How to Open Ourselves Out: A Conversation with Abhijata Iyengar

BKS Iyengar and Abhijata Iyengar

BKS Iyengar and Abhijata Iyengar

Exploring yoga with the guru’s granddaughter

In January 2018 I went to study yoga at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute in Pune, India. This was my fourth visit, and during the first one in 2009 I interviewed BKS Iyengar, the yoga master or guru who through his intense and unwavering efforts brought a system of yoga to India and the West which we now call “Iyengar Yoga.” BKS Iyengar, affectionately known as Guruji, died in 2014. I wondered how the teaching would fare without its founder leading it.

I felt a very alive and vital practice being carried forth by wonderful senior teachers, including BKS’s granddaughter Abhijata Iyengar. She is an expert teacher, who brings her own yoga work and inspiration, and is able to see the students’ needs, strengths, and weaknesses. In her class we all have grown and flourished as yogis and searchers.
—Annie Schliffer

 

Annie Schiffler: I would like to follow up on the interview that I did with Guruji in 2009. I wonder if you will speak about the tradition that you’re a part of and how you see carrying on Guruji’s legacy.
Abhijata Iyengar: It’s a question I’ve been asked many times! How do I see carrying forth Guruji’s legacy? My answer always has been that it’s not just me who’s going to carry it forward. When Guruji taught, he taught us all. The image that comes to my mind when I recollect his teaching is that of rainfall, that is the rainfall from him. Whoever was lucky enough to be around him at that point in time received the rain. I was one of them. Who is going to carry it forward? I think it’s each one’s responsibility.

AS: In your teaching, what you’ve been able to work on with us, is for us to go past our boundaries. There’s many times this month when I felt that I was pushed to a place I’ve never been before not only in my body, but also in my feeling.
AI: I think that’s how all of us are. We stay within our comfort zone, and we don’t want to go beyond that because we’re used to it. If you’re always used to doing sirsasana on the wall, sometimes you just have to do it in the same way. It’s about conditioning. All of us are conditioned. One of the biggest lessons of yoga is about deconditioning life. We live in a very conditioned manner. And Guruji taught us how to open ourselves out! Let me share a story here from when I was much younger. There’s this Indian delicacy, which is called a jalebi. You’ve heard of it?

AS: No.
AI: It’s an orange sweet dish, like a rounded corn. It’s called jalebi, it’s an Indian sweet dish, and I don’t like it. One day we were sitting at the dining table, and some student had given us, our family, a box of jalebis. When he started eating, Guruji told my mother, who was serving that day, “Hey, bring the jalebis.” My mother brought them, and then she served Guruji, and then when she was serving me, I put up my hand to say, “No, I don’t want any.” Guruji said, “Why?” And I said, “Jalebis, I don’t like.” He said, “Who told you that you don’t like jalebis?” I said, “I know I don’t like jalebis.” And he said, “On that particular day that you ate a particular jalebi, you didn’t like it back then, but now, you are different, the jalebi is different. How do you know you don’t like it now?” We laughed at the dining table, but now looking back, it’s such a big lesson.

You get conditioned about everything. About our likes, about our dislikes, about who is our friend, who’s our enemy. When we fight with someone, we carry it and then, years down the line, when we need that person, it’s that person’s fault which comes to our mind. That’s what we are. I was just fortunate to have lived with him for so many years….I guess that’s why those days there was the guru system and guru and shishya [student] would live together. Just seeing can actually teach you so much.

ASYou spoke in class about fear having a physiological root, and this was of huge interest to me. As with everybody else, I have a lot of fear. The small practice that I did with Guruji years ago still works to remove that fear so that I can function. But I know that for many people when they wake up on a Monday morning they are full of fear.
AI: Fear of? Do they know what is the fear of?

ASI think that many people are suffering from anxiety. I could tell you what my fear is when I wake up, and if I could do my practice before I wake up, I’d be okay. If I can practice, then I’m better, but I wonder if there is anything more that you could say about fear and a way for people can work through it?
AI: That’s why the practice of Iyengar yoga is so bountiful; there are so many of these aspects that it can touch. For one who’s anxious, it can touch that. For one whose ego is thick and is overconfident about everything, Iyengar Yoga has something for him. I guess that’s why Guruji was giving the yoga practice; he could customize it for you. A guru knows who you are and what you lack. Unfortunately, not everybody can have a guru. We don’t have so many gurus with us, so the least we can do is to practice the variety of asanas that have been given.

In our practice we need to trace what’s holding us back. That is why I think Iyengar Yoga is so potent. Guruji’s major contribution is that he could move from the abstract to the practical. The fear is abstract. You can’t really pinpoint what the fear is, but he has made it tangible. The human body is concrete. Fear is abstract. Dropping back from Urdhva Hastasana is concrete. [Moving from standing with the arms up to backbend on the floor.] We put the concrete and concrete together to search the abstract. For some of us, it may be the standing and dropping backwards which we are afraid of, and we don’t want to touch it. Then we need to trace which part of the body is holding it back, because that part stops the flow of energy. Once that is addressed, the flow of energy is available for you to do what you want to do.

For another person, it could be the direct opposite. Maybe it’s forward bending because of the pain in the hamstrings. If the practice is channeling in the right manner, by being sensitive and observant together, then all these issues can be addressed. I think for those of us who’ve seen Guruji, we’ve been lucky that he could pin-point that fear is here, whole confidence is here, and laziness is here. He could pinpoint each of those phases of consciousness, from dormant to fully active. He could see the blockage. So now that he’s gone, we need to learn to look for it ourselves.

ASDo you find that there’s anything in your path that’s different as a woman in the Iyengar tradition?
AI: I don’t know. I don’t know what it is to be a man in the Iyengar Yoga system.

AS: If I can rephrase your question: “Is yoga different for a man and a woman?” I think it is, because both genders have their own nature; their character is different, each one is specific to their own gender. In the class that Geetaji (BKS Iyengar’s daughter) was teaching, she mentioned this and said, “Okay, you’re a man. You have your power here. I’m a woman, I have my power.” Obviously it’s different because we have a different make up, our software is different, our hardware is different, so what will project out is different. If we say “Let’s flow in the same manner,” then we’re being blind to our software and hardware, so I don’t think that makes sense

I’ll be specific to the practice of asana and pranayama. A man maybe be able to do chaturanga or balancing on the hands more easily than a woman can because of his differences in makeup. Whereas a woman, because of her flexibility in the hamstrings, might find forward bends and related asanas much more available because women have the pelvic region more open. Now the man will need to find out what he has to do to find the flexibility, and the woman will have to find out what she needs to do to bring the strength. But if we’re going to give up what is our intrinsic nature to reach that, then it’s a problem.

We need to accept our intrinsic nature. One of the most beautiful lessons that I have is based on this; I must not lose my femininity to attain what I need to attain.

AS: This is wonderful to have you here today and teaching us this whole month. Thank you! Namaste!♦

From Parabola Volume 43, No. 3, “The Journey Home,” Fall 2018. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing