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Author Biography: Elizabeth Kadetsky has written for women's magazines, The Voice, and The Nation, and she also writes fiction. She lives in New York City and teaches journalism at Columbia University.
This was the yoga master B. K. S. Iyengar's personal library, a random amalgam of yoga texts spanning several centuries and ranging from the classic to the obscure to the kitsch. A handful of Western yoga students, barefoot and dressed, like me, in inexpensively tailored Indian Punjabi frocks of soft cotton, sparkly adhesive bindis adorning many of our foreheads, diligently examined books at the end of a long cafeteria-style table. Several Indian Hare Krishna devotees from the distant state of Bihar congregated at the other end of the table, wearing ponytails at the crowns of their heads and white cotton wrap outfits. At the center of the long edge of the table sat Iyengar's closest disciple, a Frenchman of Muslim extraction named Faeq Biria, whose dress, comportment, Indian speech inflection, and bright way of communicating with his eyebrows gave him the look of not just a disciple of Iyengar but a smaller and fresher version of the guru himself.
This is where I first heard the tale of Ramanuja. The legendary qualities ascribed to the saint - flexibility, universality, courage, authenticity, a love of the body - were the aspirations of the Iyengar yoga institute. Iyengar and his children could also teach you to stand on your hands, do a split, or lie on the ground for twenty minutes without twitching - but all this in the service of something higher and more noble, and somehow mysteriously connected to this man called Ramanuja.
B. K. S. Iyengar was known now to tens of thousands of American and European yoga aficionados for having transformed an inaccessible and centuries-old collection of Indian philosophies and rituals into a therapeutic melding of meditation and exercise called, in our homes, "Iyengar Yoga." His technique had healed millions and helped secure the place of a mind-body ethic in the modern model of health. He was also revered by Indians as the man who resurrected a dying national tradition by popularizing the practice of asanas, or physical postures, whose beneficial effects on the health and spirit proved the eternal wisdom of ancient India. To both camps, he was a kind of Ramanuja - a populist who brought the esoteric to those who never had legitimate claim to it, and someone who looked beyond caste to fashion a personal vision of the holy.
Classically, yoga is a collection of philosophies sprung from the Vedas, more than three-thousand-year-old Indian holy texts that espouse a quest for liberation from the bonds of the material world through a life of ritual, discipline, and devotion to God.
More than two thousand years after the Vedas were written, during the time of Ramanuja, yoga reappeared in South Asia as a series of physical regimens whose practice was meant to link an individual with the divine through the purification of one's "subtle body"-a metaphysical ideal that roughly corresponded to the physical body. In the twentieth century, something called yoga arose in India once again, as a form of sport championed by Indian nationalists. Drawing loosely from a small handful of recently unearthed medieval yoga texts, these revolutionaries sought to create a populist movement rooted in shared, and largely invented, physical choreographies. Rich, open to interpretation, and physically rewarding, this twentieth-century yoga became popular among Westerners and Anglophilic Indians alike. Fifty years later, the work of B. K. S. Iyengar and a handful of other Indians turned it into one more modern craze.
That day at the library, Iyengar himself was seated at an old oak school desk at the mouth of the sliver, peering through owl glasses at a flurry of philosophy texts, letters from his international following of students, and magazine articles about the global spread of yoga. He wore traditional South Indian dress - dhoti, kurta, and forehead markings - though just this morning I'd seen him doing yoga in the shiny green Umbro shorts that were the vogue this year at the World Cup in France.
Ever since my first yoga class fifteen years before, I'd known there was an aging and charismatic Indian with long white eyebrows and a mane growing practically to his knees who ran a yoga school in India, and that he could still balance in a freestanding handstand while touching the soles of his feet to the back of his head. What I'd learned over several months in his company merely rounded out the legend - of a traditional Indian who could navigate the Western mind. Iyengar spoke in Western medical tropes but had neither a formal education nor extensive skills in any Western or even Indian language other than his mother tongue, Tamil, which was rarely spoken here in a city whose own language was Marathi. Iyengar carried a host of other affectations from his ancestral past. Though he was born in the state of Karnataka, the area he called his homeland was a place where no relative had lived for hundreds of years, a town in another state, hundreds of miles from Karnataka.
I'd come to the library today as I did most afternoons. I'd attended a guided morning practice in the studio upstairs, a two-hour workout under the gaze of Iyengar and his offspring. I'd done headstands and twists, backbends and handstands. When I entered the library, still light-headed from the workout and requisite fasting, I touched the floor by Iyengar's feet. He greeted me with a gruff nod of the head, and then I took a seat at the long table across from the Frenchman "Biria," as Iyengar called him.
The room was quiet except for occasional interruptions from the Indian Hare Krishnas. "You want to learn yoga?" one asked me, eyeing the stack of texts on the table at my side. "I can help.
But first, please, can I ask you, why do you in the West do yoga?" I looked at him dumbly.
"Excuse me, can I borrow?" another asked, drawing my books before him and ensconcing himself in my research. The first gazed at the books again and looked at me ruefully.
"A book? Why are you learning from a book?"
