On Guruji’s Centenary: A Ray of Light by Melissa Perehudoff

December 3, 2018

 “Come to class, I think you might like it”, said my friend Deborah, 27 years ago.  I was suffering from stress in a challenging career, loneliness in a new town and emotional instability that comes with confusion and lack of support.  I was blessed with a strong, flexible body with slight scoliosis and a curious mind so what did I have to lose?  Soon I learned that what I had to gain was what BKS Iyengar described as the purpose of yoga, to develop the body, discipline the mind and stabilize the emotions in order to refine us as a whole.  In class, the teacher got me to align my body with precise instructions that cut through my sluggishness.  She expressed other ideas that were new to me.  “Let the consciousness touch every cell of your being.”  These concepts did not make much sense at the beginning but now I can say that I have experienced vastness of consciousness in a pose or the full aliveness of my being after a particularly focused class.  The intelligence of the cells can be awakened and the connectivity of mind, breath and body can be experienced through asana.

My first Iyengar yoga teacher, Margaret Lunam, was a former physiotherapist, mother and housewife. She was starting a new life on her own as a yoga teacher and was very much inspired by the work and books of Mr. Iyengar. She sprinkled his philosophy in the class. “Your body lives in the past. Your mind lives in the future. They come together in the present when you practice Yoga.” “When the mind is controlled, stilled and silenced, what remains is the soul.” Who was this man that had realized mastery of his body and exploration of his soul to ignite so many others on the path of Yoga? I took weekly yoga classes at Kelowna Yoga House with Deborah Lomond. Then I completed my introductory teacher training through Iyengar Yoga Centre of Victoria (IYCV), under the mentorship of Linda Benn. Afterwards Shirley Daventry French and Ann Kilbertus, senior teachers at IYCV, provided annual teacher training at Kelowna Yoga House.   After practicing Iyengar yoga for 16 years and following the footsteps of my mentor teachers, I decided it was time to go to the source in India. 

 I remember my first trip to Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in 2006. I was nervous for the first class and not at all grounded in my body.  I quickly unfolded a mat in one of the few remaining spots at the back of the hall of 100 or more international yoga students. My usually sleepy, dull body was pulsating with nervous energy and my mind was bursting in anticipation of the upcoming class. The young female teacher on the stage gave instructions for adho mukha svanasana (Downward Facing Dog) and I stretched each finger maximally on the worn Indian yoga mat, pressing thigh muscle back to thigh bone, extending through the side chest to the hips as if stretching the painting canvas on a wooden frame.  As my head hung loose from my cervical spine and I gazed between my legs, my eyes landed on those of BKS Iyengar who was in a supported backbend on the trestler directly behind me. His face was serene, his 87 year old body supple and I was staring into the eyes of the Guru. Lightning bolts of awareness coursed through my veins as my brain registered where I had placed my mat.  How can the mere presence of a man electrify another’s body like that? While remaining completely absorbed in his own practice, Guruji’s eyes took in the bodies practicing before him.  He relayed instructions to an assistant teacher, who ran to the main stage to tell Abhijata, his granddaughter who was teaching the class, who then conveyed Guruji’s instructions to the students.  He never rested from his purpose to first teach his body, then his students and finally his teachers to progress.

 It is through continual, persistent practice that we see change.  In the yoga path, we are asked to inquire beyond our asana practice and consider anything in life.  I can see how I was doing with a particular behaviour yesterday and then observe again how I am doing with this today.  If there is a positive change, then that is progress.  It takes activating the intelligence of the consciousness to observe the behaviour, choose a new response and witness change.  Likewise we are taught to never settle with limitations.  I can discover my limitations and then go beyond them because obstacles are meant to be overcome. Learning to balance upside down on my arms with feet on a wall and then move away from the wall and face my fears balancing in the middle of the room.  Or knowing that one shoulder is weaker than the other and learning to use left and right hands, arms and shoulders evenly in urdhva dhanurasana (Upward Bow).  These efforts on my yoga mat give me the courage in my daily life to say what needs to be said truthfully and from the heart or to do something that I may not want to do but keeps me in alignment with my values.  In fact, my three greatest gifts from the practice of yoga, besides the health of my body, have been courage, patience and acceptance or equanimity.

 Being an Iyengar yoga teacher with another profession or ‘day job’ has meant I had to dedicate time for my asana practice.  I am not able to do the more difficult poses at the back of Light on Yoga, this was never my desire. I was highly motivated to take the teachings deeper into my daily life. The daily self-observation on and off the mat, has helped me to cultivate “standing steady” in whatever I am doing in life, a reflection of the basic standing pose, tadasana or Mountain pose.  As Guruji expressed, “Self-knowledge starts from the skin on the soles of the feet when standing”.  Self-responsibility can be learned from asking whose legs are these and whose duty is it to straighten them?  When I discriminate the movement of the torso from the stability of the leg, I can learn to discriminate if time is best spent with family, at work or on the yoga mat.  As I persevere to learn a challenging pose and perhaps literally fall down, I learn patience, compassion for myself and to see myself more lightly. Perhaps I go to bed planning an invigorating back bend practice for the next day only to awaken with a headache or ill feeling symptoms.  I accept that my yoga practice is to balance my physical, mental, emotional and physiological states of being that change from day to day and each day requires a particular, mindful practice. And to be in a pose like kurmasana, the tortoise quiet and still in her shell with her arms and legs pinned to the earth, is like witnessing  a conflict at work or in my relationships with warm heart and cool mind, poised to respond, restrained from reacting and maintaining a wide view. The Iyengar asana practice emphasizing symmetry and alignment has been particularly valuable for my spine that has slight scoliosis. When symmetry is created in the exterior, physical body, then balance and health are created on the interior organic body and the yogi lives in harmony with the world.

On my recent fourth trip to RIMYI, I was taught again by Abhijata, now a master teacher in her own right. To find balance in adho mukha vrksasana (Arm Balance) she taught us to press each finger joint and wrist joint down and lift all the other joints of the body up.  “Do not take the legs off the wall”, she commanded, “allow the legs to come off the wall on their own by doing the correct action”. I experienced this Arm Balance so strong yet light, energizing my entire body. It reminded me of another aphorism of BKS Iyengar, “Awareness must be like the rays of the sun, extending everywhere, illuminating all”. And so the legacy and lineage of BKS Iyengar continue with the new generation of teachers.  Each teacher at RIMYI is like a ray of the light of BKS Iyengar, spreading awareness and understanding of the teachings. Through the Iyengar system we can access our potential and from the stillness of mind and heart radiate our essential nature of generosity, kindness and compassion.


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