I try to avoid formal gatherings, red-eye flights, checked baggage, and yoga classes too large to allow eye contact with the teacher. But I was curious about the 2016 Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States convention in Boca Raton. I wanted to experience the teaching of Geeta Iyengar, who didn’t teach during my August 2014 trip to Pune. When she had to withdraw, I decided to pack my yoga props and go anyway–to see Abhijata Sridhar, BKS Iyengar’s granddaughter, take center stage.
I made the right decision. In her early 30s, Abhi is a remarkably mature teacher. She was completely in command of her audience, which included prominent senior teachers who were studying with her grandfather before she was born. Beyond her astute instructions, what impressed me was her instinctive common sense. While demonstrating poses onstage, she often directed the cameramen filming her: “Show from the side. They can see better that way.” The screens were behind her, but she always knew when the camera was missing the best angle. Does she have eyes behind her head?
Abhi has an easy, unflappable poise. When students, lying supine, were bumping arms despite alternating directions (head to toe), she said, “Don’t get upset with your neighbor. Maitri! Move your neighbor’s arm into the right place. Then your pose is better, and the other person’s pose is better.” Managing little things like the microphone, clipped to her shirt, is second nature to her. Demonstrating Salamba Sirsasana, her voice suddenly boomed out as the mic flopped down toward her mouth. She calmly unclipped it, placed it on the floor, and then rose into a headstand, deftly showing two common errors, legs too far forward or backward. In her presence, one feels secure.
In 2000 at age 16, Abhijata entered graduate school in bioinformatics at the University of Pune–and also began studying yoga with her grandfather, aunt, and uncle at RIMYI. She became her grandfather’s main pupil and a junior teacher at the institute. Before one of her first solo teaching trips abroad, she asked her grandfather what she should teach. “I was nervous,” she said. His answer: “Just teach what I’ve taught you.”
She had an insight then that people aren’t necessarily interested in what she (then in her mid 20s) had to teach. They want to know what BKS Iyengar taught her. She realized that her value was her relationship with “this man.” (She often used these very words: “this man.” She had a dual relationship with him. He was her grandfather. He was her guru.)
She has a point. Although her grandfather died almost two years ago, Iyengar yoga is still deeply based on his words, on his ideas. She could probably continue to share his teachings for five, maybe ten, years to come.
Abhi told a story of practicing in the hall one day. She was sitting in Bharadvajasana. Her grandfather walked in and asked, “What are you doing? Why are you doing Bharadvajasana like that?” She was perplexed. She was doing the pose just as he’d taught her the day before.
When she tried to explain, he got frustrated with her. That was yesterday’s pose; today is a new day. He said that she was doing not yogasana but bhogasana.
“Habit is a disease,” he said.
You might already have heard this quote. Here, Abhi carefully parsed the words “habituation” and “disease.” She initially didn’t understand why habits are necessarily bad. Especially yoga. Why would daily practice be a bad habit? But she eventually realized that if done only by habit–by repeating what we already know–we are not really practicing yoga.
The future of Iyengar yoga
At the convention, surrounded by a thousand practitioners, I listened to Abhijata’s words; to Geeta on video, addressing the convention from Pune; to senior teachers’ anecdotes and memories. Clearly, BKS Iyengar, while no longer physically present, still dominates the method that he created.
As Abhi pointed out, people are keen to know what “this man” taught her. Indeed, her history of direct study with him from 2000 to 2014 is invaluable. Those teachings will always be relevant and worth studying–same with the photos, videos, and writings of BKS Iyengar.
To honor his legacy, however, at some point we must also look forward. There must be a way to balance the fundamentals of the method with the exploration and experimentation that is the crux of Iyengar yoga. Being an Iyengar yogi can be a conundrum: On one hand, there are “rules” and “standards” (especially regarding certification and assessment) to maintain consistency worldwide. If teachers veer too far from established standards, they are not deemed Iyengar yoga teachers anymore.
On the other hand, rigidly following BKS Iyengar is the antithesis of his actual method. Many consider Light on Yoga indisputable regarding form and technique. BKS Iyengar did not. Published in 1966 when he was 48, it was a moment in his evolution rather than a be-all and end-all. Likewise, we must examine and reexamine and not blindly follow.
After classes with RIMYI teachers, do we quickly teach what they taught us? Abhi advised us to avoid immediately teaching what she taught at the convention. Instead practice a new approach on our own–for a long time. Otherwise we are only parroting others’ words and ideas.
BKS Iyengar wanted Abhi to take his 80 years of knowledge and go further. Not to repeat what he has done. If Iyengar yoga is to continue as a “living” method, Abhi will eventually need to go beyond sharing what she’s learned from her grandfather. Based on her teaching to date, she has enormous potential to do just that.
Q: How many people attended the convention?
A: About 1,200, of which more than half (if I heard correctly) were first-time attendees of a US Iyengar yoga convention. Every day I met new “neighbors” around my mat–including those from San Diego, Omaha, San Clemente, Alexandria, San Francisco, Billings, Nashville, New York, and even London–showing the reach of Iyengar yoga. Note: In the US, regional conferences are held annually, while a nationwide convention is held every three years.
A: Before this, the largest classes I’d attended were at the Iyengar Institute in Pune: 100 to 150 students. But, strangely, after the first few minutes, the mind adjusts. Doing asana, I was aware only of those immediately around me. To see Abhijata, there were two big screens in front, and the group was divided into six groups that rotated around the room.
Q: What are the benefits of such a large group?
A: Today, any class with Geeta Iyengar or Abhijata Sridhar will guarantee a huge crowd. So, if you want to study with the Iyengar family, you must be realistic. You also must shift your expectations. You’ll be “mat to mat” and you won’t get individualized correction–unless you get pulled onstage!
Q: Did she demonstrate on students?
A: Abhi took only a couple of students onstage. The most memorable was a woman in Salamba Sirsasana. We had gone up and were balancing for a few minutes when, walking around, she spied a woman overarching her lumbar spine. “Everybody come down,” she said. “You, come to the stage.”
“Don’t be nervous,” she said, after directing her to go up. To the audience, she said, “She can do the pose and balance, but look from side view.” The student’s front ribs were protruding. (There but for the grace of God go I.) Standing behind her, Abhi gave verbal corrections:
“Move the front ribs toward the back ribs.”
“But keep the buttocks in. Legs must still go up!”
“Front ribs must go back some more.”
And so forth. When she managed to straighten her spine a bit, the audience broke into spontaneous applause–to indicate that her form had improved and to give moral support.
Note: The quotations in this blog post are not verbatim. They are based on my memory and thus subject to my interpretation and creative license.