"Eh. You," Iyengar grunted. Everyone looked. Biria lifted perceptibly from his seat, kicking his chair so that it rattled the case of books behind him. The guru was addressing me. I sprinted to the metal folding chair beside his desk. He gave me a long look, then gestured to the paperwork cluttering his desk. It was galleys for a new collection of edited speeches, what would become his sixth book. "You see I have my own research." He peered over the frames of his glasses and slicked back his white locks with his palms. "Anyway, you asked what is yoga. Talk to Biria. He knows books. Ask him for the-the-this saint-Ramanuja. You asked.
Biria was on his feet now, having rushed to the exact section of the bookshelf that contained Iyengar's collection on medieval yoga philosophy and located the dozen or so texts on Ramanuja - no easy feat.
"Ramanuja is Guruji's ancestor," Biria said. "This is the same family." Ramanuja, he continued, penned his famous commentaries in the very city the Iyengar family hailed from. The family's traditions all descended from this place: their taboos, their tattoos, their family prayers, their devotion to Vishnu. Ramanuja shared even their dress - down to the white-ash U-shaped impression of Vishnu's footprints they wore on their forehead.
Iyengar was looking down. He nodded and grunted, whether at Biria or at the papers in front of him I couldn't tell. "Eh. Biria. You tell her. Very important this," Iyengar finally called from the front of the room. "Tell her. The pearls."
"Just like Guruji, Ramanuja addresses the body," Biria went on, adding Ramanuja's metaphor of pearls on a string, matter linked by the cohering thread of Brahman. "Sankara didn't believe in the supremacy of the body. He thought it was maya. But if the body is maya, how can you walk? Ramanuja realized the body was an instrument.
"Guruji teaches to bring total awareness to the body," he said. Iyengar was looking at his papers. "The holy dimension of the body comes alive. In triangle pose!" Biria added, now looking at me as if he had unearthed an occult key. He spread his arms as if to demonstrate the stirring of Brahman with his gesture. "The body is like a pearl, awakened by consciousness."
Earlier I'd been trying to balance in handstand so as to ultimately, someday during my lifetime, get the soles of my feet onto the back of my head in the manner of lyengar. I strained to imagine a connection between this new information and what I'd been practicing in the studio upstairs.
"Feel the divinity in every cell," Iyengar added, mumbling now. "Give her the life."
Biria handed me a yellowed, stained, and frayed edition of a book: Life of Sri Ramanuja. It was published in India when books still cost ten cents, and it had a bookplate from Iyengar's first home in Pune. The yogi's handwriting in English looped through the margins like a small child at play. I dutifully brought the book to my seat and read the parable of Ramanuja's life.
When I was done, I gazed at the frontispiece of the book, an illustration of a sculpture of Ramanuja from the South Indian temple where the saint had written his commentaries. The statue wore the mark of Vishnu on his forehead; his feet curled in to his belly. It reminded me of those sculptures that had been so significant for Ramanuja, of Vishnu lying in that state between waking and sleep. I too sometimes believed I embodied a middle ground between earth and ether. I'd felt it this morning, in that moment of free fall in handstand, when I hadn't yet finished rising up but hadn't started to come down yet either. In that instant, nothing was certain, and yet somehow everything was certain.
And then, suddenly, I found myself imagining all the objects and people in the room around me - the Hare Krishnas in their white cotton, the librarian in her sari, the American women with their forehead bindis and kurta pajamas - all of us dancing in the margins of the book. Then, like disembodied pearl ions bouncing off the walls and bookshelves, the people in the room sprang into the air beside Ramanuja and the book about Ramanuja, Iyengar and his collected writings, the three cases of books on yoga, our many competing notions of what exactly yoga might be. We hung there together, suspended in midair in free fall, at a precise moment of buoyancy after we'd risen and before we fell. I wondered if everything in this room - people, books, history, mythology, costumes, tradition - could all interact in a coherent way, if it could all exist at once. And for a split second I was nowhere else; I was inside that thought.
Excerpted from First There is a Mountain by Elizabeth Kadetsky Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Kadetsky. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 26, 2003
As a relatively new reporter chasing a Pulitzer, Elizabeth Kadetsky did little to take care of her body properly though she ran a lot and practiced yoga. The problem was she was always on the run grabbing quick bites to eat that is when she even ate. Elizabeth physically felt poor but mentally worse as her life was journalism so anything outside that realm was a negative. Needing a change, Elizabeth, a yoga advocate, applied to attend a yoga school in India run by the renowned elderly Iyengar, who was one of the few experts to instruct Westerners.......................... Finally accepted as a student, Elizabeth learns that her yoga style is a westernized fake that is nothing like that taught by the Master. As a pupil, she begins to explore the boundaries between the physical, the mental and the transcendent spiritual bridge between the two parts that when in harmony make a whole. The reporter inside Elizabeth also explores her teacher¿s background and the sacred place of yoga in India as under Iyengar's tutelage she journeys beyond her past seeking her whole........................... FIRST THERE IS A MOUNTAIN in a tremendous account of west meets east on eastern terms. Readers will feel the love that Elizabeth Kadetsky has for her mentor, her trek from yoga the exercise mechanism to revering religious like the yoga transcend journey of the mind and body, and finally an insightful look at the past and present of yoga diagonally crossing the caste system. The audience will understand why Ms. Kadetsky subtitles her journal ¿A Yoga Romance¿......................... Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 1, 2010
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