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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My new teacher inspired me so much, I would try to make 3 classes a week. I wasn’t the only one enamored with her teaching, several others would also make all three classes she taught in a week. Those of us who were her devoted students developed a deep kinship. We looked forward to her yoga classes and the commradery that came along with it. We often sat around and joked before and after class and sometimes one of us would make a good quip during class. She had a way of integrating philosophy with the asana that resonated with me. She didn’t rattle off a yoga sutra and translate it, rather she used the asana to get us to pay attention and stop the monkey mind. She used the asana to hone our powers of discernment and discrimination and yet feel our conncectedness to the whole. The sanskrit word TAPAS is often translated as burning zeal, and I felt some serious TAPAS toward my weekly yoga classes. I felt that she had tailored each yoga class to personally attend to me. I also felt an attraction toward her though I am straight. I realize now how much transference goes on in a yoga class.
She often gave credit to her teacher: Manouso Manos. I remember asking her, “Is that really his name?” I thought the name sounded like a porn star.
In Sanskrit the word guru means spiritual teacher. Gu means darkness and Ru means light. The job of the guru is to shine some light on those dark places so you can get rid of them. I just wanted to feel better. I wasn’t looking for a spiritual guide or anyone who babbled in sanskrit to me while I tried to do the poses. I popped into a Wednesday night class and lo and behold I found the teacher I needed. She was exacting and articulate in her instructions. Her demos were consice and clear. She whipped her shirt off and exposed her sports bra to demonstrate her shoulder blades or her abdomen or whatever we needed to see to understand what she wanted us to do. I thought she was the biggest badass I had ever encountered. She was serious about her yoga and she was as methodical as she was strong. She would pick up a student by their legs if they weren’t in the correct position in Viparita Karana (legs up the wall pose). I once saw her get stung by a bee while she was teaching. She didn’t flinch. She captured the bee and set it free outside. She did all this while not missing a beat in her instructions. I watched her more than once tell a student that they weren’t ready for her class and asked them to leave. I watched more than one person walk out of her class mid-class because they couldn’t stand her attention to detail and her demands that students pay attention too.
Each class, I still looked forward to savasana, but this teacher didn’t babble. Her instructions in savasana were in her same voice only softer and they were sensible instructions. I was smitten and looked forward to her yoga class each week. There is an expression in the yoga tradition that when the disciple is ready the guru will come.
So after a few months of going to Iyengar Yoga classes, I could kinda spread my toes. I took great pride in that. There was a whole lot that I couldn’t do, like any kind of forward fold. All those years of running made my hamstrings tight as a drum. I was always so eager to get into that pose at the end of class where you just lie on your back–savasana (corpse pose), but I came to realize in my blissed out haze, that the teacher was talking to me in her new age modulated voice. She would enumerate in her slow, whispery, creepy, new- age voice all the things that I couldn’t do. Like, ” Don’t let it bother you that your tight hamstrings wouldn’t allow you to touch your toes, you will get there some decade. First you must learn to spread your toes though.” No joke! I would lie there and will her to shut the fuck up. This happened week after week.
After the 8 week beginners yoga session was over, I looked on the schedule and found another yoga teacher. Still, I am grateful for my first yoga teacher. I told her that years later when I ran into her at an Iyengar Yoga workshop of senior teacher Manouso Manos.
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.