Women, Yoga, and maya: Reflections on Iyengar Yoga in Pune, India
Geeta Iyengar does not only need a vacation. She needs to retire. At least this is my view after studying at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, India, this July. I grant that things may have taken a turn for the worse. It is also possible that July was an exception to a usually splendid learning experience with Geeta. But I doubt it. It took Geeta only one class to start insulting the packed room of yoga students. She called us “stupid people” when we did not immediately understand which asana she wanted us to do in a particular way. The daughter of the renowned yoga master, BKS Iyengar, Geeta Iyengar is sitting on the stage in the main practice hall of RIMYI when she is teaching about one-hundred-and-twenty mostly non-Indian looking women and some men. Sprinkled into the crowd are Indians, but in the general classes most students are women from various European countries, such as Italy, Hungary, Spain, Poland, Russia, and American countries, such as Mexico, Argentina, Canada, and the USA, as well as a few women from China and Malaysia. The age ranges from the late twenties into the late fifties.
The teacher is a famous yogini and most students are women, but there is no feminist sisterhood in sight. I did not expect any feminist consciousness, of course. Yoga and feminism are not connected, according to my observations of two decades of asana practice in the United States. In “yoga” and this includes “Iyengar yoga” the aim is to look inside and to cultivate a quiet or “seated” mind, chitta vritti nirodha. The outside is supposedly not important although in the Iyengar tradition practitioners are asked to seek the proper alignment of muscles, bones, and breath. It is a difficult thing to do, but at RIMYI it also seems to include being insulted. Stories abound not only about Geeta’s temper but also about her father’s tone back when he was still teaching.
Since Mr. Iyengar is now ninety-four years old, he does not teach anymore, at least not the one-hundred-and-twenty mostly white-looking people in the hall. Yet during open practice he is often busy teaching his granddaughter who struggles over backbends and headstands. He ignores the many visitors who have come from far away as if they were flies on the wall watching what he is doing or saying to his assistants and his family members. Amazingly, he still does various supported backbends for long periods of time, but he never says “hello” or “how are you” to the foreign students. Sometimes one or another white woman prostrates in front of him but mostly he ignores such gestures as if they did not happen in open daylight. It is a strange situation to witness and to be part of. During asana classes in the morning, taught by Geeta or her brother, Prashant, students are eager to follow the instructions, silently accepting whatever is given.
Iyengar yoga, as it is popularly known in the world, is not for the faint hearted. At this point in their lives, the Iyengar family does not seem to enjoy anymore the many foreign students flocking to their Institute. And there is a never-ending flow of them although it is not easy to get in. Part of the requirements are a minimum of eight years of Iyengar yoga practice, the recommendations of two Iyengar yoga teachers, a likely waiting time of at least one-and-a-half years, and once there, a fee to be paid in US-dollars although most students do not come from dollar-countries.
It is widely known that Geeta makes insulting comments during her teaching but nobody likes to talk about it. Too much is at stake for those who have agreed to be part of the teacher certification process. It is not only money that contributes to a general reluctance to acknowledge the anger and sometimes outright hostility in Geeta’s approach to students in front of her. A deep-seated wish to find a guru, to be on a spiritual path, and to find value in the Iyengar system after lots of sweat and labor drives Iyengar yoga practitioners, most of them teaching yoga, to overlook the problematic dynamics at the Institute. I also wonder how deep-seated feelings of unworthiness contribute to the general acceptance among practitioners not to talk back. Perhaps the silence has also something to do with Western “orientalist” notions about Indian gurus and how feelings of unworthiness are considered to be part of spiritual growth. I am speculating about these matters because nobody addresses them in an open and articulate manner. I am among body-focused people, after all, who express themselves with their bodies and not in many words.
