Highly creative and charismatic individuals with an abundance of energy and intensity, both Robin Williams and B.K.S. Iyengar created light and touched the lives of millions. They were geniuses, highly innovative and gifted. Academy Award nods and a Nobel Peace Prize nomination, both men will undoubtedly have their art influence future generations. Sadly, Williams succumbed to the darkness but Iyengar, until his last breath on August 20, continued to be the distiller of the darkness.
B.K.S. Iyengar, or Guruji as he is affectionately called by many, has taken his final journey. In the days following his death, and on the anniversary of my 30th year since I first discovered Iyengar yoga, I am inspired to reflect on Guruji’s role in my yoga journey. I feel incredibly blessed because in addition to all that I have learned from him, Guruji has shined his light directly upon me in the past year. Today is celebratory in nature for it marks the termination of the traditional 13 days of mourning after Guruji’s death and signifies when the soul is to be liberated. I celebrate and commemorate his tremendous contributions to the world with my sentiments, memories and words.
In 1993 when my son was eight months old, I left him all day for the first time in order to attend the Iyengar conference at Glendon College in Toronto. I was finally to encounter the 74 year old man whose work had been so impactful on my life for the past ten years. Watching Guruji take command of the room and hearing his first instructions, I was simply in awe of his prowess. When Guruji asked for someone to demonstrate Sirsasana, or Headstand, I was standing right in front of him and volunteered. He nodded and I went up into Sirsasana. Guruji gave a few instructions and then placed his thumbs deeply into my ears. I felt the intense pressure of his thumbs pressing inward and then firmly pulling and lifting upwards. He intoned strongly, “If you don’t learn to do this pose from inner intelligence and not just from physical strength, you will have trouble with your ears.”
Twenty-one years later, I continue to feel the indelible imprint of his thumbs. When I practice Sirsasana, I often recall his touch and sharp words and try to understand and implement his message. Guruji’s insight was profound because over time I actually developed tinnitus and a hearing loss. Guruji’s intention for his students is to reside in our inner knowing. I continually strive to develop greater intelligence in my body and I try to guide my students to develop this as well.
In 1997 I had the good fortune of studying at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune, India for the first time with B.K.S. Iyengar, his daughter Geeta and son Prashant in the 3-week Canadian Teachers Intensive. This was the last Intensive that they would teach together. As I prepared for the trip, weaning my youngest child was a poignant part of my pending separation. But when the students arrived on our first afternoon and chanted om together, I experienced shivers of excitement and tears of gratitude for being in India at this time. During the teaching of backbends in the middle of the Intensive, Guruji demonstrated on me several times. Like the lasting impression of his thumbs in my ears, I have retained the memory of his slap on my outer thigh and hear his compelling instruction: “This is dead! Wake it up!” Guruji’s vision, his words, his touch, his presence … they were of a magnetism and sleight of hand that is difficult to comprehend. During this trip to India I also took the initiative and asked to meet with Geeta. She agreed and generously gave me an hour of her time, mentoring me to become the first Iyengar yoga teacher to formalize and help spread children’s yoga in Canada. My gratitude to her for this is immeasurable.
I returned to the Institute to study with the Iyengar family on four more occasions, each time leaving my three young children to embark on another important leg of my yoga journey. On one of my latter trips to Pune, as I was going up the stairs to the Hall I crossed paths with Guruji on his way down. I immediately moved over to the side to let him pass and he paused to thank me. I replied, “No, Sir, I thank you!" I then began to express my appreciation for all that he has given and describe how deeply he has impacted the lives of my children, my students and myself. I told him how grateful I felt and he thanked me again. In that narrow stairwell, we shared a smile and a simple, warm and genuine exchange.
As I became more experienced in my teaching, I began to assist in daily Medical classes at the Institute. In June 2013 I was asked to work with an American woman who presented with multiple issues. When Guruji commandeered Medical class twice weekly, he also gave this student a lot of his attention and I was most fortunate to assist him in his work with her. In addition to getting the props that he requested and helping to set her up in the asanas or postures correctly, Guruji would also instruct me on how to physically adjust her. I felt incredibly privileged to be guided by Guruji in this very important work.
I had also reached out to Guruji during this visit seeking his support regarding a challenging part of my journey. One afternoon his secretary Pandu informed me that Guruji would meet with me the next day at 5 p.m. I was nervous and humbled. In sharing my truth with him, he responded to me as my Teacher. I am not sure why he chose to give me his attention but Guruji was compassionate towards me during my time of need. Perhaps he recognized my devotion or potential and wanted to help bring light to the darkness that I was experiencing. I am most fortunate to have been touched by this connection.
One year later, just two months before his passing, I was again blessed when Gurujji replied to a letter that I had recently sent him. In his letter he provided me with more feedback to implement in my practice and he expressed his stated intention for me with these words: “so that the integration of the mind in each and every part of the body is expressed.” Guruji asked me to work hard for a year and then to reconnect with him. He also instructed one of his most senior teachers in the world to help me to continue to develop my practice and gave her specific directives. The tone of his letter was stern and critical, written in his brutally honest manner. Because of ego, it was initially challenging to read and hard to accept it as the gift that it was. Guruji signed off “With love and affection.” This both surprised and pleased me. I came to appreciate that this guiding light was continuing to direct me towards my inner light and by helping me to remove the darkness of ignorance, B.K.S. Iyengar was truly my guru. Sadly I will no longer be able to communicate with him; however, the higher intention that he has held for me (and for all of his students) will guide my inward journey and his light will continue to shine brightly for all.
I have had the privilege to say that I have studied with B.K.S. Iyengar, to be able to call myself his student and to have assisted him directly in Medical classes. I celebrate my relationship with him and his caring for me so near the end of his life. I was not among the first wave of his teachers in the Seventies nor was I a root of the Iyengar tradition in Canada. But I am a strong limb in the continuance of this incredible lineage, and an active part of the evolving vibrant living legacy of yoga, of Guruji’s work.
It is with great reverence and humility that I pay tribute to this prodigious visionary who taught us that yoga doesn’t just change us but transforms us. One way that I can express my gratitude for the many gifts that I have received from Guruji is to continue to embrace the privilege of being a part of someone else’s transformation process and to help their process of transformation as it has helped me. I pay homage to Guruji with my unceasing commitment to disseminate his profound teachings, to guide my students towards their discovery of the true essence of yoga and to spread the light.
“Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees." - BKS Iyengar, Light on Life