Abhijata and the Future of Iyengar Yoga

Part 1 of a three-part series

In May, I attended a six-day virtual intensive with Abhijata, granddaughter of BKS Iyengar. I had seen her teach twice before and I had the same reaction: I can learn something from this person.

In her latter 30s, Abhi is the current standard-bearer of Iyengar yoga. What does she bring to the Iyengar legacy—seven years after the loss of her grandfather and almost three years after Geeta passed away?

I could rattle off her obvious strengths as a teacher. She knows the human body. Her sequences make sense; her pacing feels right. She is an excellent communicator, with the family gene for vivid language and storytelling. Her teaching goes beyond nuts and bolts and into philosophy and the mind.

But, to me, her particular gift is “emotional intelligence.” She has a natural ease with people. She has a maternal quality. She makes people feel safe. Especially apparent is her patience, her tolerance: She handled her preschool-age son’s frequent interruptions with remarkable composure. For us students, it was amusing, if slightly distracting, to watch him “assisting” her poses, stealing her AirPods, chattering away, building play structures with yoga mats and bolsters. Abhi occasionally seemed weary managing him, but never lost her cool.

She also fielded numerous questions from participants, including those sent in real-time questions via Zoom Chat. Never was she impatient, even with simple queries that a Level 1 teacher easily could answer—or with issues too idiosyncratic, applicable only to the questioner.

More than being just courteous in her responses, she was reassuring. One participant, after describing sciatica pain during Setu Bandha on bricks, trailed off, “I’m unsure what to do.” Abhi immediately said, “No! Be very sure what to do,” before giving advice.

Personality Suited to the Current Zeitgeist

Wearing her traditional long braid and “uniform” of polo shirt and Pune shorts, she comes across as informal, unpretentious, approachable.

Once, she used a bit of American slang, “my bad,” when we ran out of time for Sirsasana. “In the same manner,” she said after we finished Sarvangasana, “apply these principles in Sirsasana. Today—my bad—I did not manage my time well.” Her predecessors wouldn’t have used this idiom (I don’t think).

She’s also a working mom with two young kids, a role we didn’t see in her predecessors. BKS Iyengar had six kids, but he was older—in his late 50s and beyond—by the time his teaching attracted North Americans.

To me, Abhi’s personality reflects the current zeitgeist. People expect inclusivity, respect, and the “platinum rule” (treat others how they want to be treated). Simply avoiding egregrious violations of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter is not enough. Today it’s important not to offend.

Abhi’s predecessors were more fiery, more demanding in bearing. Would that type of personality—and that type of teacher-student interaction—play well in today’s mainstream? I don’t know. BKS Iyengar would be a giant in the yoga realm no matter what—he is a pioneer. And countless current disciples who never got the chance directly to study with him would be first in line if they could (I include myself here). Same with Geeta.

But surely there are those who would criticize a “tough love” approach. All it takes in today’s Internet age is one cell phone capturing one “gotcha” moment—and, out of context, reputations crumble. I can’t imagine Abhi ever getting caught losing her temper or saying something regrettable.

This is not new

One thing that stood out to me in Abhi’s teaching was her repeatedly, emphatically crediting her grandfather. Over and over, she said, “This is not new.”

During a lesson on Paschimottanasana, a participant asked about the technique via Zoom chat and Abhi immediately said, “This explanation of Paschimottanasana was given to me by my grandfather. Nothing that I teach is original. It was explained by Guruji.”

Another time, after she taught a dynamic version of Dandasana to Paschimottanasana, she said, “This teaching of throwing breath is not new! Guruji was teaching it. It was always there in Iyengar yoga. Please don’t think that all this is new. It’s not new!”

True, the method is “not new.” But Abhi, in her own way, is transforming the method as she upholds her grandfather’s legacy.

Note: The photos in this post were taken by Nancy Baldon at the 2016 US convention, which I attended, in Boca Raton, Florida. Both Geeta and Abhi were slated to teach, and I was disappointed when Geeta had to withdraw. But Abhi headlined the huge event with ease. She was a star in her own right.

I had already seen Abhi in August 2014 during my first trip to Pune. She would sit with her grandfather on his front porch, directly facing the institute, as we filed out en masse around noon.

10 comments

    1. You’re welcome, Christy. I wanted to post promptly after the intensive, but my thoughts were all over the map (and summer and that heat dome slowed my pace!). Let’s chat soon in person.

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    1. As I repeated each class (same day, same time) while the recordings were available in May, I thought of you doing the same! Thanks for comparing notes with me immediately post intensive, Dianne, and for your comment here.

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  1. Thanks Luci. You captured the essence of Abhijata’s teachings perfectly. She combines the insight, compassion and wisdom we need with a new take on traditional asana instruction in a way we can respect and admire.

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    1. Thanks for commenting, Drew. I wonder if any others in the Iyengar family are studying yoga. It must be both honor and burden to carry the mantle. Hope all’s well in Winnipeg!

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  2. Luci – loved reading your thoughts about Abhi’s intensive. I, too, was captivated by her warm personality and caring demeanour – toward us and her little boy! I’m enjoying the recordings and find I gain new ideas each time through. (Especially fond of her concessions to ‘the elderly’.) I look forward to your parts two and three!

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