This week the great yoga teacher BKS Iyengar died at the ripe ol’ age of 95. I’m feeling especially thoughtful today about this. I want to share with you how this man influenced not just millions of other seekers throughout his long and blessed life — but how he personally affected me.
I can honestly say Iyengar’s influence on my life was as great, if not greater than my own mother’s, who happens to also be 95. Mom never once ever wanted to do “that weird thing you do on your head” — or any other yoga asana or any type of yoga exercise, like breathing or meditating — but she has lived a good healthy life. She’s still going strong, and no doubt will see many more birthdays than just her upcoming one in a few weeks. If you looked at her, you would think she was as fit as any asana-strong yogi or yogini. On any given day of the week you could sit by Eve’s kitchen table and watch as Mom bent right over from her waist to quickly mop up her kitchen floor with a damp rag, something she does on more days than not. Only yogis can bend so agilely — unless you happen to have been a farm-raised hard worker, like Mom, accustomed to the arduous labors of haying, weeding, milking cows and making butter and cheese by hand, picking fruit trees balanced high on a ladder, and any number of other physically demanding things a farm girl born in 1918, raised in America’s Great Depression does. Mom was raised to be capable, the oldest of three farm kids of Lithuanian immigrants. She learned to take care of herself and the two younger kids as well as flocks of poultry, pens of pigs, fruit orchards and fields of garden ripened vegetables that were sold at the family’s roadside stand. Grandpop would drive truckloads of tomatoes into nearby Philadelphia for Campbell Soup Company’s famous tomato soup. Mom’s life was an exercise in early discipline, hard work, and healthy, nutritiously-rich food. That’s one of the reason she’s still alive, and driving and living by herself! Unfortunately for me, I didn’t learn much more than domestic and intellectual rigors and how to keep a clean house from Mom. But I did get to learn about body-wisdom from B.K.S. Iyengar when I finally left my mother’s domain.
You see, somehow I just didn’t jive with my mom’s way of presenting things. Call me rebel or call her control-freak, I don’t know. All I know is I didn’t want anything she had to offer. Pity, but I’m making up for that early mistake now, as I spend a lot of time with my mom on an almost daily basis. But back when I was growing up, when I was asked by her to weed the garden I felt I’d been sentenced to death. When I was given the chore of mopping the kitchen floor, I felt unmercifully picked upon, preferring to spend all my time outside playing baseball with the neighborhood gang, mostly boys, because I wasn’t interested in playing with girls and their dolls, or dressing up. I wanted to run, shout, wrestle, get muddy, and climb tall trees. Actually, I’d find out later that mom did too, when she was a kid. But mom never told us stories about herself back then, and she sure didn’t want her daughters doing the same as her, no sirree. She felt her farm-background was not to be admired, but today, she’s the lucky one if you ask me.
When I finally left home and headed for college, I took a badly injured spine that had grown crooked along with me. My bad back was the result of having fallen from one of my tall perches. I remember lying on the ground, my breath kicked out of me from the long fall to the hard hard ground, my chest felt crushed. I was dizzy, not able to breathe, and senseless with pain, not able to move or draw a single breath for what seemed like a long time. Finally, I dragged myself home and never spoke of my mishap. But from that moment on I had what later I would find a word for: scoliosis, a severe disruption of my lower spine’s alignment.
Severe pain became my middle name. From the age of ten I couldn’t keep up with my addiction to baseball, couldn’t sleep too long on Saturdays, or do any repetitive, bent-over chore too long without causing such excruciating pain in my coccyx that it would take another couple of weeks to recover from. And this happened over and over. My parents didn’t know what was wrong with me. They didn’t know about scoliosis, and the doctors they sent me to only said things like, “She has one leg longer than the other” and sent me on my way taped up, strapped up, confined to back braces for weeks at a time, instead of offering exercises that might help re-align my crooked lower sacrum area. Years later I would see an X-ray of my spine. The only way to describe what my lower spine looks like is, “like an AmTrak train gone off its track!”
