Twenty four hours ago, the world lost B.K.S. Iyengar. By witnessing the worldwide remembrance of this man who barely stood five feet tall, it is clear that he was a true giant to mankind. I personally have to admit I was pleased to see that he out-trended Nicki Minaj on Facebook.
Today the social media was flooded with tributes and expressed sadness of his passing. We are all mourning his loss in some form. I picked up an edition of Astala Yogamala from my bookshelf as I often refer to the text when I need inspiration. It is one of eight volumes that encompass many of Guruji’s writings. Iyengar immediately jumped out at me as I started reading. It is then I realized he will live on through his teachings and through his writings.
It seems like one of the things Iyengar was both praised and criticized for is his sharing of ancient yogic knowledge to those who were willing to learn. Before it was only transmitted from guru to shishya (teacher to pupil roughly translated). He was the first to teach yoga to large groups of people at once. By teaching this way, he had to innovate not only the way yoga is performed, but the way it is taught.
Through much blood, sweat and tears, he developed a method of teaching that allows the proper transmittal of the ancient wisdom in an accessible and digestible format. This is the method that we have to learn in our teacher training and assessment process that takes years, not months.
When I first started my teacher training, I asked another Iyengar student if she thought the method would die out because it was so hard to get certified. She replied “just the opposite, that will make the method live longer because of the purity of the teaching.” I am just now starting to see the wisdom of her statement.
There are amazingly few certified Iyengar teachers worldwide compared to other styles. There are less than 1000 in the US as of last count. In contrast, Yoga Alliance has more than 40,000 registered yoga teachers in the US. Go to any US city and look up an Iyengar studio, and you will always find it on page 3 or 4 of Yelp.
Iyengar yoga is an obscure and distastful style to newcomers and young people. It requires a discipline that is reminiscent of parochial school. We don’t allow students to “do their own thing” like random handstands and half-baked natarajasanas on their own whim. Furthermore, we don’t burn incense, we don’t use a playlist, we don’t jump around (at least in contrast to other forms), we don’t have mirrors, and we don’t heat up the room. Instead, new students come into a room with strange wooden furniture and ropes on the wall. I have heard the “dungeon” and “medieval” references more times than I care to repeat. Funnily enough, the macho guys who have dabbled in serious marital arts seem to “get it” more than the Lululemon clad women.
Meanwhile across town the Corepower yoga is thriving. People there are complaining that they have been turned away because the large number of people have exceeded the fire code capacity. I have to admit that I have become discouraged at times about this. But then news comes that the teacher everyone loves there has gone away to Wanderlust or some other spiritual-du-jour festival. The students go away too only to be replenished by new students. This cycle repeats itself about 4 times a year.
Then I look at my students. I have about six in my Saturday morning class. Several have been studying with me for over 10 years. Quite a few more over five years. Then there are the ones who try it out. Some stick, some don’t.
Iyengar yoga does not attract the fitness buff. Even in Light On Yoga, you see that Iyengar at his prime does not have a washboard stomach that is much prized in today’s culture. And that is the magic of Iyengar yoga. You see something transform magnificently right before your eyes. You see a five foot man with roundish stomach land and prop up gracefully in Dwi Pada Koundinyasana from Sirsasana II. It is this brilliance that the rest of the world sees that is blind to the Western eye.
So this will be the way of Iyengar’s yoga. You will have a few dedicated students that study for years. You will not have throngs of up-to-date fashionistas breaking the fire code. But 30 years from now there will still be Iyengar yoga. As for Corepower, only time will tell…