Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Guruji

If you read The New York Times, or listen to NPR, you may have heard the name B.K.S. Iyengar, the legendary yoga master who passed away on August 20. Mr. Iyengar's students called him Guruji, which means beloved teacher. I have been practicing the form of yoga that bears his name since I met my first teacher during a California earthquake in 1989.

Although I never had the blessing of meeting Mr. Iyengar in person, most of my teachers have studied directly with the Iyengar family, some for decades. All of my teachers have stories about Guruji's incredibly demanding teaching style, his fierce demeanor, his sense of humor, and his burning zeal for the practice of yoga.

The eleventh of thirteen children, born to a poor South Indian family, Iyengar suffered from numerous tropical diseases and was not expected to survive childhood. As a weak and sickly teenager, he was sent to live with his sister and her new husband, yoga master Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was a strict teacher, but Iyengar credits him with introducing him to the yoga that would ultimately improve his health and set him on the path to teach others. At this time in India, the practice of yoga was going through enormous changes. While it is true that some yoga postures can be found carved into stone in ancient temples, a surprising number of yoga poses are relatively modern transplants from disciplines as diverse as Indian wrestling, British army calisthenics, and even Scandinavian gymnastics!

This global melting pot of practices was simmering on the burner of the Indian Independence movement when B.K.S. Iyengar was striking out on his own to teach. Mr. Iyengar was one of the first Indian teachers to instruct large groups of people. Because his students came from all walks of life, and didn't all speak Hindi, classes were given in English. Teaching in a language he was not fluent in forced him to develop a highly specific way of communicating the actions he wanted his students to perform. It is these directive, specific instructions for each posture that make this form of yoga unique. This is why becoming an Iyengar yoga teacher means a lifetime of study and practice.

Most people credit the violinist Yehudi Menuhin with bringing the teachings of Iyengar to the west. A devoted student of yoga, Menuhin wrote the foreword to Iyengar's 1966 book, Light on Yoga. Menuhin credited his yoga practice with helping improve his violin playing, and even gifted Guruji with a wristwatch inscribed with the words, "To my best violin teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar."

Menuhin arranged for Iyengar to travel to Switzerland and Belgium, where he taught the 80 year old Queen Elisabeth how to do a headstand! Iyengar began to travel regularly to the U.K. and then to the U.S. These international travels eventually resulted in Iyengar's teachings spreading all over the planet. There are hundreds of Iyengar Yoga schools around the world.

Mr. Iyengar said “You do not need to seek freedom in a different land, for it exists with your own body, heart, mind, and soul.” It is this freedom that we taste when we practice with enthusiasm, attention, and devotion. This is the reason so many of us get "hooked" on yoga.  Yehudi Menuhin, who was the first Jewish musician to perform in Germany after the nightmare of the Holocaust, surely felt this freedom inside himself. If we don't take responsibility for the tension that we carry, and find ways to transform it, we can be cruel and hurtful. Menuhin described this as "the tragic spectacle of people working out their own imbalance and frustration on others." Don't we see this in our world today, in Gaza, in Ferguson, in Syria?

The other night, our yoga community took part in a nationwide commemoration of Guruji's life. From Hawaii to Maine, teachers and students gathered in yoga studios, churches, living rooms, or wherever they happened to be. Across all of these time zones, we were practicing the same simple sequence of postures while holding our beloved teacher in our hearts. A friend of mine, a yoga teacher in NYC, performed the sequence while stranded at the Newark airport! I prepared our studio by building an altar and stringing flower garlands. The room filled with students, some beginners, some with decades of yoga experience. We all brought our hands together in gratitude for a practice that has transformed us. As we sat and breathed together, I was filled with the sense that Iyengar's legacy lives on in all of us. Only his body has died. His teachings live on, in each posture performed with concentration and devotion. In each quiet breath.