Beginnings and Evolution

The Education of an Iyengar Yoga Teacher: Part I

By Pat Musberger

How did you learn to teach yoga?

Felicity Green: In the beginning none of us knew what to do so we watched Guruji and did what he did. We learned by his example. And, of course, you had your practice to teach you.

Joan White: I learned to teach yoga by observing how Guruji was teaching. I studied how he communicated with us, how he sequenced asanas… how he was able to take other people’s problems into his own body and show how to correct the mistakes they were making. It was like grade school, high school, college, and graduate school all rolled into one.

Patricia Walden: I learned to teach yoga by Teaching Yoga. There was no one around to teach me to teach. I had a copy of Light on Yoga that I practiced with daily. It was the only thing I did where I was fully engaged, and not only that, but I felt joyful doing it during and after, so I decided I would teach it. It was the first “job” I ever had, although I never call teaching yoga a job. 

There are 33 officially approved teacher training programs listed in the 2012 IYNAUS Certification Manual. On any given day, various studios and institutes host workshops dedicated to teaching teachers how to teach. The training covers basic asana to philosophy. Methodologies range from one-on-one apprenticeships to formal multi-year programs. But in the beginning there was only B.K.S. Iyengar and Light on Yoga. How we got to our current system of teacher education and certification is our focus here. In part two, in the next issue of Yoga Samachar, we will examine teacher education programs and what the future may hold. 

In the spring of 1974 Mr. Iyengar made his first visit to San Francisco. This visit inspired area teachers to form what eventually became the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco that included the first teacher education program in the U.S. During the 70s and early 80s Mr. Iyengar encouraged his best students to teach. They, in turn, selected their best students to begin teaching. When teachers in the United Kingdom were required to have a certificate so that they could teach in adult education programs, Guruji entrusted a number of teachers in the U.S. to award introductory teaching certificates. 

The development of a certification process is significant in the evolution of Iyengar Yoga teacher education because it created standards and guidelines for teacher training programs. Though there was no national association at this time, there were a number of regionals. Methods used on the east and west coast varied somewhat, but Mr. Iyengar sanctioned both and always had the final word. Both the Southern and Northern California associations had certification committees and a formal relationship with Mr. Iyengar. Intermediate Sr. III teacher Ariane Hudson, who later became the first IYNAUS Certification Chair, describes the process: 

“Until 1983 teachers at the Introductory level were not assessed but were observed during classes and then recommended by a senior teacher—of which there were probably fewer than ten in the country—to a certification committee, chaired by Larry Hatlett of IYANC. The committee, selected by Mr. Iyengar, included Ramanand Patel, Manouso Manos, Mary Dunn, Judith Lasater, and Felicity Green. The applicant generally taught a class that one of these teachers observed. The committee then approved or denied the application for a credential, in which case suggestions for improvement were given. All the decisions were submitted to Mr. Iyengar for approval. Mr. Iyengar awarded all certificates above the Introductory level.” 

Meanwhile, on the east coast they took a slightly different approach, according to former IYNAUS Certification Chair Joan White. Early on she chaired a committee that included Patricia Walden, Karin Stephen, and Victor Oppenheimer. Their guidelines and exam for aspiring teachers, based on the process used in the U.K., resembled our current system. In a 2005 Yoga Samachar interview, Joan stressed that all the teachers evaluating candidates for Introductory certificates had been tested and certified by Guruji himself—after he had seen them practice and teach repeatedly. 

In 1984, at the First International Iyengar Yoga Convention held in San Francisco, a consistent method for teacher education began to emerge. Senior instructors taught and Mr. Iyengar went from class to class to assist and have personal contact with both the teachers and the students. Following the convention, Guruji traveled to southern California to observe classes there. The La Canada YMCA space being used was divided into four areas for simultaneous classes. In a 2004 article for Yoga Samachar, Bonnie Anthony and Anna Delury recalled how Mr. Iyengar showed the way for the 50 teachers in attendance: “Guruji walked from quadrant to quadrant, talking, yelling, admonishing, praising—teaching us how to teach.” 

This method of teaching teachers continued at subsequent conventions and intensives. 

The model of peer teaching emerged at the 1987 convention in Cambridge, MA. Here, small groups shared what they learned and how they understood the teaching. Additionally, Guruji moved from class to class observing teachers. Former Iyengar Yoga teacher Judith Lasater recalls how he instructed teachers to “try it this way, try it that way. Put yourself in their bodies, learn how it feels when it is done wrong, then learn how to do it right so you can teach them! That’s the art of teaching.” Other accounts emphasize the importance Mr. Iyengar placed on teaching one direction or point at a time and staying with that point until the students “got it.” 

