Honoring Geeta Iyengar

Geeta S. Iyengar, daughter of B.K.S. Iyengar, passed away on 16 December 2018. In some profound ways, this is a great loss for the yoga world. She is known the world over for her devotion to the practice and study of yoga, her tireless and brilliant teaching of the subject, and her extraordinary contribution of teachings specifically for women. She taught virtually up to the moment of her death, having completed a five-day intensive program for students from around the world as part of Centenary Celebrations for what would have been her father’s 100th Birthday. The evening before she passed, she was speaking and guiding her students until later in the evening.

We encourage those who are interested to explore some of the writings and memories shared by numerous students and even family members of hers. Here are a couple of links to get you started:

Times of India Obituary

Iyengar Yoga National Association of the U.S. Facebook Page

On a more personal level, we are re-posting here an article written by our director, Chris Briney, composed shortly after attending the National Iyengar Yoga Teacher’s Convention, “Reflection” which was conducted by Geeta herself. Here is the article:

Opened at Reflection

If you think ‘I know something,’ the door to knowledge closes to you. When you think, ‘I don’t know,’ it begins to open.
--Geeta Iyengar (at “Reflection,” the 2010 IYNAUS Teacher’s convention) 

William Blake, in his poem “The marriage of Heaven and Hell”, writes: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.” This idea has echoed in my mind since I began writing this article. For me, the Reflection Convention provided a humbling, rigorous, and thorough cleansing of my doors of perception. In those six days, I not only had the opportunity to witness a profound and deeply inspiring demonstration of the therapeutic knowledge at the heart of the Iyengar method, I also received a precious gift. I was given an opportunity to acquire true vidya—to actually develop the power of discriminative wisdom within myself. The whole Convention was like an open door, with Geeta-ji extending an invitation—almost a shove—to grow my teaching and practice along certain lines. Reflecting back on the experience, I am deeply moved by the generosity of this invitation. I thought I was attending a conference on how to “do” therapeutic yoga. I was wrong. 

This is not to say Geeta-ji didn’t inundate us with brilliant knowledge and teachings on yoga therapy. It just doesn’t capture the essence of the experience. For me, the teachings on therapeutics were merely a vehicle to convey a much more important and urgent idea: everything—our teaching, our practice, our very lives—depends upon how we practice yoga. Merely doing it is not enough. It must be done with a certain attention, a certain discipline. 

As far as I know, the phrase guru darshan refers to how the guru and the guru’s teachings serve as a clear mirror that reflects the pupil’s qualities (and ultimately true self) back to him or her. I don’t think it is any coincidence that the convention was called Reflection and, given the long, hard look I got of myself—the “good” and the “bad”—I don’t think it could have a more apt name. 

I have to admit that, at first, I found this “Reflection” quite unpalatable, even downright offensive. In just a short period of time numerous shortcomings in my way of being and operating as a student and teacher of yoga persistently crept into my awareness. Ostensibly, all Geeta was doing was teaching Supta Tadasana. But, as she observed us doing and working with one another, how we adjusted one another’s shoulder blades, how we struggled to discern which thigh flesh was misaligned and what was causing that, she kept making comments that brought me face to face with, for lack of a better word, my ignorance. Yet, to me, these were not so much observations about what I was actually doing as they were expositions of the habits of my mind, the samskaras and kleshas that drive my behaviors. It was as if all the assumptions, presumptions, ignorance, arrogance, laziness, doubt, etc. that had been hiding under the surface of my consciousness were now being pulled into clear view. And they were coming up regardless of whether I wanted to see them or not. There was no place to hide.

As you might imagine, the part of me that is invested in “looking good” and “getting it right” bristled at Geeta-ji’s often blunt recognition of our ignorance as teachers. On several occasions, her bluntness became exasperation and even anger. At one point, impatient at how we were distributing chairs among ourselves in the hall, she said sternly, “I never knew you could be so stupid.” Of course, this offended my “western”—or, I should say, “Mid-Western”—sensibilities. Even if I think this about people sometimes, I would never say it. I’d just stuff it inside myself for fear of incurring someone’s anger. I see now that’s one big difference between me and Geeta Iyengar: Being, as she said, “Established in my Self, thank God,” she doesn’t have to look outward for her sense of self like I do. As far as I can tell, her actions are not swayed by her concern about others, but rather, for them. 

This was made crystal clear as she worked with a woman with scoliosis in supine pranayama. She went through several cycles of adding props to the posture—encasing her within two halasana boxes, and using belts, small bricks, large bricks, foam pads, and rolled blankets to bring a visible balance to the movements of her breath. With each adjustment Geeta-ji made, I remember thinking, “Ah! That’s it . . . Brilliant!” only to watch her refine it more deeply. At one point she said, “It’s good, but I am still not satisfied. My eye is not pleased.” Yet it was not a personal or sensual gratification that she was seeking. It became very clear after she made her final modifications of the posture that the “eye” which was not yet pleased was looking for the healing condition, a flash and flow of life, a visible, palpable transformation in the patient from a state of “dis-ease” to ease. It was magnificent to watch.

