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The Day Mr. Iyengar Died

Empty yoga studio

I was sitting on the floor at the end of last summer in an empty yoga studio in Soho. It was the end of a long, hot day teaching a yoga workshop and assisting my teacher, Maty in a teacher training. Before heading back to my place for the night, I was using the wifi and the quiet in one of the empty studios there to catch up with online things, loving the sunset light coming into the old room and the sounds of worn-out tourists growing quiet as the street below darkened with nightfall. Just as I was about to stand up and head for the subway, I got a text from my friend. “BKS Iyengar died.”

Instead of leaving the studio, I did something that I would never have predicted. I am not an Iyengar teacher and I have never met Mr. Iyengar. So, it was a surprise to me that I sat there and cried hard and non-stop for a couple of hours.

Until I got the text, August 19 in New York can best be described with one word: swell. It was a rare and fine kind of day that makes me sure that practicing, learning, and teaching yoga was exactly what I was meant to do. I was in the world’s greatest city working with disciplined practitioners and my masterful teacher. It’s obvious that I would not have had that swell day without the work that Mr. Iyengar did and shared. There was no surprise in acknowledging that. What was a surprise was that I realized that night that I am who I am, very literally, because of him. I was curious how a man I’d never met had so deeply influenced my identity.

I took my first yoga class in the mid 90’s in Washington, DC with an Iyengar teacher in training, Bart Church. I’d seen an ad in the local free paper for a series of yoga classes that were happening in a church in my neighborhood. That first night, I met Bart outside and helped him haul vast quantities of blankets up to the practice space, having no idea what this tremendous amount of what I heretofore only knew as bed-wear could possibly be used for in a yoga class. I was scared, but Bart was cheerfully intent that blankets mattered, so I helped.

The first pose in that class (and in my life) was Virasana, or Hero Pose, which we held forever and which I hated. Hated. (If you are not familiar with this pose, the Land o’ Lakes lady has silently demonstrated a version of it on butter boxes for years.) If people said, “WTF” back then, I’d have shouted it about five minutes into the class. I had no idea that we were going to be focusing on such minutiae and I was ready to do pretzel stuff. My thoughts were along the lines of: “Stop talking about the inner shin, please” and, “It’s none of your business what my anal mouth is doing at this or any moment”.

Fortunately, something important also happened in that class. Bart was an excellent teacher and I left the class wanting to come back for more, which I obviously did. (This is my 18th year teaching yoga.) I practiced regularly and almost exclusively in Iyengar classes for a few years after that and, even after becoming a committed Ashtanga practitioner, I continued to study with Iyengar teachers and I still seek their advice, even though I think I’m really smart, because they’re all smarter. And that is because of Mr. Iyengar.

So I had a big fat surprising and long blubber on the Soho studio floor that evening. A lot of people were sad, but probably not surprised at their sadness. Late to the party though I was, in between snotty expulsions into hard yoga studio toilet paper, I wondered why I was so upset and thought about what Mr. Iyengar gave me. First to come to mind was the Iyengar teacher who has taught me the most, Lisa Walford.

Lisa Walford

When I arrived in Los Angeles in 2000, I presented myself as a pretty big deal, although I was justifiably insecure just under the surface. I was teaching The Red Hot Chili Peppers on a massively successful world tour. Whenever the tour schedule would allow, I would go back to my hometown, Washington, DC, to teach Vice President Al Gore’s family while they supported his campaign for President. And I was in my 2nd year as the first Adjunct Professor of Yoga at American University. I had only been teaching yoga for four years and, based on these gigs, I seemed to think I was hot shit. Yet, as overfed as my ego may have appeared, it was eclipsed by a constant sense of failure in my responsibility I had as a teacher. I recognized that I didn’t fully know what yoga was nor how to teach it. But I was determined to find out.

When Mr. Gore did not become President, I got the hell out of DC and landed in the YogaWorks teacher training three days after moving to LA. It was taught by Maty Ezraty and Lisa Walford, both of whom continue to be my main asana teachers. Lisa ignored my career triumphs and spoke to the ignorant and scared aspect of me by clearly articulating where I was weak, which was almost everywhere except in passion. Conceited as I was, I appreciated that she steered clear of praise, which had done me very little good up to that point, and which I really didn’t merit anyway. And that was my first exposure to one of the great gifts that Iyengar teachers have given me- their clear eyes and their unvarnished feedback.

Lisa continued to provide a clean and honest mirror for my practice and my teaching as I made my way up the teaching ladder at YogaWorks. When I became the Director of Yoga Content at a much larger YogaWorks a dozen years after taking the training, she was the one I ran everything by, and she never failed to be direct and truthful. And when I sent her an email explaining why I decided to resign from that position, a decision that disappointed her, she replied with a one-word email that was perfectly Lisa and weighty with meaning: “Hmmph.”

