WAWADIA update 13 /// Learning With Iyengar, Learning Against Iyengar

WAWADIA update 13 /// Learning With Iyengar, Learning Against Iyengar

 

 

The Lion of Pune is dead. So many accolades have flooded the web. I’ll review some of these sentiments and their tensions, and then finish with a tribute of my own, which will be somewhat different.

I’ve been moved by the respects paid by people who didn’t know Mr. Iyengar, but felt blessed by him nonetheless. For some he lived in a distant temple of the mind, radiating promise and nostalgia. A benevolent general, armed with every answer, should you ever have the courage to approach him. This, all while you carried that fading copy of Light on Yoga around for years, battered and held together by rubber bands, as it helped to hold you yourself together, through all of the skidding disasters of your life.

(What a book! To stumble upon it in one’s twenties, perhaps a decade after the end of childhood sports and un-self conscious pleasure in movement, after one’s body had become an object of pubescent shame, adolescent melancholy, sexual tentativeness and the repressions of working life. To crack it open and be told Your body is sacred, look how it can move, look how it can breathe. Your body is a temple: hold your head high. What an incredible relief. And bombastic medical claims to boot! Who wouldn’t love the author?)

Then there’s the poignant, if less effusive, testimony of folks who never practiced his method or displayed his portrait on their personal altar. Thousands acknowledge the profound impact of his teaching, even at several degrees of separation, upon the very possibility of “yoga” showing up on their radar. If you came of age in the postural yoga world from the 1980s onward, it is impossible for you to have avoided Iyengar’s influence and brash promises, bellowed to an increasingly disembodied world. Everybody who heard his call seems grateful, even if they didn’t follow it.

Next come the senior students, who offer tender and personal memories of his kindness, generosity, commitment and zeal. Many say he healed them directly of various ailments, just as he healed himself in his youth. Because of him, they’ve gone on to lives of great service and prominence within the ragtag hierarchy of yoga education. They bear his name on their letterhead, and owe much of what they do to the proclamation of his authority. Conditions both professional and psychological conspire to scrub their public gratitude free of the ambivalence so natural to long-term intimacy with someone as difficult as this man was.

His ornery excesses are forgiven with a smile that hides some strain, I think. Sylvia Prescott writes: “It’s true he might give somebody a slap, but that slap would wake up that part of the body so you didn’t forget it.”

Well I’m glad that worked out for her. But I wonder: what did it wake up in others that they couldn’t forget?

Judith Lasater writes,

He was renowned for his impatience. This stemmed, I believe, from his passion for giving to us everything he had learned, from wanting so much to help us avoid the mistakes that he had made, from his desire to help the world be a better place.

I’m sure that’s partly true. But altruism can never fully explain impatience, or the anxiety beneath it.

The elegies of senior students tend to conceal how much they themselves reject or modify Iyengar’s mood in their actual teaching. It’s no secret: they’re almost all nicer than he was. No one today punctuates their knowledge with as much pomposity and violence as the master did. Those who try to mimic his wrath are marginalized – perhaps not quickly enough – as upstart pretenders. You’re not the master, they are told. You have no right to be that cruel. But for the vast numbers who carry his torch more gently, it seems their devotion has taught them as much what not to do, as what must be done. I always wonder if and how they consciously decided that they would not be as dictatorial as the person they wanted to emulate in every other way.

The point of my homage is this. We learn in at least two ways from people. These two ways mirror the stress of parents-and-child constellations. We learn through people, and we learn against people. The senior Iyengar teachers I’ve taken class with seem to do both at the same time, but they hide the against part.

I remember being in an intensive with Aadil Palkhivala in Chicago over ten years ago. He told a story about how “Guruji wanted to teach his ego a lesson” one day, and so asked him to hold full handstand in the middle of the room for twenty minutes. Iyengar strutted around the quivering young tough, describing to the crowd how poor his form was. When Palkhivala came down, his shoulders were in pain, and then frozen and useless for several months afterwards.

