Sri BNS Iyengar Yoga Parampara

Sri BNS Iyengar Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Parampara

BY ANDREW EPPLER

 

After 21 years of yoga practice with Sri BNS Iyengar, I consider him to be my teacher. I am his student and on this day of Guru Purnima (when teachers are honored), I will share some thoughts about his way of teaching and his legacy.
 
First of all, what does the word Parampara mean? It is simply that which is passed down from generation to generation. It can be through bloodlines and also through a teacher/student relationship as it often is in the various yoga traditions. While the mainstream, pop culture side of yoga has little interest in these sort of things, people who practice yoga daily and who begin to see benefits from yoga that are outside the scope of physical exercise often do become interested do eventually wonder where all this stuff came from. Yoga has a very long and fascinating history.
 
Sri BNS Iyengar is the oldest living teacher of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. He lives in Mysore India. At the age of 92 he still actively teaches asana, mudra, and pranayama every day. His longevity and sustained mental clarity are a testimony of his deep practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga throughout his life. He has always chosen to stay out of the public eye and avoid self-promotion. He doesn't think twice about kicking out students he perceives to be disrespectful. I have seen him do it a number of times. Because of this, he is not very well known in the world of yoga. But for those of us who really connect with him, Sri BNS Iyengar has been much more than an asana teacher. He has inspired us to strive to become better people.
 
I knew I had found someone special from the moment I first studied with him. The sparkling eyes and mocking smile as he asked me if I believed in god were enough to captivate me. I didn't want to study elsewhere after that. I wanted to go deep with him and I knew he had things to teach me. He made time for me. He shared his worldview and his humor with me. He made fun of me a great deal in ways that helped me to see my own ego and foolishness. He brought me to tears at times with the depth of his philosophy as he explained how important it is to be humble and righteous. He never mentioned once his own religious background. He never, in fact, tried to sway me towards any other spiritual tradition than my own, but when I found out years later that the Iyengars follow the Vishishta Advaita of Ramanuja and that their primary philosophy is Bhakti and that service and devotion to humanity is their foremost thinking, I was not surprised. And it turns out that Sri Krishnamacharya was also an Iyengar and followed that same philosophy. The Mysore Yoga Parampara, when spoken about by elders and scholars in Mysore, is sometimes called the Nathamuni Sampradaya, and it has much more to do with the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita than with the practice of yoga postures.
 
In terms of Asana practice, Sri BNS Iyengar teaches something quite similar to what Pattabhi Jois taught. Sri BNS Iyengar began his asana practice with Sri Krishnamacharya and then continued with Pattabhi Jois for 12 years. He has his students step to the left instead of right. This is very practical because the students then face their teacher when they do the right side of each pose. The reasons are philosophical of course. There are other subtle differences in vinyasa count and posture variation, but they are minor. I practice them proudly in the way he taught me.
 
In 2013 I brought Sri BNS Iyengar to America to teach at Ashtanga Yoga Studio in Oklahoma. He lived with me for a month. South India exploded into my home as he and his gracious assistant Kanchen Mala settled in. I remember trying to explain the shower knobs to him and he looked sternly at me and said:"A bucket is required!" I soon gave up trying to explain the knobs and ran to fetch a bucket at 2:30 am in the morning when he arrived at my house. Those were sweet days. We shared some fine mangos together, and it was a great privilege to share our daily lives together.
 
He watched me teach an "Intro Class" which was nothing like Primary series, just a broken down shell. He only commented, "It satisfies hunger." He could see the people were not ready for intense practice and didn't care about my adaptations at all. And I knew I could be sure he would have said something if he did!
 
When he asked me to assist in his asana classes I was terrified. He corrected my teaching with great criticism right in front of everyone a number of times. He didn't like it that I was helping students to move deeper into postures. He said, "let them do it their own way and discover it at their own speed." He was very insistent that everyone was treated with great respect and touching with the feet was strictly forbidden. Mistakes resulted in getting yelled at immediately. But I can say that for a moment or two I actually taught a yoga class with the great BNS Iyengar. I learned so much just being around him. He is a very quiet person outside of the classroom, but he turns into a lion when he steps into the role of yoga teacher.
 
When I wanted to make a documentary about his life and teachings he reluctantly agreed after numerous requests and then when I had made all the preparations he changed his mind and flatly refused. That resulted in a documentary about the whole yoga community in Mysore which was a thousand times better than it could have ever been if it was only about one person. He demonstrated his absolute detachment and at the same time allowed me to move deeper into the community and learn more than I had ever dreamed of. The film Mysore Yoga Traditions is a result of that work.
 
During the filming of Mysore Yoga Traditions, I was dealing with a spinal injury. One day rested from asana practice but then I didn't feel good about it. Because of his age, I never know if I will see him again in this life and I didn't want my ego to stop me from being there in his asana classes. So I went. One morning it was really bad. He could see I was in pain and that my movements were restricted severely. He kept telling me to be careful. In the end, I just wanted to get to my bed before my back locked up and I had to crawl home. He said, "Wait, wait!"  So I sat there and he rummaged through some old dusty shelves. This went on for maybe 10 minutes. I thought he had forgotten about me and I was considering trying to limp towards the door quietly. Then suddenly he turned to me with a stack of papers and called me into the back room. He said, "This is a compilation of all my research in yoga and I want you to have it. Don't share it with anyone." I was floored. I just about started crying. I had been feeling like the worst yogi on the planet and he chose that deeply humble moment to give me a gift that was beyond priceless to me.
 
So I read those papers. Some things I will never share. But one thing that was written there is that he believes that Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is a great gift for all of humanity. He believes it should be taught in a way that transcends language, culture, religion, and politics. He believes it should be made accessible to everyone and that they should not be asked to follow any other culture's religious beliefs or customs.
 
So as far as I am concerned those are my instructions from my teacher. I am not bound by sequences or postures or any of the trappings of Indian culture. I am free. But devotion is important. Respect for the tradition is important. I have only one obligation, to share yoga with compassion. kindness, and respect for the people I am teaching. And also to try to serve the greater good of the world through my efforts to teach yoga. That is why I call him Guruji. He taught me a lot about yoga and about life and I am truly grateful to him. I am very proud to be teaching the yoga methods or Sri BNS Iyengar!