying to be Manouso. It wasn’t until I went to my first Manouso class that I realized how good she was at mimicking Manouso.