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coming apart in pune
We practiced and took classes four hours a day, working in an airy top-floor studio where the sounds of Pune's hectic streets drifted in through the orange poinciana and neem trees, their leaves dangling over outdoor changing balconies. The school was a cloister far removed from the Indian miasma outside.
B. K. S. Iyengar was always present, twisted like braided bread into an advanced posture in the back of the studio. He situated himself between pillar and window, strapped himself onto yoga furniture, and meditatedoften in the presence of a camera crew from Delhi at work on a documentary about the IyengarsIndia's first family of yoga. From time to time, Iyengar quietly slid from his constraints and sidled up to a student to correct a flaw. The sound of his voice would attract the attention of all present who, upon gathering around him, inspired extended monologues and even demonstrations on the finer points of, say, how to straighten a leg.
His daughter, the yoga teacher and author Geeta Iyengar, could be found in the righthand corner of the studio, dressed in celibate's white and reposing in a restorative asanashe was not known for her active yoga practice. There she lectured to a coterie of international protégés, sometimes picking up a thread from the previous day's class. Her followers included a handful of Western women who had relocated to Pune several years back and took Geeta's word as the gospel on yoga for women. Sitting in similarly supine postures, they called across the space, discussing with Geeta the institute's latest publishing ventures, her upcoming travel schedule, and errors made in the blundering testimony of yoga students who had dared write up a workshop or lecture.
Iyengar's son, Prashant, a yoga teacher too, also had his devoted followers, and their practice time was also for meeting. They consisted mostly of Indian men, who gathered with him in the far left of the studio. There Prashant dutifully hung upside down for twenty or thirty minutes in either headstand or backbend, supported by a sturdy loop of rope that dangled from the ceiling. By his side stood his followers, conversing in a jumble of Marathi and Hindi about politics, Indian music, and Prashant's latest thinking on the Hindu classical texts.
Through this mix wove Pandu Rao, the institute secretary, barking into his cordless phone while walking it to either Iyengar or Geeta or Prashant, who dutifully responded to telephone queries from the equaniminous repose of yoga asana.
To me, one of those unaffiliated with any particular corner, the clearly defined social delineations sometimes seemed more like a chaotic overlapping of signs and signalsheightening my sense of the confusion and complicatedness on the Indian streets outside. I was spending as much of my two-month visit as possible walking and bicycling though town, attempting short phrases in the regional tongue, Marathi, speaking to store owners and rickshaw drivers, passing out cookies to the child beggars who clung to the pant legs of travelers chanting, "No mami, no papi, no rupee."
One day I was at the train station, where the misery and filth exceeded even that in the poorest slums in town. Children were tailing me"No mami, no papi ..."and flies swarmed in front of my in the heat. Suddenly, a girl in a tattered sari ran to my front. She thrust a bandaged limb toward my face. It was leprous. A red globby substance oozed from the edges of the bandage and through gashes in the middle of it. One of those holes was dark, catching my eye. I stared, trying to make sense of it, when I saw movement inside of it. Flies obscured what I was seeing, but finally I understood. The gash was infested with maggots. The girl looked at me with a theatrical expression of misery, something masking whatever she truly experienced. I turned, and I fled.
Since I'd made the journey from the Bombay airport to Pune several weeks earlier, I'd become skilled in rushing through public places so as to keep a bearable distance from the misery all around. But suddenly my eyes became unshielded. I was losing the ability to assimilate the rigors of the street in India. It seemed I no longer possessed that practicality that allowed me to ignore the irreconcilable differences between those on the streets and those I knew at the school, between those on the streets and me. Now I could not make this world coherent. It was invading my dreams, waking me with nightmares.
In the intense environment of the yoga studio, and with the strenuous physical and mental work of developing asanas, I understood more than ever my need to make myself, unlike the world outside, cohere into a rational whole. Three years before, I had suffered from a kind of fragmentation of mind and body that culminated in a severe case of anorexia. Coming to India to study the mind-body therapeutic technique of B. K. S. Iyengar seemed a way to bring those parts of myself together again, to rejoin mind and body in the process of healing those emotional rents that had taken physical form inside me.
