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I remember being intrigued with the idea of yoga in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when I was working in movement theater. In our rehearsals, we explored human movement in many forms, including deep and unusual experiments with body, breath, movement, and meaning—which were in part inspired by the work of Polish theater director Jerzy Grotowski, whose work was influenced by yogic practices. This piqued my curiosity, and I began exploring various forms of yoga.
Based on a recommendation from a trusted yoga teacher, I ended up in an intermediate-level Iyengar class on the West Side of Manhattan. It happened to be one of those six-belt, six-blanket, very sophisticated Iyengar classes.
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I couldn’t buckle the special Pune belts properly, and forget folding all the blankets the right way. Even though I had done yoga and spent years studying movement, I felt out of my depth. The teacher was strict—but kind enough to take pity on me and help me as I struggled with the poses and props. We used the belts to apply various types of traction to our backs and limbs, and I felt great during and after class. This prompted me to go to beginner classes, where I learned the Iyengar approach more progressively. I felt like I had found previously unrealized space within myself. The spaciousness was palpable, not only in my joints and spinal column, but also in my mind. Maybe, I thought, there was something worthwhile here. My whole outlook on life had shifted in some way.
Over time, I started to understand the surprisingly creative, playful, and experimental aspects of Iyengar Yoga. I was attending a class taught by B.K.S. Iyengar’s daughter Geeta, in Pune, India, and we were practicing revolved seated forward extensions such as Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-to-Knee Pose) and Parivrtta Paschimottanasana (Revolved Seated Forward Bend). She had us rocking and rolling, moving with controlled abandon. It felt like we were playing jazz music with our bodies, which makes sense: I think of B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of this practice, as a musician of the body, and he was totally absorbed in both the art and the science of his yogic inquiry.
He was also involved in the philosophy of yoga; he sought meaning through his practice and tried to help all of his students practice (and live) fully and meaningfully. He would try almost anything in his attempt to help deepen his students’ understanding of yoga. He was even a bit wild, like a mad scientist—experimental and, at times, playful. For me, the occasional element of play was one of the most effective aspects of his approach (and that of his children) to yoga practice and teaching. Play balances and enhances the work of deliberate practice. It puts people at ease, and it’s as inseparable from who we are as a species as the stories we tell that help give meaning to our lives.
Most of my time studying with the Iyengar family has been spent with Geeta and her brother, Prashant, at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune. For the past 18 years, I have traveled at least every two years to study there. Guruji, as we called Iyengar, formally retired in 1984, but he did not stop teaching. During Geeta’s classes, he would often jump up and take over. These moments were electric. He had a way of speaking directly to my cells, somehow piercing and bypassing any resistance or hesitation within me as I attempted the asana. He had a way of making me feel as if my eyes were connected to the backs of my knees as I dropped back from Tadasana (Mountain Pose) to Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow Pose). He taught us to feel the presence of both fire and water elements within our bodies as we practiced poses like Parivrtta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose). His teaching presence was, in many ways, beyond words.
It was something to be experienced, and I am so grateful that I did.
Once, while in India, I shared a memorable moment with Guruji on the front steps of the Institute. I was with a friend, and we had just arrived in Pune. I had experienced a difficult year due to my father’s illness and had lost a few pounds—maybe three, but no more than that. Guruji smiled sweetly and said quietly, “A little bit thin?” My friend thought that seemed odd, because to her I looked the same. But it was true, I was a little bit thinner and was experiencing a sadness. Iyengar noticed these things. He noticed how we were doing—on the outside and on the inside. And though his comment could have been interpreted as having referred to my outer appearance, it did not feel like a judgment. It felt as if he were acknowledging that I’d gone through something difficult. It was his way of communicating that he noticed and cared. I appreciated that.
For some, B.K.S. Iyengar’s teaching style may not have appeared to reflect this deeper caring. Sometimes he was quite harsh. I neither condone, nor choose to emulate, that aspect of his teaching. I experienced Iyengar as someone who was extremely human, like everyone else. At the end of the day, he genuinely wanted his students to grow and thrive. Because of this and many other reasons, B.K.S. Iyengar has been a huge inspiration to me. His passion, enthusiasm, and endless energy for art and inquiry were infectious. I hold these as his most significant gifts to me as a student—and as someone who loves learning, exploring, and sharing. Iyengar never stopped being fully engaged, open, and curious, and he wanted to share the art of yoga with others. To me, these qualities are as valuable as gold, and they are elemental to what Iyengar Yoga means to me.
I think students of yoga in this century must keep exploring, practicing, and asking the types of questions that Iyengar asked—questions that will keep yogic practices and inquiry alive. We must question and contemplate our values and consciously choose what is most meaningful to us. We must choose how best to help ourselves (and each other) find stability, ease, and freedom in this life. And though yoga is considered timeless and eternal, we must realize that for all practical purposes, yoga lives only in the now. It lives in the present moment through each one of us—in how we treat ourselves and one another.
See also Interview with B.K.S. Iyengar