That time I met B.K.S. Iyengar …

Happy 95th birthday to B.K.S. Iyengar, born Dec. 14, 1918, in Bellur, India.

I met B.K.S. Iyengar in October 2005. “Met” might be a stretch, although I did stand in front of him for a few seconds, and I’m pretty sure he touched my forehead.

B.K.S. Iyengar, the "lion of Pune."

B.K.S. Iyengar, the “lion of Pune.”

My brush with yoga greatness occurred at a Barnes & Noble in downtown Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from the arena where I would see U2 a few hours later. (Sorry, Bono, but B.K.S. was ~ and still is ~ the bigger rock star.) I lived near Raleigh at the time. I was in D.C. not only for the concert but also for final interviews for a copy-editing job with the Washington Post, which I would later be offered and accept. Mr. Iyengar was touring the United States and making an appearance at the store in conjunction with the release of his book “Light on Life,” so I went and stood in line with others of my tribe, some of whom I recognized from other workshops, even my own home state. (For a WaPo article on Mr. Iyengar’s appearance, click here.)

Ground to extend.

The several dozen of us who had gathered well ahead of the appointed hour, in typical D.C.~Type A~Iyengar fashion, quietly and calmly formed a line that went around the block and up a slight hill outside the bookstore. It was a crisp and clear afternoon, and we were on the shady side of the building. We had to get a (free) ticket to stand in line to be able to meet and greet Mr. Iyengar, although he had already signed a bunch of books ahead of time. In typical Iyengar fashion, this made efficient and businesslike sense, although it created a somewhat awkward situation. Since he wouldn’t be signing each book individually, how could we fawn without that built-in ritual? With what would we prostrate ourselves?

As the line began to move, we snaked our way inside the warm store. Mr. Iyengar, then 86, was sitting in a chair off to the left as we came in, near the children’s section. As best I remember, he was wearing a flowing, linen-like ivory outfit. His silver hair draped down to his shoulders, and his bristly salt-and-pepper eyebrows poked out every which way. To his right stood John Schumacher, his local host, longtime student, hugely influential teacher in his own right and owner of the Unity Woods studio where I would take classes and workshops after moving to the area. (To read a Yoga Journal interview that John did with B.K.S., click here.)

Root to rise.

When it was my turn, I walked into the clearing around B.K.S. and John as if to kneel for Communion. I approached Mr. Iyengar and mumbled something incomprehensible that was meant to sound like “Thank you for being such an inspiration.” I think I might have actually chirped. I smiled at him, and he smiled back, very broadly, with his whole face. He rubbed the center of my forehead with his thumb, like a priest marking me on Ash Wednesday, or perhaps as if to give me a Hindu bindi dot. We had a moment, or at least I did. I felt a surge, a warmth, as if I’d received his blessing ~ but for what, I didn’t know. And then it was over. I exited stage right to make way for the next devotee and to buy my signed book. On to U2’s “Vertigo” show, with “Light on Life” in my hands.

That’s how I remember coming face to face with Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, the man credited with bringing yoga to the Western world five decades ago.

I’ve never taken a class with B.K.S., but over the years I have studied with many senior Iyengar teachers, several of whom earned their certifications in the early 1970s. Many continue to make pilgrimages to his thriving institute in Pune (which has a waiting list for students) and bring back the latest teachings from the oracle and his family (Mr. Iyengar’s children and grandchildren are also teachers). Such is his global influence that a documentary film about him is in the works, and there is a movement to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Becoming Iyengar-certified is anything but trivial: It takes years of study and mastery of a hierarchical assessment process, a system that is both prohibitive and excellent. According to the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, there are just seven Iyengar-certified teachers in North Carolina. SEVEN.

I have no intention of going down that rigorous path, but I implicitly have a baseline of trust in any Iyengar-certified teacher. Mr. Iyengar’s individualized and inherently therapeutic approach to the ancient art of yoga (some of which is not so ancient) is the bedrock of my practice and teachings and always will be. And if you have ever used a block, a strap or even a wall in a yoga class, you have Mr. Iyengar to thank. The attention to detail, to alignment, to paying attention simply to what is happening ~ that is what yoga is all about: yoking, uniting.

Press down to go up.

Iyengar yoga has been hugely influential for me as a student and teacher, although I have taken classes in many other styles. Starting in January 2014, I will be continuing my unofficial doctoral studies in yoga with a 200-hour teacher training at Purna Yoga East, a sweet studio in Clayton, N.C., where I have been fortunate to teach for the past year.

Aadil Palkhivala

Aadil Palkhivala

Purna Yoga is the tradition of Aadil Palkhivala, who began studying with Mr. Iyengar at the age of 7 and continued to do so for three decades. Aadil still clearly honors B.K.S. in his asana instruction, and he credits Mr. Iyengar for his very existence. In his book “Fire of Love,” Aadil writes:

“His powerful and authoritative teaching, balanced by his compassionate caring when I had crippling spinal injuries, taught me that love has many forms. With his teaching, he laid not only the foundation for the physical aspect of Purna Yoga, but also the physical foundation of me! His guidance enabled my parents to conceive after seven years of unsuccessful attempts. … Yoga gave me life, and I am blessed to be able to pass on this gift.”

I am grateful to be able to continue studying the endlessly educational practice that is yoga and to have found a style that incorporates but also expands on the revolutionary approach that Mr. Iyengar developed. The Sanskrit word “purna” means complete or whole, and the method is based on the integral yoga taught by Sri Aurobindo. As Aadil says, by incorporating instruction in asana/anatomy/pranayama, meditation, applied philosophy and nutrition (and poetry!!! yes, poetry!!!), Purna Yoga is designed partly to help students “surrender the intellectual and analytical abilities of their brain to the inner quest that takes place in the heart.”

I’ve studied with Aadil twice and am excited that one of our TT weekends will be a workshop with him at Purna Yoga East. He is magical teacher, a savant in many fields, and genuinely hilarious. On his center’s Web site, this is how he describes his approach:

“Through disciplined exploration of the mind-body connection, heart-centered meditation and a focus on abundant living, Purna Yoga students magnify the power of yoga in their lives and achieve more of the life-changing benefits that they are seeking.”

(Plus, in workshops he quotes Wordsworth and any number of other poets. I mean, how can I NOT study more of this stuff?!)

The lineage ~ so important, so crucial to understand and respect in any classical tradition ~ is essentially this: from Sri T. Krishnamacharya to B.K.S. Iyengar to Aadil Palkhivala to Catharine Eberhart and Bob Maiers and the community at Purna Yoga East. I’m excited to delve more deeply into the parts of yoga that have nothing to do (yet everything to do) with what happens on a mat and to learn how to share them. As Aadil says, “Yoga helps us discover our life purpose and then grow into it. The more comprehensive our approach, the more we can heal and grow.”

Can’t wait.

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