But now, I wondered if I was moving further from the goal. I was experiencing a kind of dissolution. In practice and in daily classes with my teacher, Geetawho was not known for her "bedside" teaching mannerI could see that I was becoming emotionally unshielded. In an environment where everyone was undergoing his or her own profound psychic and physical changes, it was easy to be trusting. At a certain point, though, I wondered if I had left myself too exposed.
When I'd arrived at the school, I'd found the institute tableau amusing, replete with a cast of characters who fit the curiosity that was Iyengar yoga. I realized now that the spectacle was not funny at all. I was learning, as everyone did, that it was impossible to forever avoid breaching rules when your upbringing did not prepare you for a culture as ritual laden as India's.
Away from the school, students groused. A friend who'd gone home sent me an account from the newsletter of an Iyengar yoga association in Europe: "People may think of or go to Pune expecting an immaculate jewelcertainly it is a jewel in the yogic crown but it is not immaculate," he wrote. He went on to narrate a class with Geeta identical to one I had witnessed several times:
One day she was teaching ... the nadi sodhana pranayama (one of those ones where you twiddle your nose with your fingers). This manipulation requires short fingernails to enable you to get the tips of the fingers into the correct position on the nose. Geeta found that not everyone had the prescribed length of fingernail and then proceeded to rant on about how people come to pranayama classes with long fingernails. Well true enough but nobody knew that we were going to do this pranayama.... Now would it not have been more reasonable to suggest that those persons who had long fingernails ... could do say ujayi pranayama ...? It would not take much imagination to suggest this sort of solution to the problem, rather than the inelegant approach of shouting at people. After all shouting at people does not make their fingernails shorter.
I was not alone in erring daily, but solidarity made it no less painful. One day in Geeta's class, I searched for a space of wall on which to place the soles of my feet. The pose was Setubandasana, named for a historic bridge in India. In its Iyengar rendition, you lie on the ground, then lift your buttocks and rest them on a wooden block, and then straighten your legs so your feet press against a wall. The room was crowded, and I found only the marble base of the statue of, as it happened, yoga's progenitor Patanjali. I placed my feet against the marble. It was cool. Something did not seem right, but I was tired and lightheaded from an hour and a half of contortions. Claudia, a regular fixture in Geeta's coterie of Western devotees, came rushing, breathless. "Elizabeth!" she said, speaking in a heavy French accent. "You know the feet are unholy! On Patanjali! You soil the founder of yoga!?"
My feet were destined for missteps. Another day I placed a plastic bag on the changing balcony before I entered the studio to practice. The bag contained several objects I planned to give away, among them a pair of sandals that I'd bought but never worn because they didn't fit.
Halfway through a headstand, I heard a whisper from the balcony. "Chappals?"
The word then circulated the studio as in a game of telephone, whispered.
"There are chappals?"
The whisper grew to a conglomeration of increasingly frantic sounds, until finally Sarah, another of Geeta's acolytes, shouted from the balcony, "Who has brought chappals into the studio? There are chappals on the balcony!"
"Chappals?" I heard the word uttered more, and then, finally, the translation that had escaped me. "Sandals."
My sandals, unworn, untouched by feet, had violated the tradition we all followed of leaving our shoes outside. I immediately whisked the contraband to the steps outside.
The other students were sympathetic, among them a petite woman from Amsterdam who rolled her eyes conspiratorially. Lucienne was a slip of a womanher boy's body and pale skin gave her a virginal look, accentuated by her attire: Like Geeta, she wore all white. Lucienne looked like she was about twenty years younger than she really was, like a child. I had gotten to know her at a party at another student's flat. That night she'd talked at length about the tray of food she'd brought: raw vegetables, sterilized. She'd spent the day preparing them. Lucienne, I suspected, was anorexic. Watching her in practice, I was struck as though I had seen a ghost. Lucienne, frail and white, looked like someone I had been once. Knowing her reminded me that a part of me was nearly gone now. There was someone inside me I'd exorcised.
