Tough Teacher


I made my seventh trip to Pune this past December. The primary reason was to honor my teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, on his 80th birthday. I also had hopes of having classes with him, although when I signed up there were no guarantees that he would teach. He fulfilled my wish by teaching all seven of the scheduled three-hour asana classes and one of the Pranayama classes as well. In addition, he conducted question and answer sessions and gave talks on subjects ranging from practical methods of doing asanas to the intricacies of yoga philosophy. His stamina was awesome, and he still had the best backbends in the place.

I've been studying with Mr. Iyengar since 1981. What has drawn me on the long journey to India so many times over these past 18 years? An incident that occurred during my second trip reveals the reason.

One morning we were working on Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) and Mr. Iyengar directed me to come onto the platform and do the pose. He gave several instructions about the pose as I held it, trying desperately not to fall over while he spoke. Suddenly he whacked me on the head with his hand and said, "This fellow's problem is he works always from his head." The blow was much more full of sound than fury, a sound that awoke something in me. He was absolutely right about my working from my head. And this was true of me in much more of my life than just my yoga postures. I realized that I was learning a lot more than details about yoga poses at that moment. For perhaps the first time in my years of practice, I saw that while asanas and pranayama are so beneficial and important in themselves, they are also a vehicle for understanding myself more deeply.

Having observed Mr. Iyengar's teaching over time, I think that he has continued to expand the dimensions of the practice of asana and pranayama. He has elevated these physical disciplines, which bring health to the practitioner and allow one to sit comfortably for meditation, to the level of therapeutic and meditative practices. In recent years, he has increasingly related asana and pranayama to the teachings of the classical texts, particularly the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. In so doing, he has guided his students toward the wisdom in those works in a very accessible and palpable way.

Like many of his students, I have tried to incorporate what I have learned from Mr. Iyengar into my own teaching, from the subtleties of the actions of the poses to the inclusion of the fundamental principles of yoga in its broadest sense. And like many of his students, in the beginning I did so primarily through imitation. To teach with authenticity, however, requires that the teaching emanate from the teacher's own experience. As the years have passed, I have found my own voice, my own way of presenting his work, or to be more precise, of presenting the fruits of my practice derived from what I have learned from him. This has come in the same way that everything in yoga comes: through effort, through trial and error—discovering what works and what doesn't through repetition and persistence, reflection, and adjustment.

For me one of the most inspiring things about B.K.S. Iyengar is his determination to find his own way, to discover the eternal truths of yoga for himself firsthand. One of his greatest gifts to me has been his living example of the importance of discovering for oneself what is real and not simply taking someone else's word for it—not even his. Yet for all I have learned from B.K.S. Iyengar over these past 18 years and the changes he has wrought in my practice, my teaching, and my life, what continues to bring me back to India is the deep connection I feel with him when I am in his presence.

Over the years there have been times when I have feared him, when I have admired him, when I have disliked him, emulated him, and been moved to tears of joy by him. I have studied with him, shared meals with him, entertained him as a guest in my home and in my studio, exchanged letters with him, dreamt of him. I experience that connection most profoundly, though, in his classes. At times, it is as if he and I are in a dance together. His instructions and adjustments move my awareness and my body in the same way an experienced dancer moves his partner—confidently, firmly, with subtle gestures and touches. Of course it isn't like that every moment of every class, but when we are working that way, I can feel what he is guiding me toward, and I can feel that he can feel that I can feel it.

Yoga is often defined as union. Between us, in those moments, yoga takes place. The possibilities of that experience have taken me back to India again and again, and my love, respect, and gratitude for the man who continues to open up those possibilities took me back to honor him on his celebration of the passing of a thousand moons.

John Schumacher is the founder and director of Unity Woods Yoga Center in the Washington, D.C., area.