In my first year away at college, I begged two friends to grab hold of both my feet as I held onto a windowsill, instructing them to “Pull as hard as you can and maybe my back will be forced back into place!” Pain often ruled my awake and sleep states. When my lower back got re-injured, I couldn’t walk, and at the ripe old age of 18, I knew I was headed for a life of being crippled if I didn’t do something. I remembered with humiliation going to a chiropractor on my own. This man told me in an honest attempt to help, “Try with all your might, to stand in a hot hot shower, after getting your back as steamy-loose as you can stand it, then try to bend over and touch maybe your knee, maybe your shins.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when this guy said this to me. Me! A healthy specimen (except for the lousy crooked spine) who studied dance, bowled on a league, played ball with the best roughnecks, could run as fast as anyone, and arm wrestled anyone off the table who dared try to defeat me. I prided myself on having a good strong healthy, Big Bodacious Body, even though when the back went out, it was nervy-hell up and down the entire spine, and legs sometimes, for sometimes up to two weeks before the pain subsided.
So I learned how to not get injured. I became “aware” of what set my back off, pinching sciatica and other nerves, activating shooting nerve-pain up and down my very long spine and ultra-long legs. I never ever ever slept past my usual time allotment, because lounging horizontally for too long caused me to suffer immeasurably, and the extra sleep time was never worth the long hassle of dealing with back pain.
The windowsill trick didn’t work, naturally. Nothing worked, but being “body-smart.” And as I was determined to get better at this body-smart business, I was one of the first to hear, back in 1966, during my first school-year away from my parent’s domain and the very year that Iyengar published his book “Light on Yoga” — that yoga might be a possible solution for the end of my constant companion — pain.
I don’t remember where I heard about yoga for the first time. Maybe I just saw Iyengar’s book in a window as I roamed the streets of latest-and-greatest hip-stuff Harvard Yard, when I was investigating the rest of Boston and Cambridge from the art school I attended. However I discovered that book, “Light on Yoga” changed everything for me. Everything!
I bought “Light on Yoga” and took it home to my first apartment. Alone, with no one as mentor other than photos of a middle-age, preztal-shaped, asana-bent Iyengar, I was desperate to change. My body was troubling me so much I knew only desperation and depression were my future if I couldn’t stop the pain. With great hope and a funny feeling in my gut, of a Truth I would begin to understand, see its effect, and continue seeking further and further with each new pose — I opened Iyengar’s book.
First I learned how to get into one simple pose. Then I learned another. Slowly, trying to figure out the hows and whys, and where to put arms and legs. Breathing? Oh yeah, I had to learn that from the book, too. All over again as what Iyengar said didn’t fit with how I was so shallowly breathing up to then. But by the end of my first solitary session, with Iyengar’s book as my guru, my teacher, I knew I had found the “secret of my life’s true happiness.”
Instantly, my back sighed relief. I could tell, in that one session, that things had changed deep, way inside my body. A shift had occurred. I couldn’t explain how, or why or what. But …. I knew my life would never be the same again. It would take many years in the future for me to understand exactly how this shift happened. It is the miracle of the chakras opening in a person’s body-temple that hatha yoga gifts the person who is disciplined enough to “do yoga.”
And now it’s …. what??? practically fifty years later and I feel no pain, absolutely no pain — unless I don’t practice my regular hatha yoga (hatha means the “physical aspect” of yogic discipline) for a couple of weeks. And that hasn’t happened for many decades, me forgetting to do yoga, that is. When you finally find something that works, which takes away one’s pain, and gives joy and fulfillment within one’s own abilities, with no outside source (other than a teacher, or a book, in my case) — who wouldn’t stick to that! Today I “do yoga” at least 5 days a week, and swim and bike and dance as much as I can other days. Today I never say my age any other way, when someone asks, other than, “I’m sexy-sex.” And I mean that.
Truly, Iyengar changed my life. I love this great teacher! I never met him. I only read his books. Besides Iyengar I have had other teachers along the way, as I continue to learn, and impart to others, too, the many methods of yogic practices that expand our human understanding and abilities.
Someday, I may learn to fly!
Keep doing yoga, dear friends, keep breathing, thinking, and sending out positive energy, turn your back on negativity, and watch our experience, as we, our entire human family, keeps expanding, keeps getting more enlightened. The same that happens within our own body happens outside, in the world around us. Our solitary life is the microcosm of a much bigger picture. Have fun exploring its unbounded possibilities. Live in Love. Breathe in Love. Share Love with Others.
Om Namah IyengarOm
My love to you all, your pal Lord Flea, aka teZa Lord