BKS Iyengar died last night. Along with Indra Devi, TKV Desikachar, and Patthabi Jois, he brought the lineage of Krishnamacharya west. I knew he was ill and in hospital a few days ago and have had a lingering shadow in my mind these past days. Grief is a funny thing. I can't say that he was my teacher; I never met the man. And I can't say that I miss him or lament much his passing; he was an elder and he lived and died well. But grief is a funny thing; it's the feeling of a passing, the feeling of the weight of a life and then the odd, light, empty space of the life being gone.
I feel it as I'm standing at my counter, waiting for the coffee to boil, and alone in a quiet house. I've already taught the morning class, left the studio, walked the dog. Yogis stand in the morning, quiet and already accomplished, while the rest of the world buzzes toward consciousness of alarms and newspapers. Of course, we have alarms and newspapers. But we find a quiet place to stand in the morning, and look at it.
This morning, Iyengar has died.
I try to call up a rough idea of what his teaching, with that of his peers, has meant to the world. I can't fathom this very well, because the blessing of their work - yoga as a global phenomena, yoga as a universal, yoga as a thing I was able to come across and now am able to teach - is a daunting thing. Millions practice. Words whispered, chanted, clung to. Bodies touched. I am grateful. I am moved.
I mentioned this feeling to one of my teachers the other day. Abhinivesha, he said. The fear of death. This ultimate reality thing that all of us will struggle with, sooner or later. Yes, I said.
But the fear of death is really a fear of life, of life being a loss. There is the danger of getting lost, ourselves. There is the sense that we might fail. That we might come to the end of our lives and realize we missed something, we did not live rightly or fully. There is a sense of struggle and suffering and this ultimate question, as Doestoevski had it, of whether we are worthy and have made good on that suffering and those questions, or not.
My fear, my affliction right now, is not that Iyengar died nor even that I will, but a looming question of how we will carry his lineage and the teaching of tradition. Yes, we've been given the gift. We can do yoga with our dogs, with strobe lights, in any small town in any corner of the world. We can do yoga with thudding soundtrack, rubberized mats, and mala beads worn as bracelets.
The question of gifts is what you do with them.
The passing of the teachers changes the role of the students. It throws us off into a place of less direction and unclear paths. The mantle of the teaching floats a bit. If we've studied well, I think the direction, the teaching, the path, will shift. When the way outside becomes so uncertain, the way inside will have to become compass. We'll have to go deeper into ourselves to find the way through.
Iyengar and his peers taught yoga as an interior tradition, a mystic and practical pathway toward a good death. It is introspective work that honors this tradition - not the proliferation of yoga classes, brands, or the mastery of asanas. The teachers leave, the path disappears. If there is going to be a path, it has to emerge from the deep introspection and interior work of the new generation of teachers.
"The practice of yogasana for the sake of health, to keep fit, or to maintain flexibility is the external practice of yoga. While this is a legitimate place to begin, it is not the end...Even in simple asanas, one is experiencing the three levels of quest; the external quest, which brings firmness of the body; the internal quest, which brings steadiness of intelligence, and the innermost quest, which brings benevolence of spirit".
I am quiet in my kitchen. I never met Iyengar. But his path laid out a highway and I, dirty haired and hollow eyed with my thumb sticking out, desperate for a ride, was picked up along the way. Along with a motley bunch of half brained mystics, body obsessed fitness gurus, and lonely middle class seekers. We rode the bus together. The bus has stopped.
I believe there are teachers, now, doing the internal work. Reluctant pilgrims and desperate learners, both. Of course there is cacophony, there is controversy, there is Lululemon. There are thousands, millions of us, who dutifully approach the mat even when we're not sure what it is we'll find. Some will be moved, will see that we've been thrown out into the wilderness. Some will see that what we're doing here is embodying the quest.
I am quiet in my kitchen, and I've never known Iyengar. My teacher mentioned Abhinivesha. Fear. The answer to fear is greater love, bigger courage, more honesty. The answer to silence is song. Not speech, necessarily; song. Pithy, gutted love songs. When we are really quiet, the heart sings.
If we teachers listen, we'll emerge teaching. Not postures. Not as career. Not as a spiritual fad or an exercise regime. We'll come out teaching as pilgrims teach. Road weary. Calloused. On going. I listen to the quiet noises a kitchen makes. I feel the weight of a life on my own heart, as a question and answer both. Grief is a a funny thing. A feeling of weight. A feeling of absence. The song drifting up out of silence.