December 14th is BKS Iyengar’s birthday and he would have been 103 this year! His daughter, Geeta Iyengar, and part of the great legacy of teaching in this method, was born on Dec 7th. So, this whole month is a time of celebration and remembrance and gratitude for the practice that this great family has shared throughout their lifetimes. Still alive to continue to share their knowledge and approach to yoga are Prashant Iyengar (son), Abhijata Iyengar (granddaughter), and the countless certified Iyengar Yoga teachers around the world!
In the last couple of years, as we have collectively faced issues of hierarchy, social structure, discrimination, and abuse within our communities, there has been a push-back in certain yoga circles to dismiss and disregard the role of a “guru” in practice. For sure, for Western communities and Western approaches to tradition, the “guru” seems antiquated, something unnecessary and historically problematic. In a world that has ceased to look to “experts in a field” and gone to Google for most answers, the role of the “guru” to “shed light” (the literal translation of the term) on an ancient subject seems out of date and completely passe.
However, as I woke up this morning to get myself to practice with Abhijata during our 4 day celebration of Yoganusasanam, I am flooded with all the reminders of WHY we are in a tradition and WHY yoga in particular is so in need of the tradition it was originally meant to be taught through. The depth of the subject of yoga is one that needs guidance from those that might have walked the path before, developed certain sensitivity and experience, and experimented over long periods of time. It is a Universal practice, but it is still a practice that originated in the East and has a philosophical outlook stemming from that source. This is something that BKS Iyengar (our Guruji if you will) knew from the moment he began spreading the subject to the world.
Abhi reminded us that we have all come to yoga for one reason or another, but if we stay for any length of time it is because we see something “else” arising along with or even from our initial introduction. Back in the day of the literal introduction of yoga to the world, it was needed to be stripped of religiosity and spirituality (those who joined us for the reading of The Great Oom over the summer may have an inkling of this and why). Body-centric Westerners would take to a subject focused on the body more readily and that is exactly what BKS Iyengar proposed and demonstrated. Jump forward to now, and the world is more connected, and seeking, and happy to look at yoga as the spiritual and internal practice it traditionally is, and Iyengar Yoga has that too. If we come to yoga for something merely physical, we may find a mental component creeping in. Or, if we come to yoga to relieve some stress or anxiety, we may find physical strength as a by-product. I know this was true for me.
The role of the “guru” in the traditional sense is to keep the totality of the subject at hand and shed light on the areas most needed for you as a student or novice. Knowing your Self IS the goal of yoga and no teacher or guru will tell you your own truth. However, they are the keepers of the numerous ways and means you might be able to take to get there. It is not simply moving and doing in only one way that gets you from point A to B in yoga, but the awareness you build along the way.
Movement without action stays distracted, whereas movement WITH action builds intelligence. Action and analysis have to come together in synchronicity. With these two together, we build our Self-awarenss instead of living within our own Self-consciousness. As you work in your body in any aspect of life, HOW are you working? If we are truthful, we might believe every action we take is the “correct” one, otherwise why would we do it? On the other hand we all have things we do that aren’t serving our Self in any way at all. Why do we do that? Isn’t it helpful to have that external eye to remind you to be present and reflect and pay attention? That is the role of the guru or experienced and practiced teacher in yoga.
To be our own guru, in the end we have to look at our Self purely objectively and we have to be truthful in that approach. In particular, Abhi reminded us of the simple use of words. Do we actually “do” what we say? Do our actions match our words in practice or in teaching? Are we actually doing what we say we are doing? I remember a time that Geeta once said, “I cannot correct your mind, but I can correct your body”. This is a true statement. We can talk as teachers at length about the energetic chakras and alignment of our energies, but are we actually doing it? What we know for sure we can see and we have to start there. Then as sensitivity builds we can become Self-aware at every level and layer of being. To just be Self-conscious is not enough.
This level of Self-knowledge comes with decades of practice. That is what makes a guru. Not a proclamation, not a title grab or ego pacifier. It is the ability to pass along information and intelligence to those around you (known or unknown) and continue to build a world of yoga knowledge for years beyond your death. Our lineage and tradition has allowed us to dig deep into Patanjali’s yoga (from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), for over a century.
As BKS Iyengar knew in his passing at the age of 96, his ending is our beginning…and gratitude abounds. Even those who do not know or practice Iyengar Yoga specifically should know his legacy – below are some examples:
- classes for groups instead of one-on-one
- prop development for all bodies and all abilities – your straps, bricks, bolsters, etc…
- yoga therapy – literally for myriads of medical ailments
- yoga on wall ropes or hanging from the ceiling
- alignment of the body to approach alignment of all other aspects of being
- instruction that builds awareness in action, not just moving for moving’s sake