Wanted to share my thoughts on the passing of BKS Iyengar, and to celebrate his wonderful spirit.
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It was on my first yoga trip to India seven years ago when I was introduced to BKS Iyengar’s classic guide Light on Yoga. In a small ashram in a rural part of South India, we would practice Iyengar’s method, a strict regime of physical practice and the breathing exercises. As respite, I would rest in hammock on the porch of my hut amidst the coconut trees and try to take in the theory of yoga – my mind awash with Sanskrit and mind-bending ideas on the self and the cosmos, unknowingly shaping my life. This is the closest I have ever come to BKS Iyengar.
I had already been practicing physical yoga for a good few years, both hatha (restorative) yoga and astanga, and from the astanga I had been prepared for a very prescriptive approach to yoga (each movement and breath are defined and coordinated over a 90min sequence). At least I thought I had.
The Iyengar approach is indeed exacting, and it was amazing how unfamiliar that felt. The emphasis on precise alignment, the precision of the sequence, of the breath and the duration of the pose make the practice exhausting both physically and mentally. Poses I thought I could manage with relative ease became an exercise in humility, patience, and raw determination as I struggled under the breath and close-set eyes of my teacher. More disorientating still, was the sheer practicality of the approach – no ceremony of any kind – incense, candles, music, or soothing words to “soften the blow”. Just practice, practice, practice.
I think to have met BKS Iyengar in person would have made a real difference – to really understand first-hand the sentiment behind his method. I had read much about his ill health in his youth, and how helped him overcome this to live to the impressive age of 95. But actually meeting someone gives you an infinitely richer understanding of what they stand for, a sense of context, and even a sense of connectedness or ‘ownership’ over something that’s taking place in the world, like it’s ‘your thing’ too, somehow.
Nevertheless, I recognise I’m very fortunate to have been able to have gone to India and had that experience. Many who would love to will never get that chance. But Iyengar’s passing has made me realise a couple of things. I’m sorry to say as a yoga teacher I have never met, or trained with a famous Guru. I certainly hope to one day. I’ve known many who went to Mysore and trained with the late Sri Pattabhi Jois and heard their tales. To study with the greats must be incredible for one’s own practice and impart wonderful experience to pass on to others.
However, I also recall Iyengar saying that yoga is meant to be learned under the tutelage of a guru, and, while he may have brought yoga to the west, the concept of a yogi having a single guru from whom they learn has been largely lost. This is a shame as I never cease to be amazed by the number of talented teachers there are in London alone who would be up to the job.
These days many of us we flit from power yoga one day, to an acro class the next. There are so many styles, each one with many merits, and the diversity that has flourished as a result of Iyengar’s influence is incredible. We attend workshops of the big names in yoga and sample their wisdom and talents, but struggle to get to real benefit in a packed studio of 80 people.
Yet what I think many of us are missing is that original formula for yogic training: an apprentice, with their guru, undertaking that precise practice, practice, practice. We all need a guru close to home. We also need those stars far away who will inspire us and help lay the path of yoga for the future. Finally, we need to remember the wisdom of those who gave us this gift, and whose light has now departed this earth, shining on us from elsewhere.
Thank you, Guruji, if I may call you that, for bringing us yoga.