by Bobby Clennell
At 5:15am, on Sunday Dec 16, 2018, our beloved Geetaji passed away.
Her life. Dr. Geeta S. Iyengar was the eldest daughter of the modern father of yoga, Yogacharya BKS Iyengar. She was sister to her five younger siblings, and a mother figure to the whole community of Iyengar Yoga practitioners, which now spans close to 60 countries.
Geeta lived simply, choosing to lead a life of Brahmacharya (celibacy). She devoted herself entirely to the teaching and practice of yoga.
Together with BKS Iyengar and her brother Prashant Iyengar, she directed the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune. Last year, the prestigious Prime Minister’s Award for the best Yoga Institute in India was awarded to RIMYI. This acknowledged not only Guruji’s achievement, but also Geeta’s six-decades-long commitment to teaching yoga. One of the hallmarks of this is that the Iyengar Yoga teaching certificate has become the gold standard in the field.
Childhood. At the age of nine, Geeta had an attack of nephritis (kidney inflammation) and had to be hospitalized. This left her with only half a kidney. Doctors told her father she would die without treatment, which caused him great anguish as he was unable to afford the high cost of medication. Instead he recommended that she practice yoga to improve her health. She did, going on to survive another 65 years.
Memories of Geetaji. My memories of Geeta Iyengar go back to the 1970s in Pune, before most of today’s practicing yogis were born, and certainly before yoga became mainstream.
Mr. Iyengar (now referred to as Guruji) taught the three-week long intensives that we international students worked so hard to attend. Geeta and Prashant assisted. Part of Geeta’s job was to take care of the women who were menstruating. “Women in periods” as we were known were sent to the back of the room to practice restorative postures. I was intrigued. Menstruation was a thing! And then Geeta said the word “menopause” — now I really started to pay attention. In those days, menstruation, menopause and other women’s issues were not mentioned in polite society. And so began my fascination with women’s yoga, and my admiration and devotion to Geeta Iyengar.
She inspired me and so many others as she forged a path through territories that were poorly understood and somewhat taboo (and still are in some of the Catholic countries I have visited). Menstruation, menopause and aging are all subjects she explored.
Her teaching. Geeta Iyengar was a great teacher. She somehow managed to reach deep into our souls, shining a light the way only a Godly teacher can, opening up the pathways of wakefulness and ardor, so that we too became, like her, all heart.
Geeta was intense and deeply just. Her wisdom and integrity came in part from her lineage (is she the last great Guru?). It also came from her own practice and her own way of looking and seeing.
She could be fierce in class. Her strong delivery enabled us to achieve mastery over our stiff and unyielding bodies and our clouded and chattering minds. She was quite capable of putting somebody straight especially when they were not listening. There were occasions when a student was asked to leave class. You didn’t mess with her! But that the fierceness came from a place of compassion.
When she arrived at the start of class, her presence would provoke a flurry of activity. Then a respectful silence would descend upon the hall. For a few that hushed, anticipation could be tinged with fear.
It takes power and strength to hold together classes of close to 200 (more in the conventions) with many students speaking little English. Like her father, she got you to perform asana in ways you would not have believed possible. Once I was trying to get a student to jump up into Adho Mukha Vrksasna (Full Arm Balance). I had propped a bolster at the wall, but my student was still not making it. Geetaji strode over, and told me to, “Get away, just get away!!” I quickly removed the bolster. Geetaji bellowed at the student: JUMP!! And the student got there!
Geeta could run a mega-class of many hundreds. She could also be gentle and very sensitive, tenderly adjusting a student in therapy.
Guruji’s teaching/ Geeta’s teaching. Guruji ruled RIMYI, the heart and soul of Iyengar Yoga from the time he built it in 1974. He was utterly charismatic. His delivery was fiery. His instructions somehow bypassed the logical, computing brain, going straight to our innermost being.
His language was pure poetry, delivered in lightning bolts which after hitting the spot, shot you with electricity. I would go home after his intensives, floating on air one minute, and charged with confidence the next.
Mr. Iyengar retired from full-time teaching in 1984 when he was 66 years old, but he continued to preside over the daily medical classes. In his early 90s he paired with other teachers including his granddaughter, Abhyjata to teach the regular classes. He also travelled to China, and soon after conducted the first “Chinese intensive” in Pune.
By the time Geeta took over, the numbers of students applying for places on the intensives had grown so much that each one had to be restricted to one country only (the French intensive, the American intensive and so on).
Her teaching was something else again. It was as powerful as Guruji’s, and yes, she had inherited her father’s fire: that’s in the blood. But where Guruji wowed us with his poetry, Geeta’s delivery was straightforward. She taught in a way that made Guruji’s teachings more easily and clearly understood. We began to absorb the information differently.
