Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Yoga Lineage: Who’s Included?


Here in Pune, on my 6th trip to RIMYI since 2005, I am more aware than ever of the passage of time, and the mortality of my teachers. Since Guruji passed in 2014, and Geetaji and Prashantji have stepped up to uphold his legacy, Geetaji has reminded us repeatedly of how we must carry on in our own associations, not come to her with petty conflicts and confusions, and recognize that her years with us will also come to an end. She is enlisting the international community of Iyengar Yoga practitioners to carry on Guruji's teachings with integrity.

In an age of 200-hour yoga teaching certifications and the rampant proliferation and commercialization of yoga, the issue of lineage rarely comes up. In a nation built on immigrants who, by choice or force, abandoned their heritage and homelands to embrace the American dream (or nightmare, as it turns out), we place much more value on individual initiative, personal accomplishment, and the myth of meritocracy, than we do on legacy and lineage.

In fact, most yoga teacher trainings pride themselves on being “eclectic,” gleaning from many traditions and presumably bringing “the best” from each. This dabbling mentality typically results in lack of depth and a mindset of extraction, typical of settler colonialism. “I’ll take a little of this, toss that away….” without consideration of context, history, politics, and the consequences of extraction.

In a way, lack of lineage, at least familial, is freeing. We are not bound by class and caste for generations on end, and at least theoretically, there is more economic mobility. But does this apply also to yoga lineage and spiritual traditions?

Prashantji told a sweet story of going to a festival with his father as a small boy, unable to see anything except the hips of the adults around him. But then his father took him up on his shoulders, and little Prashant was able to see far and wide, well beyond the vision of those below him. It’s the same now, he said, explaining how he is standing on the shoulders of Guruji, and what he can see is because he has been taught, supported, and uplifted by Guruji.

What our lineage has given us, we also owe back to our mentors and ancestors. In the Iyengar tradition, we give to Guruji’s Bellur Foundation, which supports his home village with a hospital, high school, junior college, and more. We also “pay it forward” by devoting many hours to our own students and mentees, sharing what we have learned and nurturing their growth.

Belonging to a lineage means always being accountable to someone. Even my mentors, 40-year students of Iyengar Yoga, must answer to the Iyengar family. How many of the recent yoga scandals could’ve been prevented had there been more accountability? At its best, lineage manifests as conscience, so instead of authoritarian shaming and punishment, we develop the inner discipline to be our most noble selves.

All of this is well and good, but where does progress, growth, and evolution come in? When do lineage and tradition become oppressive and stifling? When is it inadequate for the times we are living in? For instance, in this super busy, crowded month at RIMYI, as far as I can tell, there is only 1 Black person in attendance. What does this say about the global Iyengar Yoga movement? How does this impact a highly racialized, 85% Black city like Detroit, MI, which has been through the wringer of white flight, corporate land grabs, foreclosures, water shut-offs, school closures, and more? How will it be possible to cultivate the practice of Iyengar Yoga in communities that have not had exposure or access? How will we develop teachers from and in those communities? From the perspective of my racially fraught home city of Detroit, in the inescapably racist USA, what does it mean that Black bodies are such an extreme minority at RIMYI?

If we know our roots, if we know where we’re from, if we know who we are accountable to, we should be able to evolve from there.

Prashantji commented on how he thought Guruji was wasting his time and energy traveling to Russia and China in his 90s to teach beginners. “Why go yourself when there are so many Senior Teachers?” he asked Guruji, who remained staunch in his commitment to go and teach them himself. Prashantji went on to observe that Guruji took as his dharma the sharing of yoga with the world.

At the risk of overstating my role, I have to admit that I take as my dharma the rattling of the gates of Iyengar Yoga in the USA. I am committed to expanding the population of practitioners, especially to include more people of color and low income folks. As such, I have taken it upon myself to progress on the path of Iyengar Yoga to help evolve the tradition from the inside out.