After I got to know her, Lucienne arranged for me to take the flat she'd been staying in, a pleasant Raj-era monk's cell with foot-thick walls and painted shutters that looked out on a mango tree. On her last day at the school I would move in.
In practice, Lucienne did not count herself among the women who lay around Geeta in supine poses discussing institute business. Like me, she favored the more active asanas; I often marveled at her ability to arch her back into upside-down circles from which she could then lift either leg or flip up to standing. Today Lucienne hung from a ceiling rope, Prashant-style. No one was paying attention, really, when she came down. I looked up when I heard howling. Lucienne was standing on the ground, grabbing the ropes with her arms as her body went slack and dangled. She kept shouting, big sounds belting from small lungs. Then she crumpled to the floor. Several yoga students rushed toward her to arrange her body to rest.
Afterwards, Lucienne was shaky. She gave me a wiggly smile and said she was glad she was leaving Pune. Her smile crumpled in the same way her body had, her paper-thin skin shrinking like a page when you throw it on fire.
Later, Claudia told me Geeta was angry at Lucienne. Lucienne had been practicing asanas too strenuous for her constitution. She'd brought this collapse upon herself.
I thought about Lucienne a lot after I moved to her apartment. She'd left small jars of health food products and a container of bleach with which to sterilize raw vegetables. I threw them all away, trying hard to erase her shadow. I also thought about what Claudia had said. It disturbed me. If Geeta had suspected a problem in Lucienne's practice, why hadn't she intervened earlier? Was Geeta secretly analyzing the actions of all her students, not with the intention of helping but to discuss them in gossip with her assistants? Was she silently watching me, too, making little ticks in a mental notebook when I dared perform what she thought insalubrious?
I decided to take up the issue with Claudia. I knew that Claudia and Geeta were close, and that Geeta, who was rarely approachable in private, accepted messages through her assistants. I asked for Geeta's advice. If she thought my practice unhealthful, could she suggest a better one? Was there something she could recommend for me? I had had irregular menstruation since suffering from anorexia, and no amount of yoga had yet set right my off-kilter hormones.
"You want a sequence?" Claudia mused, her finger on her chin, her eyes assessing my body from toe to cornea. Her knowing look made me wonder if the topic hadn't already come up.
My practice consisted mostly of backbends and upside-down poses. I had developed my habit after many years' work with my teacher, Manouso Manos, who from time to time gave me specific suggestions about which poses to perform, how long to hold them, and in what order to do them. In Pune, I'd added several poses to my repertoire, and come closer to achieving others, but essentially my practice followed my teachers' advice.
I did not hear back from Claudia, though I noticed Geeta watching me sometimes in practice; she grimaced when I did backbends, said things to her assistants that sounded like my name. Was I imagining it? She was certainly willing to discuss others. She ranted in the open about what had happened to Lucienne. "Why she was doing all the backbends!? I knew something, I didn't know what exactly. Why she didn't speak?"
Lucienne's breakdown preoccupied us all. I'd seen collective, seemingly psychosomatic epidemics seize yoga classes before. I wondered if another collective something, something viruslike and prone to suggestion, would infect others. Was what happened to Lucienne a hint of more to come? Might it happen to me?
In practice, the private lives of the family unfolded before the increasingly present camera crew. The documentary was the project of a longtime Iyengar protégé designed for broadcast on national TV, and, they hoped, to help win the school a larger domestic following. The crew clattered in and out of the studio almost daily now. When their lights clicked on, so did Iyengar. In practice another morning Pandu told us to come out of our poses. The students gathered behind the camera. Iyengar began setting up the stage for a demonstration, barking out orders to staff and students. "Why no one helps!? Eh? The bench over there, get that!" Several students leapt to retrieve the prop. "No, not that! The metal, the red, yes!"