Like a character from Chekhov, he smiled as he told the terrible story, warm at the memory. I was confused about everything but this: it was clear that at least at that time Palkhivala would never do the same to me or anyone in that room. He was telling the story of a great encounter with a great man, but definitely that era was over. A few days ago, he wrote of his guru: “He taught me with intensity and with kindness.” I knew Palkhivala would never teach us with the same intensity. The paradox is that he clearly understood it was wrong, but he was expressing gratitude nonetheless. Or was he asking for empathy, under the guise of reframing and normalizing abuse?

There are many who got close to Iyengar’s intensity and learned just as much, if not more, by turning the other way. You will not readily find their tributes to the master, because it’s harder to write about learning against someone. The hagiography machine drowns out the nuance.

Of my thousands of yoga contacts on social media, there’s only one westerner I’ve seen dare to voice an openly conflicted response to Iyengar’s death. Denise Benitez, who studied and taught Iyengar yoga in the 1970s and 80s, expressed gratitude for the master’s “keen eye and passion for precision”, but was mindful of his “patriarchal, old-school guru” persona, known to “humiliate, bully, and shame his students”. Speaking to the necessity of learning-against, she recounts:

In the 80’s, one of his senior male teachers was inappropriately touching women in classes. I was one of those women. When this was told to Iyengar, he said that all of the women who had reported this were lying. So on the occasion of his death, I am left with an unsettling mix of emotions — the passing of an era, the jewel of yoga that he brought forward, his narcissism and ferocity, the fact that he had been homeless, sickly and lost as a boy, and that yoga saved him, as it has saved so many of us. All I can do is wish his spirit well, with all my heart. May his soul rest at ease.

There’s no telling how many Benitez speaks for, but I imagine it’s a lot. So where is she now? What lemonade has she squeezed out of the 1980s?

She runs a studio in Seattle. It’s beautiful and warm. Maternal in a way, which speaks to the changing gendering of yoga pedagogy. The ceiling of the main room is festooned with dozens of hanging lights cloaked in enormous amber silk spherical shades. There’s no sense of a lurking father ready to interrupt, assess, judge, banish, prescribe or authorize. You don’t get the feeling in this room that you will be instructed in the yoga of what somebody else thinks you should do, or how somebody else thinks you should be. I think we could call it a feminist space.

There are darker stories than this you may or may not be aware of. It’s unlikely you’ll hear them while the cremation coals are still warm. People clam up at funerals, and it’s hard to interrupt the choir. None of the stories are new or controversial. There are people who were injured in Pune, and elsewhere. People who were slapped with a flat hand across the face, or kicked in the head. People who were told repeatedly they had no intelligence or did not listen. People who couldn’t stay around for long enough to feel the man’s rumoured tenderness. People who could not stay because they knew they didn’t feel safe in his presence.

What did they go and do when they left his sphere? Happily, many nurtured their own creativity in response to having been shut down or shamed by someone who taught his own program with such strange fury. They left Pune, or the baroque certification process, and went to teachers who were softer, or masters of other disciplines. The second major wave of globalized modern postural yoga – featuring improved biomechanics, psychodynamic intelligence, and even books on non-violent communication (!) – seems to be riding on the injured bodies and minds of the first.

I’ve been researching yoga injuries for nine months now. Many people I interview describe their chronic injuries being correlated to the intersection of strenuous effort and dogmatic instruction that marks the details-fixation of the modern alignment movement. Many suffered because they were asked to cast their bodies to a template and drive themselves to express more “openness”, more “intelligence”, to transmute more prana. It felt really good to them, until it didn’t. Where did this template come from? Not tradition, not literature. From 19th century transnational physicalist health ideals? Maybe. From the symmetries of temple architecture in Maharashtra? Probably. But mainly from the frantic imaginations of a few men – not women – who everyone forgot were experimenting with a new claim: hatha yoga is therapy, and there is some ultimate way to do it.

Many of the injured figured out that if Iyengar was experimenting, they could too, but opt for humility and curiosity, relaxation, a sense of teacher-student equality, and careful attention to issues of transference and countertransference in the classroom. It is doubtless that Iyengar stimulated wonderment in the body. This contribution is matched by another: he showed modern yoga teachers – even his senior students – how not to do the interpersonal.