I hate to admit it, but for the remainder of the class in which Geeta-ji said, “I never knew you could be so stupid,” I was severely agitated. I guess you could say I had my doubts. I found myself thinking things like: “I didn’t come here to be abused. This is way too stressful. Why am I doing this? Does Iyengar Yoga really work? Look at Geeta, she’s overweight and has that neck brace on . . . if she knows therapeutics so well, why doesn’t she just fix herself?” . . . and on and on. It is embarrassing to say this, but it happened. Of course, asmita (arrogance) follows avidya (ignorance).

Then everything changed. Geeta-ji was working with six people, each with a different therapeutic need, in prone Savasana. As she moved from person to person, I watched her mold and sculpt these individuals into completely new expressions of life, not just physically but seemingly at the level of their very being. I began to take a very different view of the comments that had seemed so harsh and even abusive to me. I began to wonder, If she’s seeing all these things in the people on the stage that she’s working with, things I can’t see, things even they cannot see, might she be seeing things about us, about me, that I can’t see? How can she be so right with each of these people she’s working with now and be so wrong about me? 

So now it was time to face the facts. The main fact I had to face (and which I had been struggling to avoid facing with a great deal of discomfort) was this: This body, this mind, and the sheaths of my being that I exist (or think I exist) within remain a dark mystery to me. They are filled with blank spots, dulled feeling, slowness of mind. As Geeta said, “so many things, you miss.” I realize that, to the extent I add carelessness and willfulness to this scenario, I am not only stupid but also violent. 

I am not saying all this as some form of public self-abuse. I have no interest in advertising my shortcomings. My aim is to convey the honest self-appraisal that was evoked by a master yoga teacher. Personally, I feel that, in and of themselves, this nescience and dullness are problems. There is nothing wrong with “not-knowing.” In fact, being called “stupid” was not even itself the problem. No, the problem has little to do with the phenomenon of dullness or even stupidity, but rather in the response to it. The part of me that has the problem with the label “stupid” is itself the problem. It is driven to all sorts of problematic behaviors in its desperate attempt to avoid dealing with this (or in fact any other) reality.

This took, is taking, some time to sink in. But I am seeing that, as I yield, no matter how grudgingly, my attachment to knowing, to being someone who knows (really, to the gratification I get from thinking I know) a door in my “cavern of narrow chinks” is opening. So many moments of not-knowing impressed themselves upon me in the six days of Reflection (of how the skin on the sole of my foot moves in Savasana, of which pelvic head tips forward more, or which way the skin on the upper thigh habitually moves in supine Tadasana, of how raising my arms into Urdhva Hastasana effects the breath in the upper thoracic ribs, of which gluteus muscle is narrower and shorter in prone Savasana). I see now that, having this not-knowing reflected back to me with such profound clarity by Geeta-ji, was itself a most powerful yoga therapy. To encounter the barriers in my awareness, the gaps in my devotion, the laziness in my approach—to see how they not only hinder my ascent to the heights of health, peace, and joy that this practice makes available, but also undermine my usefulness to my fellow human beings—has already transformed me. In my teaching I notice I am looking much more clearly at my students’ presentations for what I should teach next, rather than to some checklist of techniques I have memorized. Though unpleasant at first, I am so grateful for the discoveries that have brought these changes. This rearranging of my thinking about yoga is truly the best gift I received from Geeta-ji in those six days. I am a much freer man for it.

I count myself tremendously fortunate to have had this desire to explore and discover and experiment—this longing to know—awakened. I shudder to think of the alternative. In Blake’s words, if the person seeing the world through the “narrow chinks of his cavern” doesn’t know his perceptions are limited what incentive does he have to expand his perception? What incentive would he have to seek the infinite if he confuses his narrow view for “all that can be seen”? And will his life not be a tragically small thing within the confines of this cavern compared to what it might be in exploration of the infinite? Since Reflection there is so much to see, to feel, to know, to question, and to understand. It is an unusual gift, a gift that can only be given by an extraordinary human being like Geeta-ji. It is a gift that is not any thing in particular, but rather no-thing. In fact, in many ways the gift has not even involved the act of giving. Paradoxically, it has involved the act of taking something away.

What has been taken away is a set of barriers. The fear-complex, and the arrogance used to cover it up—the not-knowing, not-wanting-to-know, and not-willing-to-know—have been cleansed and my doors of perception opened. I feel the process is far from complete but it is well begun. Geeta Iyengar made sure of that.

 Geeta-ji also made it clear that I am now responsible for whether or not the seeds of knowledge she bestowed grow into a yogic sadhana that bears fruits of health, healing and happiness for me and those I share my life and practice with. I am clear that this practice of Iyengar Yoga, though full of magnificent techniques, requires a tremendous amount of, yes, reflection. As Geeta said (and more importantly, demonstrates by example) we must do this work if we wish to build subjective knowledge into a temple of objective wisdom. 

So the first shock becomes the greatest gift: In homage to Geeta-ji, I bluntly acknowledge I am stupid. Accepting this assertion—the only possible outcome after taking a long hard look at it in the clear “Reflection” of her teachings—has given me access to a realm of the infinite. I am finding it a very compelling realm. I pray my efforts match the potency of the opportunity.

Andi Mahoney