In 1978 I fell under the spell of a yoga teacher named Martyn Jackson. Martyn taught a kind of yoga that he’d learned in Pune, India from his teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar.He alleged that, in the sixties, he was one of few western students to study with Mr. Iyengar.
Martyn went to Pune from New Zealand to undertake one-to-one lessons with Mr. Iyengar. He had a story about arriving on Mr. Iyengar’s door step because a guru visiting New Zealand, Swami Vekatesananda Saraswati, had advised him to do so. Martyn said he liked the sound of the name Iyengar because it sounded like I-anger to him. Obviously, he was looking for a tough teacher and that’s exactly who he got.
Here’s a photo of the house where Mr. Iyengar was instructing Martyn (pictured). It was comprised of only two rooms, so Mr. Iyengar’s wife and children occupied one room while the lessons were conducted in the other.
I’d been doing different types of yoga, such as Satyananda and Oki, before I met Martyn. Early on in my yoga journey, I had even taken private lessons with a teacher who mixed Religious Science with yoga. I was obviously looking for something.
I don’t know whether it was Martyn’s teaching style or what he was transmitting from his rigorous mentor, but once I started the Bondi Junction classes, I couldn’t stop. Pretty soon I was in a teacher training course with 25 others. Eight of us made it through the gruelling six months, five-days-a-week training.
I accompanied Martyn to the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Institute 1981 where I met the great teacher for the first time. Martyn introduced me to Mr. Iyengar as his fiancee because, back then in traditional Hindu society, it was frowned upon to be in a de facto relationship.
By 1984, when I returned to India to attend classes at the Institute, Mr. Iyengar’s popularity had grown hugely. In the following years his fame and popularity grew to proportions that could never have been predicted. From the time of his adolescence to his recent demise at 95 years old, Mr. Iyengar influenced hundreds of thousands of students worldwide through his teaching, the perfection of his asana practice, and his books.
I was one of those impacted by him. In the early days of the Australian Iyengar Association, I acted as a treasurer for the organisation, and also as an assessor for those wanting to become teachers of the Iyengar method. I was part of the small Australian community of Iyengar yoga teachers until I made a conscious decision to leave it.
Something changed for me, and I became disaffected by Mr. Iyengar’s personal teaching style. Perhaps I was afraid of the fiery temperament that he was capable of which manifested as sudden verbal and physical attacks on students. “People used to call B.K.S. ‘beat-kick-shout’ or ‘beat-kick-slap,” said John Schumacher, one of Mr. Iyengar’s senior teachers in an article in The Atlantic magazine. “Practicing with him was “exhilarating, it was terrifying, it was exciting, it was demanding. But the two words that most come to mind are enlivening and inspirational.”
I was the ‘victim’ of one of Mr. Iyengar’s tirades in a class at the Institute. He shouted at me until I became upset, and I tried unsuccessfully to choke back tears. (Imagine crying in headstand. Tears will totally soak your head.) After this incident, I knew that I should just buck up and ‘get over it’. But I couldn’t get past the feeling that I needed to disavow Mr. Iyengar as my teacher. I’m sure my decision had everything to do with the fact that, as a young child, I lived in a household with intermittent violence and physical and verbal abuse. I was going to need years of healing to get over that. And, I was to discover, yoga wasn’t a cure-all.
When I heard of Mr. Iyengar’s death last week, I initially felt nothing. Somehow that didn’t seem right. Here was the man who had propagated yoga all over the globe. By and large, his teachers are among the most dedicated, caring group of people on the planet. Moreover, I’m sure that my passion for yoga has it’s roots in the fire of ‘the lion of Pune’. As my colleague and friend says of her own relationship with ‘Guru-ji’: “He is in my pores, in my cells. He has made me in a way.”
Grief eventually caught up with me. After teaching my second class of the day of Mr. Iyengar’s death, I came home thoroughly exhausted. I went to bed early, but then woke up with a heavy heart, choking back sobs. I got up and found a place where I could let out all my grief, and I did. I thought at the time, ‘Where is this coming from?’
Had I been visited by the enormous energy of B.K.S. Iyengar? Was I overcome by feeling the loss of a great yoga light? Was my own inner guru serving me up grief to fit the death of a gigantic genius?
I’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. I just let the sadness be there until it wasn’t. Acceptance shifts everything. And even more so, gratitude.
Thank you Eve for your openness and courage in your sharing. I have been wondering how this has been for you as I know some of your history in relation to it. I too have had some very big feelings in more than one direction.
