I first started taking yoga 17 years ago. How do I remember that number exactly? Well, I was pregnant with my now 17-year-old daughter and really wanted to find a yoga teacher who could help me through the pregnancy. And that leads one quickly to Iyengar yoga, since it is the most cautious and health-focused form of yoga with some of the most highly trained teachers. And so, my yoga journey began….
I have been blessed over those years to have excellent, and yet very human, yoga teachers. I was also lucky to have mostly private classes. However, as a result, I never quite joined any one yoga community or developed a consistent practice of my own (shame on me!). And yet, somehow yoga becomes a way of approaching your whole life, not just a class of poses.
There are probably three reasons I never became a completely obsessed Iyengar yoga student:
1. I have a horrible time with languages; so trying to get me to remember a pose in Sanskrit or chant a chant is completely hopeless.
2. I have a shameless sense of humor, so for example I can never really do “Pincha Mayurasana” without calling it “Pinch Maya’s Assana” (Maya is my daughter and yes, I can do the pose).
And 3. I have a deep skepticism of guru worship and an unshakable fundamental belief in the humanness of everyone—even amazing people like Jesus and Bruce Springsteen. So all the “Guruji” stuff creeped me out a bit.
Now, I also know “Guruji” is a Sanskrit term for a spiritual teacher, so I did know yoga wasn’t like joining a cult. Although I was often confused by the total surrender so many people made to not just B.K.S. Iyengar, but also to Hinduism, and all of it mixed together. Perhaps, I think, people are really searching for that one perfect thing to believe in and belong to. And yet, I knew from personal experience that yoga is AMAZING on its own. Healing. Opening. Strengthening. Transformative.
So when, in 2004, the opportunity came to publish B.K.S. Iyengar’s book Light on Life, I said yes. YES. The advance was big, but it was going to help his hometown of Belur, India. And it literally felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was quickly relieved to find out from talking to the team helping him with his book that he was quite human. He DRANK COFFEE! OK, I thought, I can really relate to Mr. Iyengar—or B.K.S., as I called him in my own head.
In 2005, when he came to the States to promote his book, I had the opportunity to meet him. He actually came to our offices in New York. The briefing beforehand was kind of scary. “Whatever you do, don’t touch him” is the main thing I remember. We had to give him garlands of marigolds. We also had a special version of the book made up just for him. I might have been a little nervous. But more than that I was curious. Who was this guy in real life?
So he comes in to our lobby, where I’m waiting, in a swirl of Indian-ness, surrounded by his posse. And the first thing he does is walk right over to me and grab my hands (he touched me first! I didn’t do it!!!). We smiled; he was warm and friendly. And then, he rips off his robes down to his little yoga skivvies and goes into a headstand. I think he’s, like, 87, and there he is in our office lobby, half-naked, doing a headstand! He then starts inviting everyone else to take turns doing a headstand. And as you might imagine, someone turned to me and asked me to do one next.
So there I am, in my Armani pantsuit (back when I wore Armani suits—I no longer own a suit and hopefully, will never wear one again). For those who know me, you know I’m not one to call attention to myself in public. Part of why I like private yoga classes is that I don’t have to do yoga poses in front of other people. (I hate that feeling of being compared or even comparing myself to others). But, I asked myself, could I pass up this chance? I try to live life without regrets, and I knew in an instant that if I did not do a headstand for Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar I would regret it for the rest of my life. Besides, headstand is one of my favorite poses.
And so I did. I had to tuck in my shirt first (otherwise in this picture you would have seen my underthings). I believe he touched me again, by the way. Was it a perfect headstand pose? No. But I did it. And I have the pictures to prove it. It’s a picture that I keep in my yoga studio as a memory of a very special moment in my life…a moment I will never regret.
B.K.S. Iyengar died recently. He was 95. He was human. And he leaves behind a legacy of yoga (which he brought to the United States) that is HUGE. Gigantic. Of all the books we have published at Rodale, I am most proud that we published his. It’s a gift to the universe, to people everywhere, for healing, love, and understanding. Yoga cracks you open to love.
Since his death, are a lot of great quotes from him have been floating around on the Internet. But for this blog, I thought I’d play one of my favorite games, which is to open a book (in this case, Light on Life) to a random page and see what the message is.
Here is what I found:
Balance: Evenness Is Harmony
Through yoga one can begin to develop a perfect balance between both sides of the body. All of us begin with imbalances, favoring one side or the other. When one side is more active than the other, the active side must become the guru for the inactive side to make it equally active. To the weaker side, we must apply attention. We must also show more care. We show keener interest to improve a dull and struggling friend than for an eager and intelligent one. In the same way you have to show yourself this same compassion and act on the weaker side of the body while taking pleasure in the achievement of the active side.
And now, B.K.S. Iyengar is working on the other side.
You have certainly lived an interesting life, Maria. Have you written an autobiography yet? It would sure be an amazing story and one many of us would love to read! I’d buy it!
What wonderful opportunities you have as CEO of Rodale! Glad to get to share in them by reading your blog! Thank you for everything you do.
I would read your autobiography too. Great suggestion Alice!
Love this little yoga story, Maria!
I started taking Iyengar yoga at the age of 71 and now my arms and back are strong enough for me to lift my 6 month old granddaughter. Someday maybe i’ll be able to do the headstand too.
My teacher, Christine Donahue, at the higher Power Studio in Trenton, NJ is trying to bring yoga into the lives of the diverse population of our failing city. She inspires me and so do you. Keep up your practice and your mission!
I started yoga at the age of 67 and I am now 75. My first few years of yoga were spent at a health club doing vinyasa yoga. About four years ago I transitioned to Iyengar yoga and we share the same instructor. Iyengar yoga has changed my life in many ways. Flexibility, balance, and concentration have improved many times over. Classes with other students appeal to me and I have made many new yoga friends, so I attend a minimum of five classes per week. I have Light on Life and read from it periodically. I have attended Iyengar yoga classes in the Lehigh Valley, Boulder, and Buenos Aires, and I feel comfortable and accepted in all of them. And yes, I can do a headstand. Thank you for your comments about BKS Iyengar. He was a very special person to me.