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Mastering the Meeting of Mind and Body

A devoted following is female yoga teacher's reward for discipline.


With her image filling the four massive video screens that hang from the ceiling of the Pasadena Convention Center, Geeta S. Iyengar, the world's leading female yoga teacher, stands on a raised rectangular stage and addresses the small army of yoga devotees arrayed before her on closely spaced rubberized mats. "The mind," she says through a mobile microphone, "is the last thing to be prepared." It is a reminder to the gathering of the delicate connection between the intellect and the physical body.

Devotees watch and listen intently as this middle-aged woman from India, dressed in a T-shirt and closely cropped shorts, challenges them to drop their lingering doubts and, for the next five to six hours, tap their inner strength to achieve proper alignment of the various yoga postures. "I see this new popularity of yoga here, but you see, I understand this Western mind," Iyengar says, adding that "The mind can be tricky; you must adjust it to yoga and face what is happening inside."

It is 7:30 on this morning in mid-May, the beginning of the third day of the Iyengar Yoga Odyssey 2001, the largest gathering in America of those who practice the variety of yoga developed by Iyengar's father, BKS Iyengar. Yoga in America comes in myriad forms with myriad names and styles--Kundalini, Easy, Flow, Mysore, White Lotus, Viniyoga and Astanga, to name just a few. Iyengar is "tough-love" yoga, practiced without musical accompaniment, and with no indulgent support. A hallmark of the Iyengar method is an almost drill-like adherence to mastering poses, using intricate instructions regarding alignment. There's little allowance for grousing or crankiness while performing the poses.

Bruce Schwartz, one of the owners of Pasadena's Yoga House, has noticed that at his studio, Iyengar followers rarely take other styles of yoga because, as he notes, "Iyengar followers believe their style to be superior." Preferences for particular styles, he observes, seems to be related to personality traits. "My analogy is, Iyengar yoga is like Bach because it is very much about form. Astanga [sequences of poses that flow into one another] is like Wagner and has a romantic sense with huge emotions, while Viniyoga is more minimalist, like the composer Mozart."

This day's fugues are exercises in concentration. Participants watch closely as Iyengar demonstrates poses and then commands them to duplicate her actions. Quietly they struggle to balance their entire body weight on the palms of their hands, stand 10 minutes on their heads, master deeper stretches, or practice pranayama, a rhythmic breathing pattern, as a portal to higher consciousness.

When it becomes apparent that participants are not mastering her directions, or the demonstrations of other master students, Iyengar calls neophyte students to the stage and moves arms or widens a stance to improve a specific pose. On the ballroom floor, she is assisted by some of the country's top yoga instructors: Patricia Walden, Manouso Manos, Mary Dunn, John Schumacher and others, teachers with large followings of their own, who individually correct members of the crowd. Occasionally Iyengar comes off the stage to correct an individual, but her stance remains unrepentant and unrelenting as she demands that everyone try harder and be more self-reflective. "Unlike my father," she says on the fourth day of the convention, "I will not shout at you; you must find it inside yourself." Still later she declares: "When you come to yoga, you have to give everything."

North American Tour

Geeta Iyengar is an intense, opinionated woman who spends most of her year teaching in Pune, India. She softens for a few moments as she sits on a folding chair surrounded by her traveling entourage of four in a room that is now emptying of 200 teachers. A quick smile pops onto a face that shows some of the strain of nearly five days of being the center of attention, adoration and questions. Her monthlong North American tour has included a smaller yoga convention in British Columbia, a lecture and the acceptance of an award from UC Riverside (which has established a certificated yoga program through its extension program).

At 57, Iyengar is comfortable with her path as a modern female pioneer in the world of yoga. Previously the life of a yoga practitioner was reserved for the Brahmans (the priestly class of India's Hindus), and then only for men. To find another female yogi of her stature, one would have to reach back to the 14th century when Lalla, a Kashmir mystic, distinguished herself as a practitioner.

Iyengar remains heir-apparent to the form of hatha yoga her father developed in the 1930s. The Iyengar method, as well as developing approaches for reinforcing more precise alignment in yoga poses, also introduced commonplace props, such as folding chairs, blankets, and benches, to facilitate the process. It has become one of the most universally practiced forms of yoga, even though its insistence on discipline rankles some.

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