Today, I am marking the 96th anniversary of B.K.S. Iyengar’s birth. Mr. Iyengar changed the practice of yoga and was instrumental in bringing the practice of asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breath work) to the west. I was very fortunate to be able to study with him three times, once in the US (Ann Arbor, MI) and twice in India (in Rishikesh and Pune). It’s the third time that I’d like to share with you today.
It was 1998, and in my transition between living in Japan and starting grad school, I had the amazing experience of studying at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India. I studied with B.K.S. Iyengar’s son, Prashant, and daughters, Geeta, Suchita, Vanita, and Sunita, for October and November, then stayed for his 80th birthday celebration. However, even during the time he was not directly teaching, he would come in and out of the space, sometimes taking over classes to make a point. He was fierce!
Studying at the Institute was an interesting opportunity to learn at a much deeper level about yoga (six classes a week, plus observing regular, children’s, and medical classes) and about India. As an interculturalist, I found fascinating the challenges that the many foreign students from all over the world experienced – I joked that I could make a living going into intercultural counseling there. The expectations were very different from in the US – you were expected to follow instructions and not question what the teacher said. In the Indian context, hierarchy is much more important than in our low-power-distance culture. Respecting those above you was very important, and students’ questions were often perceived negatively. Understanding this and having lived in Japan where this was also the tradition, I had a much easier time than many of the others.
In India, the 80th birthday is a very auspicious occasion, so as November wore on, hundreds of students of all levels of experience began to arrive for the birthday celebrations. The actual two-week event included some yoga classes, but also many Hindu ceremonies, exhibitions, and events. Guruji was often described as a lion in class – demanding and uncompromising, yet a lamb in other interactions, generous and loving (if you could get over the fear of approaching him)!
Here are some of my photos from that experience. It’s impossible to capture the feel of the air, the incense and spices, the interactions, and the timing of it all, but these may at least give a sense of that experience. These are scanned photos, not the best quality, but still viscerally remind me of my time there. Namaste!