Finally, Iyengar stood before the camera, electric. The crew became silent as he moved from one backbend to another. He did the pigeon and the king's pigeon, the wheel and the scorpion. Between poses he seemed physically winded, shaking out his mane and huffing, but in each asana he was the height of equipoise.
He stood facing forward now, and slowly moved a single arm and a single leg until he had embodied yoga's most performative pose, Natarajasana, named for Siva, the god of dance. There is a famous photo of Iyengar in the pose. It was taken more than thirty years earlier, at the great icon of Indian aesthetics, the Taj Mahal. In it he balances on a ledge on a single leg. The other leg reaches from behind as in a dancer's arabesque. He holds the foot of that leg with an arm stretched from above his head; the other arm points forward. The pose expresses a geometric harmony, heightened by its framing before the symmetrical monument. Today Iyengar balanced in that pose. His body rang out with the harmony of its shapes. We all watched, awed at the grace of a body so agedhe turned eighty in the winter. There was a palpable electricity flowing through passageways in his limbs.
Then that electric current jolted. And then it halted.
What had I witnessed? No one else reacted, until Iyengar did. His body jerked again. He released the pose awkwardly and quickly walked off the stage. As he left the studio, we all stood, stunned.
In a few minutes Iyengar sprinted in again, but he seemed flustered and unfocused. He stood on the stage and called out a few instructions, and then descended into the pose Hanumanasana, or the splits, named for the flying monkey-god Hanuman. I'd seen Iyengar do the pose before and appear to be flying. Today he merely sank. Abruptly, he pulled his body from position and bolted.
We didn't see him afterward. That week, the cameras shut down. There were no interruptions in the classes, no theory discourses in practice. Nor was there an official explanation. The school got quiet. Geeta seemed less antagonized in class, but her mood was no less black. Every afternoon it was hot and sunny, and then as instantly as Iyengar had ghosted from our sight, monsoon downpours made deafening dart noises on the corrugated metal roof of the changing balcony. In class, when the first drops stung the roof, I imagined they were someone walking into the studio crinkling a plastic bag with new purchases. As the drops thickened, they sounded like more people with more bags. I kept looking over to see if any of those people was Iyengar, but it was only the air getting thick, and the sky dark, and the rains leaking on our clothes.
In time, someone close to the family confided that what had looked to me like a jolt of current in Iyengar's body was in fact a jolt of the heart. Iyengar had suffered a heart attack. It had been minor, but he had been ordered to stay in bed for a month. No practice, no teaching, no fraternizing with the students who seemed the lifeblood of the incorrigible teacher and performer. Iyengar had overdone it. Iyengar had been felled by something inside compelling him to act against his better interests. Was it his ego, or simply the joy of expressing what he loved most, or boththe thrill of being watched by others? Iyengar seemed very human to me in those days. Every morning I walked into the studio and scanned the empty space of floor between pillar and studio wall, and I felt a pang. I missed him as I would miss my own father, someone very dear, and very flawed.
By now I had switched half of my classes to mornings with Prashant, Iyengar's son. Prashant was warm and winning, but it was easy to see his physical being as a symbol of the decomposition all around. Prashant still had the wandering eye he was born with. It lolled to the far wall as he spoke. Coupled with an ironic glint in his good eye, a mischievous twist to his lips and a habit of rolling his tongue in his cheek, his entire bearing took on an almost absurd effect. To add to this, Prashant had been the heroic survivor of a tragic and freak accident in the mid-1980s that left him with a mangled right hand and arm. Despite years of yogic therapy he could now use neither to much effect, which made it impossible for him to demonstrate poses or give adjustments.
