Meeting B.K.S. Iyengar for the First Time
Yoga Journal: When did you meet Mr. Iyengar?
Joan White: I met him in 1973 in Ann Arbor. Since 1968, I had been studying with Mary Palmer, one of his earliest students in the States. Before he came, I’d recently had a baby and a bad horseback riding accident and I called her and said, “The prognosis is very bad. I can barely move.” Mary said, “Don’t worry, honey, I’m going to get B.K.S. Iyengar here and here’s going to help you.” And he did.
Life Lessons and Wisdom from B.K.S. Iyengar
YJ: What are some life lessons you learned from him?
JW: Have no fear. In the late 1980s Mr. Iyengar was teaching us about yoga philosophy. He told us about a passage in the Bhagavad Gita that says that the soul never dies. You wear your embodiment like clothes and take off those clothes when you die, but your soul keeps going. Something in me resonated with this. So often, death is conveyed as fearful, unknown. But the way he presented it removed my fear. He said this is what the texts tell us, this is what I believe. You can accept it or not. It was a pivotal moment for me because my mother was ill then. I felt a burden lifted. He was such a positive human being. Recently, he said he wanted to die happy, and he did. He fulfilled his mission to bring yoga to the world.
See also Honoring B.K.S. Iyengar
You have to laugh. In 1973 when I met him, I had given him a gift, a book about Ann Arbor. In 1974 when he came back, he gave me a photograph, a picture of himself laughing. And he wrote on it: “May this picture inspire you in the practice of yoga.” On the one hand here was this teacher who was an incredible phenomenon, and on the other hand here was this man who said, “You have to laugh and to be able to laugh at yourself—that’s also part of spirituality.
B.K.S. Iyengar the Teacher: Never Say the Same Thing Twice
YJ: What made him exceptional as a teacher?
JW: One of the things that blew me away was his ability to teach, even though his command of English wasn’t that good. He could see instantly if people got it or not. And he would come up with another way to say things. That became one of the hallmarks of his teaching, that ability to never say the same thing twice. I studied with him for 41 years and in those years he never repeated himself one moment to the next. He always talked to the people in front of him. He said you have to teach from the known to the unknown.
In the early years, he used to end every class with us saying, “May today’s maximum be tomorrows’ minimum.” He held us to very high standards. We’d come back the next day to continue where we left off. He was a tough teacher.
YJ: What did you learn from Mr. Iyengar about teaching alignment?
JW: In 1991, we were watching Mr. Iyengar’s back-bending practice. He was doing an Inverted Bow, a very difficult pose to do the way he does it. At a certain point his face became almost beatific. I don’t say that lightly, but there was no strain, at all, none. His skin was glowing. You could see it was soft. He was so far beyond any of us. He taught us as teachers to look closely at students’ faces. An advanced student wasn’t somebody who could just do everything. It was the quality of the organs of perception—eyes, ears, nose, throat, and skin— that told him if the practitioner was advanced. His concept of alignment went way beyond the musculoskeletal body. He said that every pose works not just on your muscular skeletal body, it works on your internal organs and the internal organs affects the chemical balances in your mind, so every pose affects the mind. So when you go to the level of the mind and it’s from there you’re going to be able to go to the level of the soul.
YJ:What was it like watching such a great teacher age?
JW: I feel very, very lucky to have observed how he aged. He never lost the fire. He never lost those amazing flashing eyes. He was never known for having a lot of patience. He was a lion who stayed like a lion, but he started to mellow. What I observed as he aged and we aged, was the process of how to age. It wasn’t that you give up on teaching—you have to find new depth in what you are able to do. You have to learn to let go of what age takes from you. When someone would ask, “Are you still doing this or that pose?” he would say, “That phase is over.” It was hard for him. It is hard for me. It’s hard to lose things that you took for granted.
See also 5 Ways to Age Better
Iyengar On Giving Back to the Global Community
YJ: Iyengar gave generously—tell us about his service projects in India.
JW: In 1973 he took the money he earned teaching in Ann Arbor and gave the money to a leper colony because they didn’t have a mill and couldn’t grind grain. He always helped people. Yes, he helped all of us Westerners with our physical and mental problems and guided his long time students. But he also felt he should give back to the land. He was born in the little town of Bellur that he’s named after, in a one-room house. He developed that village. He built elementary schools and paid the teachers, then bought ambulances, and developed the water system. He would go down there and see the children doing yoga and he would give them special prizes to encourage them. He built the high school for women because before that they had to walk too far to the nearest school and got attacked on the way. This is where his money went—into Bellur—all of us have contributed and raised funds for that project.
Iyengar’s Legacy: Yoga is for Everyone, Every Body
YJ: What is his legacy?
JW: He’s left us the idea that you can take a philosophical text like the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutras and you can work, using the physical body to achieve the results that are described in these texts. Up until he taught this, I don’t think anybody did. We have plenty of people doing seated meditation, but why couldn’t you meditate in action? Why can’t you take yourself towards the core of your being from the periphery? His legacy is that you can find means within yourself through self-study to take yourself as far towards God or the Self or the soul as you are willing to go, if you are wiling to do the work. The other important thing in his legacy is that yoga is for everyone, every body, not just a chosen few. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re ill or infirm because there are ways for you to still experience the benefits of these poses and the benefits of your own intuitive self knowledge. He never put down other people—we are all doing yoga. Everybody has to find their way.
Joan White teaches Iyengar Yoga in Philadelphia and holds an Advanced Junior I teaching certification. She began studying with Iyengar in 1973, and traveled to India 27 times to study with him.