The debt to Iyengar that modern yogis owe is like the debt to a father. It can feel like you literally owe him everything. He is “the man” as Palkhivala says “to whom I attribute my birth itself.” Perhaps the best way of making good on that debt is to leave the father’s house, and recreate yourself.

It’s strange how the first therapeutic things you reach for in your life can be energetically similar to the things that are causing you pain. Early on, it seems that we need something familiar enough to trust, but different enough to change us. In my own case, Iyengar yoga woke up my flesh in an exquisite way. But it did so through the same power dynamics that I was trying to flee. From my Catholic childhood, being told what I should do to please God in great ritualistic detail was my natal template for learning. I needed to escape this. It felt for a while like an Indian version would help.

Mr. Iyengar, through his book and his students, spoke to me in the familiar and therefore authoritarian language of my upbringing, but with a message that sanctified rather than repressed my body. He took me out of the church by telling me my body was a church. This was good. I felt the vaulted space within me, the clerestory, the stained glass of shifting emotion. And a certain emptiness.

Back then, I assumed somebody should bark at me like priests did – because that’s how I was wired to receive knowledge, love, and acceptance. It took me a long time to realize that the barking was the real problem, much more stressful than any dogma. I’d had enough of the demands for self-improvement. Eventually I realized that I didn’t need or want to be told what to do, especially in my body, which seems to produce its own alignment and pleasure when I am gentle.

So for this I am supremely grateful to Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar: his anxious genius, forged in his own teacher’s fire, sent me hurtling away from him, to land in a softer and less certain world.

 

 

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Post image is a screen cap from “Samadhi: B.K.S. Iyengar“, a short film from 1977. Time marker 7:26. Iyengar is walking across the spines of a line of women in child’s pose. 

 
 

29 Comments

  1. Omiya

    This is a common theme by Western yoga students in respect to the old Indian male teachers: Krishnamacharya standing on Pattabhi Jois in the famous back end, rumours of Pattabhi Jois’ ferocity, and of course Iyengar. It is important to note that this “old, Indian man” pedagogy is cultural and not surprising or alarming to those not raised in Western ways. This does not excuse it, and some modern, Indian men are more progressive and open-minded. But not much (witness the recent moves backwards in Indian politics).
    This does not mean that I disagree with this piece (full disclosure, I am an Indian born and raised in Canada). I just think that the cultural context is often missing in these pieces, and it is important. These three men are almost as priests in their practice, and their teaching method is normal by older Indian standards. Western students are not used to such obeisance to authority, but in India, it is expected (even if this is something that needs changing and is finally starting to change, because such obeisance to male authority has made Indian society very dangerous and oppressive to women).

    • This is a rich theme to pursue for sure, and beyond the scope of this post, and my knowledge. My impression however, is that by the mid 1960s, the majority of Mr. Iyengar’s professional work was global and cosmopolitan in nature. This might be a complicating factor.

      • But does globalization of his teaching automatically assume his cultural backdrop should then be eradicated? Not another excuse, but to dismiss the cultural aspect on the basis that he was teaching globally by the mid-60’s assumes that change can and should be as quick as the tide that carried him—not so easily done, by anyone.

        Complicated, yes. But an integral piece of the puzzle too. Touching on the Western cultural base, particularly from the Catholic view without going into more depth on the other side paints only a partial picture, even though you’ve coloured in several pieces that although not new have gone largely unmentioned.

        Although Guru culture may have reached its inevitable (and due) endpoint, understanding “old” Indian pedagogy in light of Mr. Iyengar’s legacy gives balance to bias.

        • I take the point, and will defer to those with greater insight here. I’m content to leave this piece as an artifact of intercultural confusion. I hope that whoever does take it up can also draw out issues of class performativity. I highly doubt there is video of Mr. Iyengar standing on Yehudi Menuhin’s spine.

          And I’ll add this. It’s not enough to consider Mr. Iyengar’s culture alone, but how and why those mainly western students who brought him to the world stage tolerated behaviours they would not have tolerated at home, from authorities of any sort. I’ve heard one unconfirmed report of a woman who returned Iyengar’s slap across the face with a full hard slap across his face. But in the vast majority of situations, it seems that no one intervened to check his behaviour when he was acting out on a student. His birth culture does matter, but as soon as world travellers began to show up at his Institute, a new culture was created by everyone present.

