Judith Hanson Lasater: What it was like to study with B.K.S. Iyengar
Yoga Journal: How did Mr. Iyengar influence you as a yoga teacher?
Judith Lasater: I met him in 1974 and I studied with him consistently for 25 years. In 1983 he gave me a senior teaching certificate. I wasn’t expecting it and I didn’t go through the assessments—he gave it to me spontaneously. And my first thought was, “I better get serious!” It was one of my greatest honors. He has been the singularly strongest influence on my practice and teaching, though I’m not a certified Iyengar teacher anymore. Even today I still continue to hear his voice in my head. His use of props inspired my approach to Restorative Yoga. Iyengar taught that you should bring the pose to the person, rather than force students into the pose. Early on, some people felt that it was cheating to use props. We used to have discussions with people about that. Mr Iyenger would say: “The body is the prop for the soul. So why not let the body be propped by a wall or a block?”
See also YJ Interview: Judith Hanson Lasater
YJ: What was Iyengar’s role in making yoga more widely known?
JHS: Mr. Iyengar was a people person and was very curious about the world. He was willing to come to the West and really see how Westerners were different. Unlike some other Indian yoga teachers at the time, he didn’t ask us to wear orange robes or practice brahmacharya or be vegetarian. He made yoga more accessible to people who were confused or put off by trappings of Hindu culture. His teaching was more Zen-like: Do the practice and the evolution happens. He would say, “Practice your own religion—yoga is not about religion.“ In the beginning, we called him Mr. Iyengar, not Guru-ji. He knew the teachings of the Yoga Sutras and the tradition, but he didn’t sit up on a stage and tell us how to live. He was down on the floor with us, looking us in the eye.
3 Life Lessons from B.K.S. Iyengar
YJ: What were some life lessons you learned from Iyengar?
1. He showed me how to lighten up. We were at an invitation-only yoga workshop at a retreat center in the Midwest in 1976 with a group of very serious students of Iyengar. We were totally immersed in yoga—even after dinner we would hang in lounge area and talk about yoga. One night Mr. Iyengar came in and said “Come on, we’re going out. We’re going bowling. You can’t do yoga all the time. You’ll be more fresh tomorrow.” He was horrible at bowling, throwing gutter ball after gutter ball and we laughed hysterically. Yet it was also a lesson. Here was this master who practiced for years and hours a day with great devotion, saying, “Live your life; don’t just do yoga—you’ll get stale.”
2. He taught me to pay attention. When I met Iyengar I was in physical therapy school. What he was saying about alignment made a lot of sense to me in my head but it made more sense to my heart. He didn’t see the difference between moving your arm with awareness and living with awareness. There was one man in that first class who seemed to have vibe of wanting to be spiritual. Mr. Iyengar stood in front of him, looking at his alignment, and asked, “Do you want to know God?” The man replied, “Yes, Guruji!” “Well, you don’t even know your foot!” The teaching was to be aware. When you became aware, then the alignment is obvious. Awareness reveals alignment. It’s easy to say, but hard to remember to do. But Iyengar was fierce in his devotion and fierce in his correction. He held you to the highest standard. He wanted your attention, your commitment. He wanted it to match his. The worst thing you could do in his class was not pay attention.
See also Interview with B.K.S. Iyengar
3. He showed us how to face fear. We took him to Yosemite too and he stood at one of the lookouts, looking at the view. There was a small fence, 12 inches tall, and he stepped over it and walked right to edge of huge outcropping of rock and did Headstand. The park rangers were going insane. I had to walk away—I couldn’t look. It was so unlike anything I would ever do. He said, “You can’t be afraid.” It made me look at what am I afraid of, and what I believe I’m capable of doing, and why. Fear can save your life—you should be afraid of a bear or walking in traffic. But most fears arise in us are unrelated to the actuality of the threat. You cannot tiptoe through life if you’re going to really live it. You have to take some emotional risks.
Judith Hanson Lasater studied with Iyengar for 25 years after meeting him in 1974. She’s known for systematizing and popularizing Restorative Yoga. She is a co-founder of Yoga Journal