So what do I see as the future of Iyengar Yoga in the USA? Indulge me in this visualization:
  •  A proliferation of free and low-cost classes in nontraditional venues, like places of worship, community centers, and public schools. Perhaps childcare and transportation could be included.
  • Bilingual classes, ASL classes, adaptive classes for those with disabilities.
  • Cultivating serious study in such nontraditional settings so potential teachers can be recognized and supported.
  •  Low-cost teacher trainings in accessible locales to enable serious students to enter the path to certification.
  •  Affordable conventions and conferences.
  • Broader ways to assess teacher skill and competence, and accommodate different ways of learning and testing. 
Really, these are not radical propositions. Iyengar Yoga in India since its inception embraced all these practices. Iyengar Yoga by its very nature is designed to meet the needs of every ability. It’s just that the international proliferation of Iyengar yoga grew out of Yehudi Menuhin and his upper class, aristocratic following. Iyengar Yoga in the USA largely came through the wealthy and well-connected, and this legacy continues to this day.

Let’s be true to Guruji and his own humble roots, his commitment to Bellur, and his duty to bring Iyengar Yoga to the world. Standing on his shoulders and honoring our gracious lineage, let’s move the tradition forward, into cities like Detroit, making Iyengar Yoga more inclusive than ever before in the USA.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Happy Birthday, Geetaji!

Last Thursday in the practice hall at RIMYI, Raya came in and said, “This is not an announcement, but I want to let you know today is Geetaji’s birthday, she is offering prasad in her office, and that she is in a good mood.”

Naturally, we all stopped in our tracks, got out of whatever pose we were doing, and scurried down the steps and across the courtyard to the Iyengar abode. We live for moments like these! We had barely glimpsed Geetaji all month, and had been told she had been unwell. Not only were folks concerned about her, but Geetaji’s remarkable teachings are so much of the reason we journey here from all corners of the earth.

Teachers of my vintage, who started coming to Pune in the 1990s and 2000s, haven’t had the opportunity to study directly with BKS Iyengar, who retired from teaching weekly classes in the 1990s (?). Many Iyengar Yoga teachers active today regard Geetaji as their primary teacher. Geetaji’s teachings have brought me to my knees, brought me to tears, and have led to numerous breakthroughs, showing me that I can do more than I thought possible. Her teachings are consistently incisive and important, and although our classes with the “Pune All-Stars” are fantastic, we all miss Geetaji’s classes terribly.

So we were understandably thrilled to come downstairs and wish Geetaji a happy birthday! We filed in quietly in our practice clothes and barefeet, extended our right hand to be given a sweet treat by Geetaji herself, and knelt shoulder to shoulder in her office.

She was in lighthearted, jovial spirits, as she offered a word of encouragement to continue working hard on the path of yoga. She reminded us that yoga is unbound by religion, and is a philosophy truly for all. She mentioned that some Iyengar Yoga teachers were offering classes to domestic workers, and how important this work was. Domestic workers, Geetaji indicated, are often physically strained, and have developed many pains from their labors. She didn’t mention the class struggle of the poor who typically have little access to spiritual and healing practices like Iyengar Yoga, but it was implied and understood, as she went on to say how the business aspect of teaching yoga can so easily be overemphasized. Geetaji reminded us that yoga is truly for all.

This may sound quite glib and ordinary, but this is actually a radical seed she has planted. If we are to share Iyengar Yoga with communities like domestic workers, this means we should also be cultivating potential teachers from such communities. That is, for Iyengar Yoga to become an ongoing, sustainable, community-based practice, as opposed to charity or missionary work, teachers need to be part of the communities they teach in.

How do we do this? Is it even desirable or possible? My firm conviction is that we need to develop this kind of accessibility, not by watering down the profound teachings, but by removing the barriers that block people from reaching the teachings. We need to think broadly about making classes affordable, offering different class times, maybe providing childcare or transportation, steeping ourselves in cultural humility and trauma-informed practices, partnering with other organizations, and last but not least, making the classes fun and relevant and rewarding.

Geetaji’s message made my heart sing, because this is what we’ve been striving to embody at Iyengar Yoga Detroit Collective. We’ve wracked our brains, stretched our creativity, and consulted with students, friends, colleagues, and other cooperatives, to find ways to make Iyengar Yoga accessible and relevant to all.