So, when I found out about Iyengar dying, one of the first things I did was to email Lisa. I thanked her for teaching me yoga and I told her that I loved her. It was an obvious and necessary thing to do. What wasn’t so obvious was why, other than the candor, Iyengar yoga had become so important to me. I’ve spent the past seven months since then thinking about it.

BKS Iyengar is credited with inventing, perfecting, and / or popularizing several aspects of modern asana practice. It’s fairly well-known that he taught the first group asana classes and that he has integrated the use of props as part of a regular practice. Of his many contributions to modern asana, in addition to the incredible Lisa Walford, these are the things that have meant the most to me personally and professionally.

1. The Alignment

Over decades of teaching, Iyengar amassed a vast body of precise information about alignment. And, although all of the teachers who’ve influenced me have encouraged me to tailor my practice and my teaching to my own understanding and experience, there is not one single Iyengar alignment principle that I have ever felt needed editing. I love to change things, but there is just no need to change Iyengar alignment (which, it must be said, includes constantly adapting to the individual). It’s that good.

Although I call myself an Ashtanga practitioner, I think that most Ashtanga practitioners, who have a very different idea about the importance of precise alignment, would call me an Iyengar practitioner … whatever. Call me names if you will, but, learning alignment from Iyengar teachers before learning Pattabhi Jois’s vinyasa system, which includes very little alignment at all, has kept my practice relatively free of injury for a long time now. It works.

Thank you, Mr. Iyengar.

2. High Standards for Teacher Training

Having not met the man, I couldn’t have learned any of his method if he didn’t develop a rigorous, long, and thorough teacher training program. But, he did.

Before beginning to teach Iyengar-sanctioned classes, one must practice in his method for at least two years, followed by a minimum of two years of teacher training, and culminating in a written exam. a demonstration of asana, and a demonstration of teaching skill. The official Iyengar website list only 3,892 teachers worldwide.

The Iyengar teacher training requirements contrast sharply with those of Yoga Alliance, who’ve somehow become the standard bearer for the vast majority of trainings in the US. They require no previous practice experience, and 180 hours of training, for which there is no syllabus, no exam, no skills assessment, and no oversight. Their standards have had a horrible effect on the quality of yoga teaching in the world. And, because those standards are so easy to meet, there are currently 38,965 Yoga Alliance-registered teachers, according to their website. None of them are Iyengar teachers.

In my years of teaching, I have had thousands of students tell me about injuries they’ve gotten in yoga classes. The amount that happened in Iyengar classes is miniscule. That is because every Iyengar class is taught by a highly-educated, skilled professional teacher.

Thank you, Mr, Iyengar.

3. The Pace

The 2nd of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is “yogas chitta vrtti nirodhah” That translates to: “The practice of yoga is to still the movements of the mind.”

When I was first starting to develop teacher training curriculum at YogaWorks, I was tasked with making a list of the many well-known ways that yoga practice had been defined over the years. When I asked Lisa Walford how Iyengar yoga could be defined, her answer was something that would be foreign to most practitioners of popular flow-type yoga. I can’t remember her exact words, but I’ll never forget the essence of it, because it happens every time I practice … she taught me very much of what I do on my mat. She told me that Iyengar practice is a process of focusing the mind, in an intelligent sequence, on different aspects of experience in asana.

Doing that takes time. I can’t do it quickly, no matter how many years of practice I have under my belt. I once overheard Chuck Miller, a great Ashtanga teacher who also has a lot of Iyengar experience, say to a student, “We have to stop seeing the practice as a checklist of poses.” He has often said, perfectly articulating the effect of a slow practice, “Find the cosmic in the mundane. Find the infinite in each second.” And be said to me once, a bit more directly, after my feet tore through several slats of wooden blinds in a fancy moment of showing off Chakrasana, a backward somersault, “James, slow down.”

Seeing what happens when I slow down, more than anything else that Iyengar gave me, through his teachers and the teachers who’ve learned from them, is, without a doubt, the most valuable gift that I’ve ever been given by anybody. As technical and complex as Iyengar practice might appear to be, its practice showed me the way to my soul. And for that, I am most grateful to Mr. Iyengar.

There was no more perfect place than that studio floor to hear the news of his passing, because I wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for him.

I want to know that his soul is resting. I hope that he is finished working. He changed the world. He changed my world. He made my life much better than it would have been otherwise. And I never even came close to meeting him.

So, that evening in Soho last summer, I cried. And it took me this long to figure out why.  I cried because I was finally happy. And I was happy because his teaching showed me where happiness lies.

Thank you, Mr. Iyengar.

1 thought on “The Day Mr. Iyengar Died

  1. the fantastic teachers mentioned in this article came together because Mr Iyengar. Thank you! .

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