December 14th 1918–August 20 2014
Mr. Iyengar died last week, aged 95. Can you imagine being born in 1918? And continuing to live zestily, generously, big-heartedly into a whole new century? He published his book, Light on Life, some ten years ago. I think of it as a manual for humans wishing to live well, and Mr. Iyengar closes the book stating, "I pray that my ending can be your beginning." What a thing to say, and with such lightness.
Much has been written about Mr Iyengar's life, and rightly so—this man was, and is, a true pioneer. He brought yoga to the west, literally, when he first visited London as a steely-eyed young man in the 1940s. His seriousness was part of his determination to be taken seriously, for yoga to be taken seriously—at a time when he was forbidden from showing his face in the dining room of the posh hotel he was staying in, on account of his being Indian. Half a century later, you can look at the photos of Guruji, laughing away; in a fine Radio 4 documentary recorded around his 80th birthday, he says, "I feel that my method of yoga can never die and that is why I am happy." He recognized his essential part in bringing yoga to the world and it delighted him. Of course, his levity and joy bubbled forth as a result of his ability, founded on tenacity, to live in freedom.
One of the things I've loved most about Mr. Iyengar's teachings, over the years, is his emphasis on living yogically as a "householder". In other words, not a practitioner who secludes themselves in the woods or a cave or a monastery to pursue yoga. Rather, someone living what we'd consider a more regular life; working a job, raising a family, these things. He treats this way of living—the way he lived, in fact—with utmost respect. He offers teachings on how to live in this world with devotion. It moves me that he did this; that he strove to help people in this way. It rings through in this teaching from Light on Life:
“As animals, we walk the earth. As bearers of divine essence, we are among the stars. As human beings, we are caught in the middle, seeking to reconcile the paradox of how to make our way upon earth while striving for something more permanent and more profound.”
Every inch of his teachings—physical and metaphysical—explores and seeks to clarify this wonderful, impossible, perfect situation. He helps us navigate, directs us in the dance that takes place as we negotiate these two seeming poles, as we move towards yoga, union.
He's there grounding down our back foot in Parsvokonasana as our top arm reaches up to the sky. His meticulous instructions directing us on how best to open the chest, waist, side-body to make space in the pose. He's there, encouraging us on how to bring our finest awareness to our asana practice, asking that we watch our discomfort in poses in our journey towards sthira, sukha—strength and sweetness. Or at least, I feel this to be so.
I was considering our human situation—our hooves on the ground, our consciousness ascending to the stars—with regard to longing. That particular heart-song that our condition seems to inspire. My friend suggested that this longing is also what helps us grow; it keeps us reaching, exploring and learning. Good to have a teacher there with you.
There is so much gold in Light on Life. Another friend of mine has read the book many times, underlining sections in a different color on each reading; the pages are almost entirely underlined now. When I heard the news of Mr. Iyengar leaving his body after this great gift of a life, I thought immediately of one particular part of the book, which you can read in the photograph below.
Here's to courage; to commitment, clarity and compassion.