Iyengar Yoga and the Power of Intention: Part 2

An Excerpt from the Keynote Address to the New England Regional Conference

John Schumacher

This is the second half of John Schumacher's address to the conference.

John SchumacherSo our journey inward is guided by our intention and is energized by our intention.

When I said earlier that our practice and its encouraging effect on our intention leads us ever more deeply into ourselves, I also said AND THEN BACK OUT AGAIN!

It seems to me that whatever awakening, whatever opening up to the mystery and grandeur of it all we might touch in our practice, we have an obligation to manifest that awakening, to share it with our fellow beings. I mean, that's the real reason for teaching, isn't it? Because what arises from this awakening is a deep realization that we're all in the pool together and that what I do affects you and what you do affects me.

And that brings me to the final reason I chose Iyengar Yoga and the Power of Intention as the topic of this address. When the concept of this conference was first being developed, there were several reasons for doing it. Gathering the local tribe together, which is always a rush; giving the more junior teachers an opportunity for greater exposure; and giving the broader, non-Iyengar community a chance to experience the energy and joy that Iyengar Yoga gives to those of us who practice it.

It is this last intention, the intention of reaching out to the larger yoga community, that I want to address here in my final words.

As yoga has grown larger and larger and more mainstream in the last couple of decades, I have noticed what might be called the balkanization of yoga, its fracturing into various sects and groups, and, more important, the tendency for those different tribes to view one another with less than benevolent eyes.

Actually, this has been around since the beginning of yoga, but I think with the recent exponential growth of yoga, these tendencies have proliferated. Ever since my early years of practice and teaching, I have been puzzled and disturbed by this tendency. As we all know, yoga means "union," which implies a basic understanding that everything and everyone are interconnected. As Swami Satchidananda used to say, "Paths are many, truth is one." This means that there is more than one way to do yoga, more than one way to see what is real and true.

Obviously, those of us who have a devoted practice of Iyengar Yoga have found the path we prefer, the one that works for us… or we'd be doing something else. Just as obviously, other devoted practitioners have found a way that works for them. And, of course, many haven't found the way that speaks clearly to them, that helps them with their problems, that carries them past their limited vision of themselves more deeply into the challenging and exciting quest for self-realization.

It is especially to these seekers that we want to reach out and say, "Hey, check out this stuff I've been doing. Look what it has done for me."

But before we go strutting our stuff around the barnyard, we need to look to see just what that stuff is.

Here's what I see. Nearly every tradition borrows our techniques, our methods
of practicing and especially of teaching. Why? Because they are so clearly effective and powerful. For example,
I started my practice in the Sivananda tradition.

It is this last intention, the intention of reaching out to the larger yoga community, that I want to address here in my final words.

If you look at the practice instructions in Swami Vishnu's Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga and then compare that with the instructions in The Sivananda Companion to Yoga, which came out in 1983, 23 years later, you will notice a significant change in the use of anatomical instruction, benefits, cautions and contraindications, and terminology. I think that's a direct result of the success of the Iyengar method in refining the practice and teaching of asana. Beryl Bender, Baron Baptiste, Richard Freeman, various teachers in the vinyasa and flow approaches, all acknowledge the influence Iyengar methods have had on their practice and teaching.

I also see that our teachers undergo the most rigorous certification process in the country. No one's teachers are better trained than Iyengar Yoga teachers.

As I said earlier, and as most of you know, Guruji's practice and teaching are steeped in traditional yoga, in the Raja Yoga system as described by Patanjali. In fact, in a recent interview with Guruji in Yoga Journal (December 2008), when asked, "What is Iyengar Yoga?" he said with a laugh, "I myself do not know. I just try to get the physical body in line with the mental body, the mental body in line with the intellectual body, and the intellectual body with the spiritual body so they are balanced.

"It's just pure traditional yoga, from our ancestors, from our gurus, from Patanjali." Iyengar Yoga, then, whatever it is, is a profoundly spiritual practice directed toward our very reasons for being and the nature of existence.

So we are part of an ancient spiritual tradition—whose methods are recognized far and wide as extremely effective—and our teachers are top notch. Why, then, isn't everybody doing Iyengar Yoga?

This is a huge question, more than enough of a topic for another talk or panel or article or book, but if our intention is to reach out to the broader community, we need to ask how is it that our message is so persuasive, lauded, and imitated, but in terms of numbers of practitioners, Iyengar Yoga is being caught up to and surpassed by adherents of other approaches.

