Mastering the Meeting of Mind and Body
With her image filling the four massive video screens that hang from the ceiling of the Pasadena Convention Center, Geeta S. Iyengar, the world’s leading female yoga teacher, stands on a raised rectangular stage and addresses the small army of yoga devotees arrayed before her on closely spaced rubberized mats. “The mind,” she says through a mobile microphone, “is the last thing to be prepared.” It is a reminder to the gathering of the delicate connection between the intellect and the physical body.
Devotees watch and listen intently as this middle-aged woman from India, dressed in a T-shirt and closely cropped shorts, challenges them to drop their lingering doubts and, for the next five to six hours, tap their inner strength to achieve proper alignment of the various yoga postures. “I see this new popularity of yoga here, but you see, I understand this Western mind,” Iyengar says, adding that “The mind can be tricky; you must adjust it to yoga and face what is happening inside.”
It is 7:30 on this morning in mid-May, the beginning of the third day of the Iyengar Yoga Odyssey 2001, the largest gathering in America of those who practice the variety of yoga developed by Iyengar’s father, BKS Iyengar. Yoga in America comes in myriad forms with myriad names and styles--Kundalini, Easy, Flow, Mysore, White Lotus, Viniyoga and Astanga, to name just a few. Iyengar is “tough-love” yoga, practiced without musical accompaniment, and with no indulgent support. A hallmark of the Iyengar method is an almost drill-like adherence to mastering poses, using intricate instructions regarding alignment. There’s little allowance for grousing or crankiness while performing the poses.
Bruce Schwartz, one of the owners of Pasadena’s Yoga House, has noticed that at his studio, Iyengar followers rarely take other styles of yoga because, as he notes, “Iyengar followers believe their style to be superior.” Preferences for particular styles, he observes, seems to be related to personality traits. “My analogy is, Iyengar yoga is like Bach because it is very much about form. Astanga [sequences of poses that flow into one another] is like Wagner and has a romantic sense with huge emotions, while Viniyoga is more minimalist, like the composer Mozart.”
This day’s fugues are exercises in concentration. Participants watch closely as Iyengar demonstrates poses and then commands them to duplicate her actions. Quietly they struggle to balance their entire body weight on the palms of their hands, stand 10 minutes on their heads, master deeper stretches, or practice pranayama, a rhythmic breathing pattern, as a portal to higher consciousness.
When it becomes apparent that participants are not mastering her directions, or the demonstrations of other master students, Iyengar calls neophyte students to the stage and moves arms or widens a stance to improve a specific pose. On the ballroom floor, she is assisted by some of the country’s top yoga instructors: Patricia Walden, Manouso Manos, Mary Dunn, John Schumacher and others, teachers with large followings of their own, who individually correct members of the crowd. Occasionally Iyengar comes off the stage to correct an individual, but her stance remains unrepentant and unrelenting as she demands that everyone try harder and be more self-reflective. “Unlike my father,” she says on the fourth day of the convention, “I will not shout at you; you must find it inside yourself.” Still later she declares: “When you come to yoga, you have to give everything.”
North American Tour
Geeta Iyengar is an intense, opinionated woman who spends most of her year teaching in Pune, India. She softens for a few moments as she sits on a folding chair surrounded by her traveling entourage of four in a room that is now emptying of 200 teachers. A quick smile pops onto a face that shows some of the strain of nearly five days of being the center of attention, adoration and questions. Her monthlong North American tour has included a smaller yoga convention in British Columbia, a lecture and the acceptance of an award from UC Riverside (which has established a certificated yoga program through its extension program).
At 57, Iyengar is comfortable with her path as a modern female pioneer in the world of yoga. Previously the life of a yoga practitioner was reserved for the Brahmans (the priestly class of India’s Hindus), and then only for men. To find another female yogi of her stature, one would have to reach back to the 14th century when Lalla, a Kashmir mystic, distinguished herself as a practitioner.
Iyengar remains heir-apparent to the form of hatha yoga her father developed in the 1930s. The Iyengar method, as well as developing approaches for reinforcing more precise alignment in yoga poses, also introduced commonplace props, such as folding chairs, blankets, and benches, to facilitate the process. It has become one of the most universally practiced forms of yoga, even though its insistence on discipline rankles some.
