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.
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.