In December 2014 I went to India to study yoga with Geeta Iyengar.
It took me 25 years to get there. It was worth the wait.
I loved Iyengar yoga when I started in 1990 but for several years it was only a hobby. It built up until I was attending classes three times a week and had an occasional home practice. But I also had a very busy job and then started a family. Yoga was there throughout but wasn’t the main focus.
That changed when my youngest child started playgroup. I re-established my yoga practice and when she started school, I started Iyengar yoga teacher-training.
But going to India was not on the radar. I wanted to go, to study directly with the Iyengar family, but I expected it to be several more years before my children were old enough for me to leave them to go so far.
Then one evening an email dropped into my inbox, saying that Geeta Iyengar was going to teach an international yoga convention to celebrate her 70th birthday. My lovely husband said I should go. He didn’t need to say it twice.
I was one of 1,300 students from all over the world at the 10-day yoga convention. Every day the teaching was amazing. I was utterly impressed by how Geeta Iyengar was able to teach every one of us in the room, almost as if she was teaching us individually. It was as if she saw us all. Despite the numbers in the room, she was uncannily able to pick out people from quite a distance who were doing something wrong. Sometimes she corrected them verbally from the stage. Sometimes she sent one of her assistant teachers. Sometimes she brought them on stage. This was when we learnt most: seeing her analyse a student’s problem in a posture and how she taught them to improve.
It was one of these occasions when she taught me how to walk again. She brought a woman on stage, whose Upavistha Konasana (wide-legged sitting pose) was wrong. One leg didn’t straighten. Geeta noticed that the root of this problem was her right lower back and right buttock, which were not lifting.
During this, I became aware that I was not lifting my right buttock as much as my left. I had been aware for a few years that my right leg was “lazier” than my left leg. But I hadn’t noticed that the root of this problem was higher. Geeta taught me this, even though I was not the person on stage.
She asked the woman to walk up and down, wide-legged, along a mat. She pointed out how the woman did not swing her hips in the same way on each side. One side was loose, one stiff. I have since become aware of a similar feature in my own gait. So Geeta Iyengar taught me how to walk again.
There were many other things I learnt from Geetaji. Apparently simple things – how to spread the weight on the feet equally. How to break the stiffness of the shoulders. How to spread the ribs. All things I have been taught before by my teachers, but I “got” them in a purer, simpler more complete way.
The Convention was also poignant. Earlier that year, in August 2014, our great teacher and guru BKS Iyengar (Geeta’s father), died, aged 95. All of the students at the Convention, whether they had met Mr Iyengar or not, were deeply saddened at his death. He taught most of us without meeting us. Personally, I have learnt a great deal from him without ever meeting him. Anyone who practises his method of yoga has been touched by him.
Geeta brought tears to our eyes when she spoke of his loss. “We are lonely,” she said. “We miss his voice.” She consoled us, telling us: “He is in our heart. His essence is in our heart.” And he was. Sometimes she inspired us to greater efforts by telling us: “Guruji is watching”.
His spirit was there as we developed links and friendships with fellow Iyengar students from across the globe. I made friends with American, Malaysian, Chinese, Australian, French, Dutch and Indian students, as well as meeting new British yoga friends and deepening friendships with some of those I knew already. The whole range of yoga students were there, from those with three years’ yoga experience to the glitterati of the Iyengar yoga world, the senior international teachers.
The senior Indian teachers were there too, acting as Geeta’s assistant teachers. These are the people who are revered by us, who travel to teach Iyengar yoga and lead our international conventions. Yet here they were, their poses being corrected or their methods questioned. It was humbling for all of us.
Apart from the life of the Convention itself, with its morning teaching and afternoon philosophy and other talks, there was the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute itself. This is the mother institute, founded by Mr Iyengar in 1975 in memory of his late wife. Its image is used as part of the Iyengar Yoga Certification mark.
The first time I visited, I could not get over how small it was. It is so big in its significance for us Iyengar yogis but so modest in reality.
I found it very sad to reach there too late to meet Mr Iyengar. The bench where he sat in the courtyard to catch the afternoon sun was empty. Yet his spirit fills the place.
I attended a class there. I set up my mat. But it felt like the wrong part of the room. So I moved to the other side. Later I found out that this was Mr Iyengar’s favoured part of the room. I was glad that I had been drawn to this area. For me, hallowed ground.
The acoustics are wonderful in the yoga hall. Chanting the invocation there was magical – 100 voices resonate powerfully in the curved, high-ceilinged room.
As we practised in the class, Pune traffic noises came through the open windows.
Pune is a big, busy, noisy, dirty city. Mr Iyengar came to teach yoga there because his guru told him to. The Institute is not in a remote, quiet Indian beauty spot. It is an oasis of tranquillity right at the heart of the bustle of the city. When you step through the gates, it is like you are entering a different world.
It’s a world I hope to re-enter again before too long. I have caught the “Pune bug”. I’ve developed a taste for studying at the Pune Institute. I’ll be applying to return in two or three years’ time. But shhh…. Don’t tell my husband!