And most of us are performing as women, and so the experience does feel like a good proto-feminist context. In my case it definitely is one. It so happened that I rented one of three rooms in an apartment close to the Institute and the other rooms are rented by three women from Hungary. They are serious Iyengar yoga teachers at home. I am lucky to have them as roommates because they are clear that they too have deeply felt the insults hurled at us. Luckily, their medical doctor advised them to consume daily a shot of brandy for fending off any germs and viruses in our food and water here in Pune. They brought with them several disguised bottles filled with the delicious home-made stuff and when it is getting too much for the four of us, we enjoy our daily shot even more than purely for health reasons. We also walk together to the Institute in the mornings and afternoons, share meals, shop together for our daily needs, and rehearse the sequences of our classes in the evenings. We have come from far away to deepen our yoga practice in Pune, but we all agree that the Institute’s Golden Days are over.
We confessed (!) to each other how little we enjoy Geeta’s outbursts but that we keep patiently waiting for Geeta’s teaching gems. They are there. For instance, she instructed to press down the ball of the foot in the padmasana leg because, as the foot opens, the knee is protected and goes further down to the floor. It is clear to our small international group of women yoga practitioners that important processes remain unspoken at the Institute, relating to respect between teachers and students, neo-colonial and gender dynamics, and the gift of yogasana.
So how about Prashant’s classes then? Some believe that perhaps his teaching indicates a future for Iyengar yoga. It is less focused on the literal form of asanas or the “performance art” of what he calls “yogaa” practice. “Yogaa” (yes, two a’s) limits yogasana to physical exercise and Prashant tells us that there is more, much more. Certainly, his instructions articulate what his father did not stress when he taught yoga poses to the world for several decades. According to BKS Iyengar, precise physical points have to be followed in the practice of the poses and the goal is the form as demonstrated in his classic book, Light on Yoga. The father describes asanas like this: “Asana should be studied arithmetically and geometrically, so that the real shape of the asana is brought out and expressed in presentation.” Or like this: “Like a well-cut diamond, the jewel of the body with its joints, bones and so on, should be cut to fit into the fine framework of the asana.”
Yet the son explains that “Yoga is not a perfection process in action.” Yoga or rather “Yog” is about knowledge (epistemology)—how what when we know and what will or might happen if we know (consequences) in an asana. Yoga is about karma—it’s karma yoga. Hence it does not matter if an asana is perfect, performed well, praised, or criticized by a teacher. What matters is the internal process of which we need to be conscious. We do not need to learn how to do, but we need to learn how to be because in the modern world we are always in the becoming mode, performing, wanting to be better, have more, do more, or do better. Prashant explains that the modern “becoming” mind is not a “normal” state of mind. When we remember to just be, we will come to see ourselves as we are right now. We are then learning to be “normal” and go from there. All of his explanations are surrounded by his instructions of holding an asana for up to ten minutes so that in the two-hour class our bodies are only in a total of about five to six poses.
After yoga practice has reached a global audience, having spun off into various branches and varieties, Prashant Iyengar wants to move the practice from the external and literal to an inner approach that focuses on the breath and the mind. The development of major sequences and the correction of students seem to be a thing of the past, according to Prashant, at least for advanced classes. Will his teaching eventually change the literalist and externally driven Iyengar certification process that does not focus on a teacher’s ability to develop internal depth in the asana practice of students but on communicating the poses’ external points? And what is he doing about students not speaking or understanding English when he explains some of his abstract ideas in the classroom? Not to mention the enormous poverty visible everywhere in Pune and elsewhere in the little I have seen in India. Should this internal journey not be systematically connected to it? Why not relate the internal with the external, especially since Prashant emphasizes that we study our embodiment when we practice “Yog”? It thus remains to be seen what will happen with Prashant’s insistence that less is more in our asana practice. As Prashant explains over and over again, the study of our embodiment is the goal, to become absorbed, to forget time and place, and to experience union with the divine. It seems to me that these are difficult things to teach and to learn. Much seems to be in flux at RIMYI these days. Some of it certainly has to do with maya, the illusion, that salvation or samadhi will come through asana practice. But if not here, where then? I am glad I went to the source of Iyengar yoga but, perhaps luckily, a solution is not in sight.