Prashant compensated with sheer mental outrageousness. He taught something unlike anything I had experienced in the hundreds of Iyengar yoga classes I'd attended. Prashant would put his pupils in a pose, and then stand in the front of the room spewing philosophy. He would quote from the Bhagavad Gita, occasionally reminding us to watch each breath as "a feather brushes against the interior lining of the body." I liked Prashant. His physical instruction lacked the intense attention to the singularity of every inch of the body that his father and sister stressed, but in his discourses he arrived, in a different way, at the Iyengar message of listening to the bodily intelligence.
One day he told us to take Trikonasana, triangle pose, a standing pose that was not unstrenuous when done over time. He stood on the platform, surveying us. "Watch what is the state of mind when you are in that reflective phase of Trikonasana," he began. We were not yet tired. It was possible to listen to each word. "It is inward. Study how the mind should be in trikonasana as much as you study the physical alignments. Glimpse the Great Mind behind the mind. In yoga we get instacy, not ecstasy. When you have ecstasy, you dance with the joy. It is external. In yoga we do not dance. We stay inside." I was finding it hard now, after several minutes in the pose, to keep track of his words. But by listening more deliberately, it was easier to ignore my body as it struggled to hold the position.
"Which is the softest, most fluid part of us?" he continued. He grinned, with a little shy smile. "The mind!" he boomed. I followed his reasoning, and then couldn't, and then could again. "It does not take any time for the mind to do something. It is there as soon as it thinks about it, whereas the body takes some time. Do the poses with the mind!"
Prashant continued his discourse as he led us through backbends. "Do not get the craze! Backbends bring the delirium potential! You will become insensible if you allow the arousal of craze, you lose the sense of judgment. You become passionate. For yoga you require an ideal dispassionate knowledge, unbiased." My mind, challenged to keep alert, remained focused. I began to feel lightheaded, but in an unscattered way. My thoughts did not wander as they tended to in daily life and even during yoga, but remained locked on each of Prashant's words. I heard each word as a singular ingot of meaning. The space between the words was empty; I heard a bright ringing sound in the moments of silence.
Prashant now instructed us to find a ceiling rope from which to dangle in headstand. I walked to a rope, my body seeming to glide there. My legs carried me, but the rest of my being, inside and out, mind and muscles, was still. I leaned into the rope and flipped upside down. When I came upside-down I felt a torquing in my upper backone I'd experienced before in yoga. It was someplace deep inside my shoulder. I did not feel pain exactly, only sensation. I could see my whole self curled up in the spot where I felt the torquing. It was like an animate creature inside me, calmed and sleeping.
Prashant's words continued, like a lullaby. "Let the mind be still, hold it in its single space. Do not wander." He kept us there a long time, and then instructed us to come down from the ropes.
As I stood, blood rushed to my head. Little spots of black gathered at the edges of my vision. I was dizzynothing unusual. Then the black spots lowered from the upper limit of my vision field, and crept up from the base of it. Then the two lines of black at either boundary thickened, and then they converged in the center so all was black. Then I felt my body convulsing. Something screamed out from my throat. It was an invisible part of me, one I'd heard in my nightmares since I'd been here. My vision fragmented into splinters of dark and light. Then I was on the floor. I felt my body shivering and my torso and head shaking with my sobs. When I opened my eyes a crowd of yoga students had surrounded me, and they arranged me so I could rest. Just like Lucienne.
Afterward, for several days, I felt as if my body had undergone a kind of separation. I walked around slowly, as if it were necessary to give each piece of myself time to keep up with the other pieces. I had come to Pune to make myself whole, but in the process I was coming apart. I had moved into Lucienne's flat, and now her own fracture seemed to be repeating itself inside me. Iyengar, too, had broken down. Broken. We were all breaking.
I talked to Prashant. I asked him what had happened to me in his class. "You fainted," he said, seeming unconcerned.
"But why?" I asked, pressing for more.
Excerpted from how we live our yoga by . Copyright © 2001 by Valerie Jeremijenko. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.