Later, when there were no more intensives, we foreign students signed in to “general classes.” Geeta taught them, and also taught the two women’s classes.
These classes were strong. They were about building stamina and courage, finding balance, modulating energy, recovery, relaxing and thriving. Classes were (and still are) structured on a monthly basis. Standing pose week built your strength. Forward extensions calmed your mind. Backbends made you feel like the sky had opened inside your heart. Restorative and pranayama week left you quiet and still. She taught us with precision, insight, humor and love.
Touring. Touring the globe extensively, Geeta held retreats and conventions around the world, including in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and South Africa.
Her retreats blended rigorous instruction with humor and compassion. They aimed at a unity of the body and the mind and often transcended the asanas, pranayama and mere remedial teaching to include chanting and Sanskrit pronunciation.
She contributed substantially wherever she could make a difference. Notably, in 2012, Geetaji conducted a therapeutics convention in Portland, Oregon, US, which became a benchmark for the congruence between yoga, medicine and Ayurveda. She taught us how to hone the art of observation and application of asana in the treatment and alleviation of various diseases. She repeatedly stressed how yogasanas have transformative power that come with the alignment of the outer, inner and innermost bodies.
Her father, her Guru. Geeta was inspired to take up yoga early and never looked back. She began imbibing the precepts of yoga from her father at a tender age. Already a recognized teacher by the age of 16, she began instructing in the early 1960s. With a doctorate in Ayurveda, she integrated her knowledge of the medicinal system with the principles of yoga.
Always aware of the incredible responsibility of having a father who was also her guru, Geeta adhered closely to her father’s emphasis on precision in asana. She was also mindful of classical sources and the ritual practices of yoga. She continued her father’s work of spreading the “Iyengar brand” in countries across the globe and remained a shishya to him until the end. Decades later, when asked at a Q & A, whether she felt she was in her father’s shadow, she wittily said, “I consider myself fortunate to be in my father’s light, not his shadow.”
The Convention. Geetaji’s death was a shock to all of us, coming barely two days after the conclusion of the celebration of her father’s 100-year centenary, held at Pune’s Balewadi Sports Stadium. She was the moving force behind the mammoth 10-day yogasana and pranayama program, in which more than 1,300 students from 53 countries participated. She gave everything she had: tough love, wisdom and soulful honesty. She taught tirelessly for five of those days (six hours each day), exhorting students to experience the intelligence in their bodies first-hand and not to depend on second-hand experiences. This insistence on self-learning and self-awareness had become her defining ethic. She also seemed strong and bright during the last two celebration days (consisting of film, yoga presentations and talks). But she spoke about her inability to carry on as she had in the past. Her last words were prescient, inspirational and, in retrospect, heartbreaking.
Geeta maintained a rigorous schedule until her last breath. Throughout 2018, in anticipation of the 12-day convention, and along with other teachers, she taught intensives at RIMYI for international groups (Japan and Mexico to name but two).
The evening before she passed, she was meeting with her students until 8:30pm.
Yoga: A Gem for Women. Described in the world press as the world’s “leading female yoga exponent” and a “pioneer” who blazed a trail for women in yoga, Geeta was without a doubt the modern world’s most authentic and original voice on women’s yoga.
Her groundbreaking book, Yoga: A Gem for Women, was the first authoritative work defining a complete yoga practice for women. With its publication, Geeta reclaimed the practice of yoga for women after centuries of male exclusivity.
It was translated into half-a-dozen European languages. Geetaji (as her students affectionately call her) changed the face of yoga for us all.
She empathized with our struggles and understood our problems. After all, she was a working woman herself. She managed the Iyengar family household, helped direct the Iyengar Yoga network worldwide, and maintained a busy teaching schedule at RIMYI where, with her father, she oversaw the medical classes and conducted special intensives for large groups of visiting students.
The debt we owe to her is immeasurable—for her validation of women as yoga practitioners and for offering them the gift of health, well-being, and spiritual solace.
Finally. We touch the feet of this humble yet distinguished teacher. She was, and is still, our inspiration and a model of commitment, service, and duty.
Blessings to her family.
Rest in Peace.
Bobby Clennell considers herself blessed to have studied directly with BKS Iyengar and his daughter Geeta Iyengar, who inspired and informed her interest in women’s yoga. Bobby combined her yoga studies, which began in the UK in 1972, with a twenty-year career in animation. She was given her teaching certificate by BKS Iyengar himself in 1977. She began teaching at The Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York in 1995. She also teaches yoga workshops throughout the United States and abroad. Bobby Clennell is the author and illustrator of The Woman’s Yoga Book, and Yoga for Breast Care. She is the creator of “Yoga Yantra” an animated short film, based on the movements of BKS Iyengar in practice. For more information: www.bobbyclennell.com.
Photo courtesy of Jake Clennell