          • rennata

            From someone having the same cultural background, an Indian yoga teacher with whom people had a hard time also because of his intellectual ferocity (like his own teacher´s ferocity), one day told me: I´ll tell this just for you… but Iyengar is a beast.

  2. Kevin Knox

    Thank you Matthew for this insightful and rather courageous post. You’ve made me appreciate afresh how lucky I was to encounter Iyengar filtered through the kind, skilled kinesiologist who’d trained with him (and saved my shoulder), after which I was equally fortunate to encounter Pattabi Jois not directly (which probably would’ve put me off yoga altogeher) but through the equanimous, meditative and gentle filter of Richard Freeman and his senior students.

    As someone who’s used hatha yoga as an adjunct to Buddhist practice for decades I also have to say that I’ve always been astonished that anyone would view any of these leading lights of MPY as spiritual teachers. Mssrs. Iyengar and Jois were all about asana and pranayama; not only did they never get to (or rather, they actively disdained) meditation, but both (perhaps Iyengar more than Jois) were legendary for their anger and general ill-temper – meaning they hadn’t even entered the path of yoga from a Dharmic perspective.

    The reverence accorded to Jois and Iyengar is of course only a subset of that shown to Krishnamacharya. Mark Singleton and David Gordon White have shown us what a masterful – and, essentially, lineage-less – innovator Sri Krishnamacharya was, but what I haven’t seen discussed in any detail is the inherent clumsiness of a Brahmanical Vaishnaivite whose view of soteriology is firmly rooted in caste, duty and the efficacy of rites and rituas adopting and adapting techniques from the anti-Vedic, salvation-through-one’s-own-works-alone sramanic tradition from which Patanjali, Buddha and the yoga tradition as a whole springs.

    • George Franklin

      I’m not sure either Prof. Singleton or Prof. White would claim today that Krishnamacharya was exactly lineage-less. Recent manuscript work by Jason Birch (“Unpublished Manuscript Evidence for the Practice of Numerous Asanas in the 17th-18th Centuries,” lecture given at the University of Vienna 2013) as well as Norman Sjoman’s earlier work make a compelling case for an extensive earlier asana tradition. This tradition made it possible for Krishnamacharya to innovate. We live in an exciting time for yoga scholarship, and new discoveries are being made all the time that revise our understanding of the tradition.

    • David Silverberg

      Interesting points here Kevin. Mark Whitwell has essentially put forward the argument that T. Krishnamacharya was secretly transmitting Tantric and as you have pointed out, Sramanic teachings. Mr. Whitwell isn’t a scholar, but it certainly is an interesting idea. I suspect the apparent antagonism between the yoga tradition and orthodox vedic thought has to do more with the cultural backdrop of “hinduism” and it’s darsanam then anything else. That is to say, these ideas were separate ideas in practice until a certain group of people attempted to synthesize (some might argue sanitize, Wendy Doniger is good for more on this) them. As I’m sure you know, Samkhya through textual sources appears outside the vedic canon or at least silent about it.

  3. Liz J

    Thank you, I needed this. I had such angst in the teacher training program-self created as recoil from the ferocity. I trained during the taliban uprising and after our US assault. I’d come home after teacher training and my husband’s response to my state was, “yoga is like the Taliban, they preach love but do violence”. The one main teacher I reacted against was modeling her Indian guru and these ways are like hatchets for many Americans, for myself, who stayed in the training program because this air was familiar coming from a violent childhood, very violent father. I held on to the pelted pearls in spite of having to crack off the crusty mud overlay.
    I studied in Pune for the month of June while Mr Iyengar practiced in his studio among us, and felt the ancient air, cultural differences and richness. I admired the sage teacher who chose to teach and share the faceted diamond depths of his yoga. I honored him, his body-the amazing beautiful human body, and his life accomplishments. I was humbled in his presence. I have a Master’s degree in a specialty of the human body and felt this was from another planet in his presence. I still climb the certification ladder because the current teachers, the next generation, many of them, not all of them, are GOOD. I’m lucky enough to be able to choose my teachers. The ones I study under teach to surface and inspire, to animate our connected common divinity, through the parts that should be revered and continue in, their teachings of Iyengar yoga.