I can think of lots of reasons, frankly.
We are uncompromising, demanding, challenging. Not everybody wants that.
I do. I wouldn't sacrifice that for popularity. Better to go down the tubes with integrity than sell out our principles for passing gain.

We use Sanskrit. We are critical. We work on learning, not just doing, which means we ask for a commitment, not just a one-night stand. We aren't satisfied with half-hearted
or casual behavior. We insist on your best shot.

These are perfectly understandable reasons why Iyengar Yoga is not everybody's cup of tea. And certainly, there is the fact that no teacher or system can be all things to
all people.

But if our intention is to reach out to folks, to present the benefits of our method, to entice them to take a look, we need to examine the things we can do better without sacrificing our hearts and souls.

So what's the knock on Iyengar Yoga and yogis? We are rigid. We are harsh. We are boring. We are arrogant. We are unfriendly and unwelcoming.

I doubt any of this is a surprise to you—most of you, anyway. And to those of you who are worried about hanging out the dirty laundry, I think it makes for good relations to hang around in the back yard chatting with the next door neighbor for awhile while you put your stuff on the line and take it off.

…when asked, "What is Iyengar Yoga?" he said with a laugh, "I myself do not know. I just try to get the physical body in line with the mental body, the mental body in line with the intellectual body, and the intellectual body with the spiritual body so they are balanced."

So while we're chatting, I'm reminded of my momma's words (my mom always had words for every occasion): "You catch a lot more flies with honey than you do with vinegar."

I'm not saying we should sugar coat what we do and come up with watered down tricks that suck the real juice out of our yoga. It wouldn't be Iyengar Yoga anymore, anyway. What I am saying is that we should look at how we manifest our yoga, especially we teachers. What do people see when we step in front of a class? Are we healthy, vibrant, enthusiastic? Do we radiate joy, friendliness, compassion? Do the students see someone that they want to be like, a presence they aspire to?

And if we want folks in other traditions to be accepting, respectful, and friendly toward us, do we offer them the same?

I won't speak for people from other tribes, but I, too, often hear comments from my fellow Iyengaris that are disrespectful, pompous, full of pride. Those of you who know me well, know that I am not without fault in this respect myself. Guruji in Light on Life says, "This pride lies in difference, not equality. I am fierce, but you are weak. I am right, but you are wrong. Pride blinds us to the quality of others. We judge by external and by worthless comparisons. We lose the joy in the existence of others. We expect others to perform according to our desires. We are consistently dissatisfied."

Of course most of you practice and teach with joy and it shows. I have only to think of our dear friend, wonderful colleague, and shining example, Mary Dunn. Talk about exhibiting qualities that one would find admirable, desirable, and eminently worth emulating. As far as I am concerned, she was the ideal poster person for the Light on Iyengar Yoga in this country.

As always, Mr. Iyengar provides us with excellent guidance on this whole issue. In Light on Yoga he says, "Maitri is not mere friendliness, but also a feeling of oneness with the object of friendliness (atmiyata). The yogi cultivates maitri and atmiyata for the good and turns enemies into friends, bearing malice to none."

Mudita is a feeling of delight at the good work done by another, even though he may be a rival. Of upeksha he says, "The yogi understands the faults of others by seeing and studying them first in himself. This self-study teaches him to be charitable to all."

We Iyengar Yogis are fortunate to have been graced, either directly or indirectly, with a teacher, B.K.S. Iyengar, who has shown us a practice that is powerful, effective, and time-tested. If our intention is to share with others the great joy we have experienced in this practice of Iyengar Yoga, we will fulfill that intention by following his advice and we will cultivate an attitude of friendliness, delight, and charity towards those with whom we come into contact. For only to the extent that we feel atmiyata, oneness with our brothers and sisters, only by opening our eyes and hearts to see in everyone the same spark of divinity that unites us all, only then will our power of our intention to share the joy of Iyengar Yoga be realized.

The entire keynote address is available at http://www.unitywoods.com/MARKETING/JS_RI2009.pdf.

John Schumacher is the founder and director of Unity Woods Yoga Center, the largest Iyengar Yoga center in the United States. He has taught in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area since 1973. John received Advanced Junior I certification from B.K.S. Iyengar.