I need to remind myself that I’m here at RIMYI standing on the shoulders of many. These include not only my teachers and mentors, but also my colleagues and students. I have the extraordinary privilege of being an Iyengar Yoga teacher not just for the sake of my own enlightenment, evolution, and well-being, but also to share everything I learn with all who wish to partake, regardless of ability—physical, financial, and otherwise.

Thank you, Geetaji, for once again, opening my mind and heart, and challenging me to do more and do better. May we embrace this challenge as individuals, as Iyengar Yoga centers, and as organizations.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Letter from Pune, 2017

Traveling abroad on a tight budget looks something like this:
  • Red-eye Greyhound from Detroit to Chicago, then
  •  Blue line metro to O’Hare, then flying 
  • Chicago to Delhi for the longest nonstop flight ever, another flight from
  •  Delhi to Hyderabad, and finally
  • Hyderabad to Mumbai, to be greeted by
  • Shuttle bus to Pune, through middle-of-the-night traffic jams, to our lovely rental home.
Sunset in Hyderabad

As exhausted as I was after days of travel, the moment we arrived in Pune, I felt a rush of energy. I immediately attributed it to BKS Iyengar’s presence in the city that was his home since his teenage years. Guruji’s shakti extends beyond the spiritual realm into the earthly realm of a December dawn as we finally reached our house. My heart swelled nearly to the point of tears. I was ready to head over to the Iyengar Institute, but I forced myself to lie down, knowing that I would crash and burn by afternoon if I didn’t get at least a few hours of sleep.

Guruji’s shakti and legacy extend beyond Pune, of course, all the way to places like Detroit, and our yoga co-op home. But it feels strongest and most palpable here. This is my 6th stay in Pune, and each time, it feels more and more like a spiritual home to me. Iyengar practitioners come from all the continents to study with the Iyengar family and to delve deep into their own practice, but based on many conversations, not everyone loves coming here.

The air quality has gotten worse over the years, though the dog poop on the sidewalk has decreased. Now it seems the rainy season never quite ends, interspersing periods of dusty dryness. Prices have skyrocketed, creating a bigger and bigger gap between the haves and have-nots, while expecting the foreigners coming to the Institute to shell out more and more.

With Angela Abiodun and Erin Shawgo at RIMYI
Still, I persist. I find a way by hook or crook to get here every 2 years like clockwork. I keep my living expenses ridiculously low so that my extremely modest teaching income goes right back into Iyengar Yoga study and travel. Walking through the gates of RIMYI (Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute), I am reminded of all the transformative moments I have experienced here: Guruji’s grand entry into the practice hall every morning, often at the elbow of his granddaughter, Abhijata, and later, with his great granddaughter in his arms; practicing in the same room as Guruji, while keeping one eye on him; so many teaching gems, each worth a lifetime of contemplation; and quiet afternoons in the library with Guruji at his desk.

There have been just as many deeply humbling moments as well, where I felt shaken to the core, coming to fully face my own ignorance and lack of understanding. But the practice of Iyengar Yoga teaches us that THAT is where the transformative power lies. “What I know is not important,” Guruji reminds us, “It is what I don’t know that is important,” while encouraging us to “Go from the known to the unknown, the finite to the infinite.”

And so I wake early to the songs of tropical birds and the sounds of sweeping, and nourish myself with tulsi tea, and homemade yogurt with pomegranate and a mini-banana, head over to the Institute to crack myself open, again and again. Oh, those hamstrings, yikes, that stiff thoracic spine, the ache of ropey groins, and that clogged, tamasic mind. I do feel “hopeless, helpless, and hapless” much of the time, as Prashantji chides.

But there are moments of sattvic clarity, and I live for these moments, when I glimpse my own eternal infinite, and see right through the limitations of day-to-day life. It might be in the stillness after a long Śīrṣāsana, or getting deeper than I ever thought possible in an impossible pose, or a sudden realization that makes me laugh out loud.

I extend unending gratitude to all my teachers and students over the years that have facilitated my study here. May I open myself to fully absorb the experience to bring back all I can to share with you.

With love and humility,
Gwi-Seok