  4. Karen

    Teachers physically abusing students and parent abusing their children might be accepted in some countries but that does not make it right….

  5. The biggest problem I have seen with Iyengar Yoga is American Iyengar teachers thinking they must or can act like BKS Iyengar or Geeta Iyengar. It is completely anachronistic and belies sycophantic behavior, almost a battered spouse syndrome. The teachings and the Teacher must be separated from the style of teaching.

  6. Hideous Kinky

    From my pint of view: A girl child with an abusive father, and a: Not- going-to-leave-him mother… From a girl child who studied with G. Kraftsow, and who was in-the-mix with Desikachar. !!!!!! Dealing with people necessitates someone to be ‘in charge’, and from there ‘authority’ takes it’s necessary stance/place. Without someone/s ‘in charge’ FRICK’IN PETTY CHAOS ensues, (and the the petty little childish battles between the many many ‘children’ becomes almost beyond the pale). YES, we NEED someone/s to lead, and to say, “that’s enough Bevis. No more out of you, Butthead”. I am so not kidding. The agendas of the children. Makes the world SPIN (like an angry jealous self-defeating top). This is where parenting is needed. How to parent, that is the question. I think we all know how, we just have tooooooo many issues to actually ‘just do it’.

  7. Rachael S.

    I very much enjoyed your thoughtful and expertly communicated tribute article. I bow to your courage. Well done.

  8. Thanks so much for your thoughtful commentary. My experience with Iyengar in Pune in 1989 was very different. He was very kind and gentle with me. He even joked with me and namasted me when he would see me in the hallway. In the previous six months I had gone through separation from a nine-year marriage. I was physically, mentally and emotionally beaten down when I went to Pune. I feel that Iyengar sensed this and realized he didn’t need to smash my ego since it was already about as flattened as it could be.

    That said, I observed his gruffness and intensity in his dealings with many others in my group. And I definitely heard lots of stories from people who had been kicked, slapped and yelled at over the years. While I was not injured while working with him directly, I did sustain some long-term damage to my joints because of some of the alignment instructions that I have since abandoned.

    I always wondered at those teachers who felt a need to take on his personality in their own teaching. The angry intensity of these teachers never attracted me. Most of my favorite teachers are those who learned his method and then struck out on their own, for example, Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, Donna Farhi, Judith Hanson Lasater, Angela Farmer and Viktor VanKooten.

    I was in Pune right after the outing of the senior teacher you mention in your article (the incident with Denise Benitez). The senior teacher took his wife’s place on the trip so that he could talk directly with Mr. Iyengar about what had happened. I remember being shocked that Iyengar would blame the women for the teacher’s inappropriate behavior, especially when the vast majority of his Western students were women. I would attribute this to cultural differences, but women get blamed for being taken advantage of everywhere in the world, including here.

    I appreciate your commentary because it reflects the complexity of all of humanity. None of us is all sweetness and light and none of us is all evil and darkness. Iyengar was human. His passion for Yoga was contagious, and I’m very grateful to have gotten to work with him. I have fond memories of his kindness to me at a time when I really needed it. I’m also grateful to have had his passion translated through so many of his senior teachers, but I also recognize his humanity. His methods really did change the face of yoga. Even though many of his alignment techniques didn’t work for many of us, he did get people thinking about the importance of being aware of not just doing poses, but how we practice them.

    • J

      BALANCE

  9. “It’s strange how the first therapeutic things you reach for in your life can be energetically similar to the things that are causing you pain. Early on, it seems that we need something familiar enough to trust, but different enough to change us.”

    This is profound, and I will be contemplating it for awhile I suspect.

