by Ali Valdez
The next few weeks will see tens of thousands of tributes to BKS Iyengar, one of a handful of Krishnamacharya lineage bearers, our pathway into modern yoga that we have come to embrace in fragments in the West. Iyengar’s yoga book series Light On simply codifies his own contribution to the science and splendor of yoga.
He brought light across the world to millions, embracing even with a broken body in his youth, the possibility of perfection.
I was not a student of BKS Iyengar personally; this, I believe is important to note. But my teacher Andrey Lappa did for a while. Five years ago, everyone who was new to teaching yoga would bio out a laundry list of every weekend warrior workshop they attended to substantiate their credibility. Like a weekend with someone of Iyengar’s stature constitutes complete comprehension of a complex system.
Lately, it’s even worse, the arrogance pendulum has swung the other way where now yoga teacher bios do not mention any teachers or influences only that they are certified, possibly the most superficial qualification of all.
I want to honor the legacy of Iyengar who was not my teacher directly by honoring my first yoga teacher who did study with him.
For years I had been an accidental raja yogini just didn’t have the working vernacular to know it as such. My entire life I also embraced sports, individual and team, finding the zone and mastering my own body to achieve strength, endurance, and flexibility.
My best friend and I used to live in San Francisco, having been relocated by Microsoft for cool jobs in the hippest town on Earth. We decided with our blooming salaries to go big and join an elite tennis club on the Embarcadero. They offered yoga with a teacher, Marie, leading us through very simple sequences, employing straps and block, had an Austrian Swiss austerity to her approach and got us into side angles, shoulder and headstands, a new physical language that moved my heart like poetry.
Then Sandy began teaching Astanga, and I too studied with her and did privates as well, loving the rigor and flow of the primary series. I loved both, enjoying the balance between the dynamic and more static forms of physical practice.
Marie helped me realize that the two things I loved the most easily resided under one roof, the house of yoga. I entered a guest and have decided to spend my life a resident.
Part of my San Francisco experience included falling madly in love with a man who I thought would be the ‘one’. He practiced yoga, too: Bikram. Like an exotic fruit, he said it with such authority, I felt embarrassed to have not heard of it. I only knew of the classics: Iyengar and Astanga. So I tried Bikram, and loved it as well. Here I am in my youth with an incredible job, money flowing in, ten minute drive to my best friend, daily yoga, madly in love, and not really sure I even ended up playing much tennis at all. It was all about the yoga and love, love, love.
Then something happened; boyfriend and I split up. Enter the waterworks, the uncertainty, the night of laying like a wet stone in bed, a room so silent you can hear the audible sound of a heart breaking in two. I just wanted to stay in bed with the blankets over my head. Would this sadness come to pass and could I ever hope to move on? Eventually I did: one Iyengar yoga class at a time.
Your mind cannot wander when you are holding a perfectly aligned triangle for four f***ing minutes, can it? You cannot help but feel more grounded and balanced in padmasana trying to catch the toes behind your back, right?
I made all the classes, did the poses, took the evenly-metered breath and for one hour and twenty minutes forgot the Kleenex. My physical and energetic bodies filled up the coffers from my hard work but my emotional state was still an absolute mess. Savasana and closing meditation became the longest ten minutes of my life. But that is where pranayama from the teachings of Mr. Iyengar came in. I learned eka grata (single pointed concentration) one inhale and exhale at a time, laying on my back staying wholly connected to the breath during corpse pose, the one asana that could not outpace my heartache.
Until one day it did. I lived the gift of yoga through that experience and it was a cornerstone moment in my life.
Yes, the boy left and my girlish innocence did too. But yoga didn’t. It stayed. Yoga helped re-craft the trajectory of my life by expanding perspective. It is the primary expression of my faith, service in the world and belief in God.
Yoga and I are still going strong. We haven’t broken up, and we never will.
I owe my introduction to the yogic path to Iyengar for my many Iyengar inspired or classically trained teachers who embodied his Light On: Marie, Kathleen, Andrey, Aadil.