Regional certification continued on both coasts and in the Midwest. Two hundred and fifty certified teachers attended the 1990 convention in San Diego. During that convention Mr. Iyengar taught the first mega-class but also moved in and out of smaller classes being taught by Senior Teachers to “support the teaching process amongst the teachers,” according to Intermediate Senior I teacher Lisa Walford. Additionally that year, the Iyengar Yoga Association of Midwest Bioregions produced the film “The Art of Teaching.” Made during Guruji’s visit to Chicago, it instructed teachers on important elements to address while teaching. (Though the film is no longer available, the transcript was published in the convention magazine for the 2004 convention in St. Paul, MN.)

At that 1990 gathering, Mr. Iyengar and many others felt that the time had come to create a national association to foster a sense of unity within the community by streamlining the teacher training and certification process, among other things. Though it took until 1992 for incorporation as a national nonprofit, IYNAUS came out of the 1990 convention.

The transition from regional assessments to a single national assessment was not always easy. The original three levels of Introductory, Intermediate, and Advanced eventually progressed to five: Introductory, Intermediate Junior, Intermediate Senior, Advanced Junior, and Advanced Senior, with Mr. Iyengar awarding anything above Intermediate Junior. The need to develop and implement a teacher training program and create a teacher training manual became evident. Kristin Chirhart, the second Certification Chair for IYNAUS, began that work, but because of the complicated and daunting nature of the task, it did not get completed until the mid- to late 1990s, during Laurie Blakeney’s tenure as chair.

Mr. Iyengar returned to the states in 1993 for the Ann Arbor, Michigan Convention. In addition to conducting the morning mega-classes, each afternoon he walked along the observation decks of the squash courts where small classes were being taught. He observed, advised, and improved the teaching. The 1996 Convention in Estes Park, Colorado was named A Teacher’s Exchange and featured Dr. Geeta S. Iyengar at the first gathering open only to certified teachers. The stated purpose of the convention—“to clarify and build an understanding of how to teach the principles of Iyengar Yoga”—manifested as peer teaching sessions, Q&A, and special topic forums. These added to the knowledge participants gained from Geeta’s brilliant and clear teaching.

Before the 2001 Convention in Pasadena, CA, the certification levels were divided into the current 14 segments. Some, such as the original Introductory level, with its 63 poses, were felt to be too unwieldy to be practical for assessment. The Pasadena convention, open to all experienced practitioners, had two teacher training sessions. The DVD, available from the IYNAUS store, shows Geeta working with teachers of various levels in peer teaching situations. Geeta also met with those teaching the faculty topics classes. Class sequences were finessed and clarified, creating more uniformity in the teaching. 

The publication of Basic Guidelines for Teachers of Yoga by B.K.S. and Geeta S. Iyengar in 2002 made the recommended method of instruction available for all certified teachers and those going up for assessment. This was followed in 2004 by Geeta’s manual Yoga in Action: Preliminary Course. These two books, along with the current IYNAUS Certification Manual, provide a basis for teacher education classes and programs throughout the country. In reviewing Preliminary Course, the late Mary Dunn wrote that it “provides a systematic program for teaching the art and science of yoga… [Geeta has] provided blueprints to become better teachers of ourselves and of others. She has both standardized and upgraded our teaching and learning.”

The 2004 convention, the first without a member of the Iyengar family present, was called Parampara. This is the chain of oral transmission and empowerment from teacher to disciple. During the teacher portion of the convention classes were divided according to certification level. More senior teachers imparted how to practice and teach the next level syllabus of Asana and Pranayama. In the tradition of Parampara, they were empowering students with the knowledge and skill to become better teachers—the same knowledge and skills gained from their teacher. Teacher education had come full circle.

The circle continues to expand, and that will be examined in Part II: Now & The Future.
Pat Musburger (Intermediate Junior I) is the director of Tree House Iyengar Yoga in the Seattle area. A former IYNAUS Board member, she is also past president of the Iyengar Yoga Association of the Northwest. She extends a special thank you to Laurie Blakeney, Kristin Chirhart, Felicity Green, Ariane Hudson, Patricia Walden, and Joan White for their help researching this article.