  10. Thank you so much for writing this. Although I have never trained with Iyengar myself, I know his influence is within many of the classes I attend and the classes that I teach myself. I have read his books and attended many Iyengar-style classes. Here in Cape Town I have noticed the Iyengar teachers have a very dogmatic approach, which can be perceived as aggressive, which I have actually found to be quite amusing. This seems to have come from their mentorship and training. Such an approach is alien to my understanding of yoga. However, I have also learnt a lot from them as regards alignment so it is a kind of double-edged sword!

    My biggest learning curve, as far as my own yoga practice is concerned, is that the guru is actually within ourselves, and whilst it is good to have teachers to guide us (facilitate us) on our path, it is ultimately OUR bodies, OUR mind and OUR breath. No-one should trample or stand on my own sacred body.

    I strive as a teacher to let go of my ego (which is hard at times) and try to teach with gentleness, compassion and peace (also not the easiest thing to achieve).

    Iyengar was one of our greatest teachers of yoga of this modern age, and like all human beings, thank goodness, was not perfect. There is so much good we can take from his teaching, in some instances we can also learn about how not to teach so we can be thankful for his contributions to our overall understanding of good teaching and the evolution of yoga. What was acceptable in schools 100 years ago is not acceptable today, and so we evolve.

    Breathe in the good, breathe out the bad!

  11. My current long-time teacher studied iyengar for many years but parted from him due to the sex scandal you mentioned (because the women were being blamed) and because Iyengar’s abusiveness toward students was something he could no longer tolerate. I, too, had to part from my long-time teacher for reasons you might be able to guess. I discussed all this with my current teacher and he told me that it was appropriate to be grateful to my former teacher for all the things he had taught me and opportunities he had given me, even as I walked away. So I always try to do that for both these teachers, cultivate gratitude while at the same time staying clear about their flaws.

    I may write more about this later but for now I will just say we all have important lessons to learn from watching yoga teachers who are given immense power by their students. Very few handle it well. I’ve read about a syndrome that explains some of it called Acquired Situational Narcissism. When everyone treats you as if you are special, you begin to believe it yourself. This must be especially challenging in a guru culture.

    But because I am an Iyengar-style practitioner and teacher, I am grateful to him every day. I intentionally chose not to study with him directly but with several teachers that he trained, who are brilliant and wonderful people. His teachings passed to me through them have made my life better in innumerable ways.

  12. Eric D. Myers

    Who’s angry and offended??? The Western mind and it’s oh, so fragile, self-delineated (self-deluded, indulgent and imprisoned) boundaries of self.

  13. a yoga student

    Wow. thank you so much for this. i too felt conflicted with the news of his death for similar reasons. I am surrounded by people who venerate him, as I also do for the reasons you gave. but i saw that this system is abusive in a hierarchical way that starts at the top. not all the teachers fall into it, thank god but a lot do. and its really not ok.

  14. julie

    Shame..it seems you have totally missed the point, take your ego out of your thinking snd practice and think again!

    • Thanks Julie. What is the point, in your opinion?

  15. Hi Mathew Remski, I wanted to read further but got stuck at ” No one today punctuates their knowledge with as much pomposity and violence as the master did.” That’s much too pompous and violent itself, and I suspect is mearly rhetorical. No time for such windy science. Bye
    Michael Forbes

    • Well the observation is subjective of course, and there is a spectrum of views and memories. Including memories from those who felt verbally abused. So while I could have used many alternate words, my choice is not a rhetorical turn.

  16. Just what I needed today. Struggling with the patriarchal guru/authoritarian approach to healing my own body (and facilitating healing in others). We must practice and teach “inner wisdom” as the prevailing scope, even when in the hands of well-meaning teachers. Strict, methodical yoga traditions coming from charismatic, impassioned individuals (mostly men), while rich with potential for healing, are fraught with complexities and potential for harm. Your thoughtful and well written article touches on truths that are hard for the cult-like followers to hear. Thank you for your honest assessment of a yoga culture that requires inquiry/investigation if we are to evolve as a community and transcend as individual practitioners.

  17. jly

    Wow. So happy to have happened upon this article. I’m in some sort of post-Iyengar assessment process grief phase and am questioning everything about a practice that I have been passionate about for almost twenty years. Any ounce of validation I come across about the dark side of the system is seems to help. Thank you.

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