I have a small glimpse, I think, of what it is like for an adult daughter/son of an abusive father when he dies. Gratitude for the enormity of what he gave me. Grief at his passing mixed in with grief for other things lost – including those lost long ago, like when you realize that the father is not god, and the loss of your family when you leave. Confusion. Uncertainty as to whether opening up to the love inside the grief will also open up buried feelings of shame, and whether that is ok.
A clarity I have gained during this time of his passing is the extent to which he did his very best to impart what he had to impart. I too have been harangued at length by Guruji, and I too have not been back since the last and most public of those ‘attacks’ – also the most difficult to not interpret as disrespectful (it was a physical strike to the head). It was par for the course in how he himself was taught and raised, and I am pretty sure that the emotional hardening he had had to develop made it so that he never realized how much it got in the way of his teaching. And he had so much to teach.
I know from my study of psychology – and we are uncovering more and more about this – that people cannot learn well in an environment of fear. They learn best when they are liked and shown warmth and encouragement. I found it very very difficult to learn in Pune, as my nervous system was on alert all the time, and I couldn’t go within and be sensitive to myself there. This is how it is for human beings: it is not just a failing of some of us who aren’t tough enough. Though undoubtedly some folk have their fears triggered more than others in any given circumstance.
As a teacher I have the benefit of standing on the shoulders of the genius of BKS Iyengar, and seeing further: I see that compassion toward my students is best expressed on many levels: tone of voice, facial expression, gesture, as well as illumination of where they are holding tension in their tissue, or where they are short-changing themselves or are simply unaware. It isn’t that it is never right to use a strong, urgent, or sharp tone, but whenever you do, you effectively kick the sympathetic nervous system, and if you want that student to learn you need to bring that nervous system back into balance, back into its safety zone. The communication of interpersonal safety cues within the learning environment is an important way to do this.
I hope that as the teachers of “Iyengar Yoga” take the work forward, they are able to expand and encompass these realities. That the undoubted passion for the subject which he ignited is allowed to bear its fullest fruits: love, tenderness, compassion, respect and delight on every level, between human beings as well as within.
Thank you so much for your kind words – and wisdom. I have felt at times like I was a lone voice of disagreement with the abusive teaching style of BKS. I can muster understanding but the fact is that that style was an inhibitor of learning for me. Fortunately I had opportunities to learn from other teachers of ‘the method’, and the fact that I went my own way, I learned much from my personal practice.
Interestingly, I was re-arranging my yoga book collection last week and the most space on the shelves goes to my Iyengar collection.
I love how the texture of life presents when we don’t try to make black and white 🙂
Dear Eve, This is a very belated reply to your lucid reflections on the death of B.K.S. Iyengar. Your words struck a cord. I also experienced great fear and violence in childhood, and the two stretches I did at the Institute in Pune triggered negative emotions. Of course I was nowhere near the standard of you or Martyn, but ‘Guruji’ was indeed rude, the details of which I shall not dwell upon here. Actually, I found Gita Iyengar verbally abusive- calling us degenerate Westerners and liars on the slimmest of evidence – although in her defence I do think she was particularly stressed by her father’s intermittent interruptions to her teaching. It didn’t help that he would hang about in 60 minute sirsasana while her classes were in progress 🙂 They also appeared to support the Indian nuclear program, which I found downright weird and of course, unacceptable. Maybe Dr P.K. Iyengar, who oversaw the creation of the nuclear bomb that was tested in Pokharan in the 70s was a relative…..I have no idea …….but I guess people are full of contradictions.
Tashi Delek Eve!
I studied with Martyn Jackson in Christchurch, New Zealand, ’75/’76 before returning to Canada. I really liked him and as I surfed to see if there was any way to find out how his life went from then I bumped into you.
What a pleasure to read your article – and the comments that follow it. Thank you.
I recall Martyn telling us that he was in the British paratroop corps as a phys-ed instructor and an Olympic Gymnast. Being an ex Royal Marine Commando and gymnast I found it very easy to work with him.
I thought he was British. When I met him he had ‘de-certified’ himself as a Physiotherapist because he found the professional aspects too restrictive. He had a table in the teaching room and if someone experienced a problem he would treat them immediately on the table – fabulous and unique in my experience.
He told me a story about a wealthy student of his in Australia who took him water-skiing and towed him across the boat’s wake, damaging both his knees and he explained how he healed that.
I don’t recall his age then but he was getting on – and he told me that he intended to be able to levitate by the time he was 65. Do you know if he did that?
He used to get around on a motorbike and teach vegetarian diet and food preparation. He was a really great being in my experience, a true Bodhisattva.
if you have any details you are willing to share about his life and death I would appreciate it – thank you…