Remembering Mary Palmer (1916 – 2011)

By Joan White


Mary Palmer, a pioneer of Iyengar Yoga in the United States, passed away on March 31, 2011 in Ypsilanti, Michigan at the age of 95. She was my teacher from 1968-1973 and she was my friend for life. Many of you know her as the mother of beloved Senior Teacher Mary Dunn who died in 2008. Mary Palmer’s husband, William B. Palmer, a professor of Economics at the University of Michigan, died at the age of 93 in 1990. Mary Palmer is survived by her son, Adrian Palmer, of Utah.

At age 51, Mary Palmer embarked on her yogic journey. She wrote of her decision in “The Lure of Yoga” that “Physical disturbances of unknown origin, general depression, energy loss, trauma in aching knees, chronic sinusitis and a general helplessness in the efficacy of prescribed treatment, demanded that something be done” (Iyengar, His Life and Work).

Mary and her lifelong friend, Priscilla Neel, attended their first yoga classes at the “Y” in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When their teacher departed two years later, they took over her classes, and this is where I met Mary Palmer. In 1968, I was a recently married ex-glass-blowing graduate student taking my first class with Mary and Priscilla. I fell in love with these two teachers, and I fell in love with yoga. 

I was the first in a long line of teachers that Mary Palmer trained. Now, as a certified Advanced Junior I teacher based in Philadelphia, I think fondly about the many wonderful times we shared. She left the world a better place for everyone who came in contact with her. 

‘The lure of yoga demands from one the highest potential. At the same time it reveals one’s weaknesses. The moment of truth cannot be experienced without the constant play of these opposing forces.’

—Mary Palmer

Mary was a student and great admirer of Mr. Iyengar. In 1973, she brought Guruji back to the States and introduced Iyengar Yoga to the rest of us. She was a generous, creative, innovative, and disciplined teacher who was very interested in all aspects of yoga, particularly therapeutics.

In addition to her yoga practice and teaching, Mary was a pianist, graduating from the University of Michigan in 1937 with a degree in music theory. She headed the Ann Arbor Music Society and hosted many musicians at her well-known home, the Palmer House, designed in 1952 by Frank Lloyd Wright. The design of the Palmer house is based on the triangle, foreshadowing the practice that would define the second half of her life. We used to laugh a lot about all these triangles. Even the guest bathroom was triangular.

Renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin was staying with the Palmers in 1969 when he chided, “You haven’t done yoga unless you’ve studied with B.K.S. Iyengar.” Shortly thereafter, Mary Palmer showed up on Guruji’s doorstep. “She went to the top in anything she was interested in,” remarked Priscilla Neel, who recently celebrated her 93rd birthday.

When Mary Palmer first arrived in India in 1969, Mr. Iyengar wouldn’t let her take class. Guruji had been in Maryland, invited by the Harkness family in 1957, who wanted him to teach them yoga. When he arrived, there were several ladies clad in Bermuda shorts on the lawn, awaiting his tutelage. Their commitment to learning yoga was perhaps bested by their desire to be in the photo shoot Life magazine did of the event. Guruji felt Americans weren’t serious about yoga and vowed never to return to the United States.

Mary was undaunted and didn’t leave. She spent three weeks observing classes before Guruji consented, “Okay, I’ll let you take the class, but if you come down in headstand before I say to come down, you will please go away, and not come back.” Although Mary had never done headstand for more than two to three minutes max, he kept her there for 15 minutes. She stayed because she wanted to learn yoga from him and she wanted to share it with the rest of us. When Mary set her mind on something she was not easily deterred. She was intelligent, intense, and the consummate hostess. Her smile lit up the room. 

Mary was a well-educated, well-traveled, self-assured, and genuine Southern lady. She was well-versed in the arts, architecture, fashion, current-events and of course, music. She immersed herself in yoga with all the gusto, tenacity, and dedication that she brought to any endeavor she pursued. She wrote, “My own practice was producing changes. Relief came slowly. A sense of well-being gradually replaced depression. The impact came from the practice of the full range of postures as taught by Mr. Iyengar. The interplay of the various asanas was fascinating in the results they produced, not only in my own body, but in the great number of students who have participated in the Ann Arbor "Y" yoga program.”

‘Mary was a student and great admirer of Mr. Iyengar. In 1973, she brought Guruji back to the United States and introduced Iyengar Yoga to the rest of us.’

—Joan White

Mary Palmer made five trips to India and several trips to England to study with Guruji. She reflected that, “The lure of yoga demands from one the highest potential. At the same time it reveals one’s weaknesses. The moment of truth cannot be experienced without the constant play of these opposing forces.”

In 1973, I was injured in a serious horseback riding accident. I called Mary and asked her what I should do. In her thick southern accent she said, “Don’t worry, honey, because this will be the reason that I will get B.K.S. Iyengar to come back to this country.”

Nine months later Guruji returned to America and taught 40 people at the Ann Arbor “Y.” And the rest is history, thanks to Mary Palmer and her love of yoga and Guruji. She wrote, “My chosen path in yoga is with my teacher leading and sometimes by my side, strengthening and guiding me so that some day I may walk alone—with the spirit.”

Mary Dunn on her mother, Mary Palmer:
“We have a wonderful topic of conversation each day. We share this interest that has allowed us to go a little beyond the mother and daughter relationship and have something else in it. We have this framework on all the important questions about life. The important things like what is the meaning of life and how one should conduct one’s life to have the most productive and satisfying kind of life. We are two seekers who are involved in something that has meant a lot to both of us and that gives us constant, new insight into all the important questions.” 

—Mary Dunn, 1996