Iyengar dismisses that criticism as a lack of understanding of proper alignment and the Western mind’s desire for easy answers. She believes that Iyengar yoga helps develop a stronger connection between discipline and compassion. Those who follow the Iyengar method learn not to groan or complain, and how to push through the pain. “Normally, people think discipline means something strict,” Iyengar tells her students, “but it is not so, because it is for your own development. To be on the proper disciplined path is important because it is through that process that compassion can bring softness.”
Bonnie Anthony, a La Can~ada Flintridge resident and master Iyengar teacher, believes yoga has sustained her health and fortified her spiritual well-being. “I tell people, yoga is an art, science and philosophy, but not a religion, and that it has everything,” Anthony enthusiastically explains. “There has been a tremendous change in perceptions, because when I started 30 years ago many people viewed yoga as something weird, but if you really examine its followers, you’ll find it cuts across race, religion and class.”
Interest Started Early
Iyengar is pleased by the growing recognition that greets both yoga and her own teaching. After four decades as a student and assistant to her father, she has increasingly moved into the forefront as the director of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute established by her father a quarter of a century ago in Pune. In earlier interviews, she has described how when she was young, she told her aunts that she intended to run away to an ashram to become a yogi. “I was always on the yogic path,” she says. “There was no question whether I should be in it or not.”
Iyengar was drawn to yoga as she playfully imitated her father during his daily practice. In those early years, she also began to notice a slow procession of prominent Indian politicians and luminaries, such as the philosopher Krishnamurti and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, to her father’s doorstep. Their fascination sparked her interest. “Of course I didn’t know these people were important,” Iyengar says. “But I did understand my father was special.”
Though she had merely viewed yoga as a childhood game, at the age of 9 she suffered a life-threatening kidney disease that, for the next two years, left her breathless, heavily medicated and occasionally unconscious. Because money was tight, her father eventually gave her a single admonishment, “Either embrace yoga or live until the disease takes its toll.”
Slowly, young Geeta developed a practice, and within months she began to feel better. After a few years, her health was restored, though she acknowledges there is still some residual weakness. The experience taught her that “degeneration is quick, while progress comes slowly.”
Her commitment to yoga became apparent to outsiders when in 1959 a high school teacher asked her to organize a yoga demonstration. After graduation in 1961, she started teaching yoga at local schools and substituting for her father when he was away on international tours. It would be another five years before his groundbreaking book “Light on Yoga” would be released, establishing him as a leading force in the world of yoga; she would publish her own book, “Yoga: A Gem for Women” in 1983 and another, “Yoga in Action: A Preliminary Course,” this year.
Iyengar has never married or had children. “My mind was all the time in yoga,” she says, “and that is why getting married never occurred to me. My mother saw there was a genuine interest and gave me her permission.”
At this stage in her life, “I’m very happy with what I’m doing,” she says between classes, and she now finds that her daily yoga practice has become a gift for old age. “Yoga is an inner journey that helps to keep oneself healthy, not just on a physical level, but it gives inner mental peace and maturity.” While she sees yoga as a valuable tool to for coping with daily living, she rejects popular trends to use it as a quick fix-solution for various ailments and aches. Instead, she says, “I feel there are so many things to learn from yoga that can help old age become pleasant.” She’s quick to add that she is “not talking in terms of Western ideas about beauty that demands one to remain and look young, even in old age.” Rather, she is prepared “to accept a mature mind that has experienced many things, and from that yogic experience I can find a better way.”
As yoga’s popularity continues unabated in the West, Iyengar frets that its rapid spread may result in improper dissemination of information. Rather than merely exercising, followers, she says, must learn how to still the agitated mind. “Quietness is necessary for everyone,” she says, “and that is why yoga is so important. It teaches us how to be with ourselves.”
It is the Indian tradition to retire at around 60, though her 82-year-old father still teaches occasional classes at the institute. She looks ahead to the day when she will pull back from actively lecturing and managing the institute.
Even then, she says, her yogic path, like her father’s, will continue. “The experience has its own depth,” she says with a warm smile. “It is not a question of learning yoga; it is a question of experiencing because yoga has no end; it has only a beginning.”