The Remarkable Mr. Iyengar

Here are my notes from my Live talk on 6/20 to the Yogi Sadhana Facebook group.

Please take a look at the Divinely Feminine Wisdom workshop with Jann Ford on September 10th and my online course in How to Create a Course Like an Educator.

Hi so we’re going to talk today about the remarkable Mr. Iyengar

He has had much more impact on yoga world than we can discuss here, but I will focus on how he impacted the teaching tradition, and in particular the curriculum that he created.

I never studied with Iyengar myself. However, I’m connected to Iyengar through 3 different teachers. Erich Schiffmann and John Schumacher both of them were early teachers that Iyengar trained in a small group setting before he developed his formal teacher training. Bob Glickstein also trained with, I believe after it was more of a structured teacher training program. We’ll talk about that teacher trainer program later on.

Iyengar was born in 1918; he died in 2014 at the age of 96. He was of Brahmin caste meaning he was a member of the Priestly caste. Although he was in a high-caste his family was not wealthy. His father died when he was 9 years old and there were a total of 10 living children for his mother to care for. He was born before antibiotics were available and was sickly as a child. When Iyengar was 15 years old, his brother-in-law Pattabhi Jois took him to the Mysore Palace thinking that it would improve his health. At the Mysore palace he learned yoga from Krishnamacharya. Although we know Krishnamacharya as the father of modern yoga he was not only a master of the physical postures, he was also a knowledgeable ayurvedic doctor. In an interview with the BBC that you can watch on YouTube Iyengar relates that Krishnamacharya became a surrogate father to him. He also talks about the brutal teaching methods that Krishnamacharya used. Iyengar said that he would deprive him of food until he could perform the postures correctly. So when we talk about our great teaching tradition, we do need to be aware that some of the traditional teaching methods came out of another time and place.

At the age of 18 after only 3 years of study Iyengar was sent to Pune India to open his own yoga studio –  not because he was the best student but because he spoke English. Iyengar claims he was not very skillful at this point. However if you look at videos on YouTube of Iyengar and Krishnamacharya, it clear that he was really quite physically accomplished at a young age. Iyengar says that he practiced for hours on his own to teach himself the yoga postures. He also talks in the BBC interview of how he improved upon Krishnamacharya teaching methods.

Erich and many other teachers will talk about how Iyengar would hit them to correct their poses and I’ve seen the footage of that in a movie that was shared when Iyengar toured the United States. During that tour, he said that these corrections were done out of love in order to help people know how to do the postures correctly.

Iyengar’s personal practice was innovative and creative, but what he taught his students was how to create an exact copy of his own practice. He did not teach how to find the creative expression of that practice for yourself. Roger Cole, another Iyengar teacher, said that Iyengar always taught that his way was correct, but he was always changing what was the correct way of teaching a pose.

Because of his command of English, he was was involved in spreading yoga to the west.

Among other well known people, he taught Jiddu Krishnamurti and violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He taught the queen of Belgium to stand on her head. Through these connections to influential people in the in the west, he was enormously effective in spreading the practice of yoga all over the world.

Although he wrote some great books on yoga philosophy, he really stripped yoga down to just asana for the West. I saw him speak and he pretty much used asana and yoga interchangeably.

You can read Wikipedia for the rest of his life story. Here, I want to talk about what interests me that I do not see in many biographies.

To my mind, there are a couple of really great contributions that he made to yoga.

The first is the way he structured his yoga classes. He set up a complete curriculum. Currently In Iyengar yoga there are three levels. In level 1, students learn symmetrical postures such as mountain pose and spread leg forward fold. Inversions are introduced. Standing poses are the main focus. By the end of level one, a student should be able to sustain a headstand for 5 minutes away from the wall. In level 2, inversions, asymmetric postures, and backbends are given more attention. By the end of level 2, a student should be able to sustain a headstand for 10 minutes. In level 3, The student is moving into sustaining inversions for a long period of time and advanced backbends. They are doing arm balances.

What’s great about his program is that a student who wants to move up has a way to advance without moving into teacher training programs. A learner has a way to gauge their own progress and has a sense of where they are in their own learning. If you are in level 1 class still, you are still a beginner. If you are in level 3, you’re getting somewhere. When we look at the issues we have now about there being so many teacher training programs, I think we should look at his system as a model for a way to create an actual curriculum before the teacher training program.

The other thing he did that was really revolutionary was his teacher training system. He has very fine gradations of teachers in the system, and there are evaluations at every level of teacher. There are only a very few teachers who have the rank of master teacher. He created a system of life long learning.

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