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Remembering B.K.S. Iyengar: John Schumacher

Yoga teacher John Schumacher reflects on B.K.S. Iyengar’s life, his influence on modern yoga, and the legacy he has left behind.

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John Schumacher

Meeting Yogi Luminary B.K.S. Iyengar—For the First Time

Yoga Journal: When did you first meet B.K.S. Iyengar and what was your first impression?

John Schumacher: I started to practice with Mr. Iyengar in January 1981, when I had just turned 36. My first impression was that he was shorter than I had thought! I’d been practicing from his book Light on Yoga for five years before I first went to study with him in India. He had such a presence in the pictures and his presence is not at all short. He’s one of those people who when he arrived, you paid attention to. He had this incredible presence about him—his bearing, how he presented himself and how conducted the class that first day. It made me think, “oh there’s something else going on here that I don’t know anything about.”

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YJ: How did he influence you?

JS: His impact on me was completely transformative. He took me to depths that I couldn’t have imagined. As a result, my practice was more intensive and so was my teaching. He taught in such a direct, passionate way and uncompromising way and that affected the way that I taught. I realized that I had to convey my own passion for the subject of yoga to my students and not just rely on them finding it on their own. There was no fluff to the way he taught. Not that we didn’t laugh, he had a great sense of humor. But it was always about the yoga, and how to deepen and penetrate within ourselves through the practice and become more aware of ourselves.

YJ: Did you see his teachings evolve over the time you knew him?

JS: He began to be more precise, more specific, and more detailed as time went on. The actions and movements became more subtle and yet they integrated into the whole pose in a holistic. What he did early on was give anatomical points about where to pay attention and then he would let you have the experience of the movement and energy and consciousness in the body. But as he went along he got more explicit about what he was doing. He realized we needed to hear it. His approach had been to use anatomy and the body as a keyhole into the big room of consciousness and being, but later he began to be more explicit about the energetic and spiritual components in his teaching.

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Iyengar’s Life Lessons: Harnessing and Spreading Energy

YJ: What are some memorable lessons you learned from him?
JS: Live the pose from your whole being. In one class, Iyengar asked me to demonstrate Arhda Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose). I’m was standing there on the platform, balancing, and he said, “See this fellow, his legs are stretching, his chest is stretching open,” and then he swatted me on the side of my head and said, “But the whole pose is coming from his head. He has to bring the pose to life from his cells, from his body.” I realized then that a lot of my poses were coming from a thinking and analytical place rather than me inhabiting the pose with all of my being. I was able to change, but it was a process of changing how I’d been taught and learning to come from a more organic place.

Spread your energy evenly. He was always brilliant at imagery and taking images from nature to convey something about a movement or part of the body or some awareness that he wanted to convey. He only got better at that as time went on. He often would take a leaf—there were trees around the studio—and he would say, “See how the spine of this leaf runs through the center of the leaf but all these other veins carry energy from that spine out to the leaf. That’s how to do the poses, take that energy and spread it evenly. See how all the little veins go out to the very edges of the leaf? Make your consciousness move like that. He was always on one level talking about consciousness and energy.

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YJ: What’s a cherished memory you have of studying with him?

JS: I was taking a week-long pranayama intensive, and we were in the next-to-last class of the week. It was set to be one and a half hours. But just short of an hour he stopped the class. He had taken us to such a place in ourselves that he said, “This is the best I can teach, let’s stop here.” And I’ve never seen him do that before or after. We were in such a quiet, profound and present place, it was awe inspiring. I just felt such love and gratitude to him for having guided me this place; I was in tears. There was no point in going any further. We were there. It was the greatest yoga class I’ve ever had in my life.

Iyengar’s Legacy: Furthering Modern Yoga

YJ: What do you think his legacy is?

JS: He often said, “I hope you will take my work and what I have done and stand on my shoulders and take it to new heights.” His intention was to lay groundwork for us to grow and deepen, and he would try to encourage that in all the ways he knew how. It was always about yoga for him. Everything. When he was out walking around, he’d see images and how they relate to the state of yoga. Whenever he had an opportunity to speak about it, he would twinkle and smile. It was his passion. Whenever he dealt with yoga, you couldn’t help but be effected by his passion for it.

There was a reason Time magazine picked him at one of the 100 most influential people; he affected millions of people.

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He had mixed feelings about yoga in the West. The commercialism of yoga was apparent to him and he was dismayed by that. He felt people were being superficial and not understanding what yoga was. Yet he saw people coming to yoga who would never otherwise have come to yoga and that was a positive part of the popularization of yoga for which he was responsible in a lot of ways.

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John Schumacher is the founder and director of the Unity Woods Yoga Center in Washington, DC, and holds an Advanced Junior I teaching certification in Iyengar Yoga. 

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