Whenever I pause before leading the invocation in the opening moments of class, I visualize the statue of Patañjali at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune. In my imagination, to the right of Patañjali are my teachers who no longer walk on this earthly plane. To the left of the statue, are those who I can still visit in person. Honoring the lineage is my way of acknowledging the years of experience, of community gatherings, of rituals, of us all beginning the practice of yoga together. I.1. Atha yoganusasanam. As Guruji BKS Iyengar translated the first sutra, “With prayers for divine blessings, now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga.”
The Iyengar Yoga Institute in Los Angeles had such a beginning, and, as the Iyengar community grew, the Institute became a refuge. Reminiscing back to my early years, I now recognize that what I so valued was being a part of a group of like-minded seekers. And of having teachers who had devoted their lives to this study and who had integrated the journey into all facets of their lives. As a young woman I sought role models. Now, at sixty five, I realize that my life has become a map of my journey, my struggles, dead ends, discoveries, all leading to the “new now.” I have now become a mentor, a light for a younger generation; and yet I sit, every day, in Padmāsana, at the feet of the practice. The refuge is now in the practice itself.
The LA Institute closed its physical doors in March. As with so many other small businesses, it ultimately became a victim of the pandemic. At some point its physical form may be resurrected in a new location. For the time being, its presence is online and continues with far fewer faculty. I am, sadly, not one of those teachers. This next chapter of my life will surely honor Guruji and his teachings whether I am a part of the Institute or not. Yet for many years the Institute was the hub of all my activities and those teachers and students were like family.
This post is to commemorate our community. Here are a few highlights, and of course, there are more omitted then I can count! Please bear with me as I indulge in memories!
From 1985 until 2020, for thirty five years, the Institute was a home for students to mature into teachers, for teachers to create teacher training programs, for intensives, workshops, gatherings, catharsis, for soul searching. While we shared our studies, we also celebrated marriages, fundraisers, memorials, Guruji’s, Geetaji’s, Prashant and Manouso’s birthdays, and even bake sales. We hosted intensives with Sunita (Iyengar’s daughter), Faeq Biria, and Gloria Goldberg among others. Over the years, Eric Small continued as one of our senior teachers, trusted advisor, and our guiding light.
I began my studies in yoga in 1982, a long time ago! Iyengar Yoga was little known at that time. It wasn’t until 1984, when Guruji visited San Francisco for the first National Iyengar Yoga Convention, that Iyengar Yoga was truly introduced to Southern California. Manouso Manos coordinated and hosted the convention along with other members of the San Francisco Association. I will always remember Guruji’s demonstration at Davies Hall. He slowly inhaled for what seemed to be a very long time and then held his breath, for eternity. You could hear a pin drop in the huge auditorium. When finally he did exhale, it was smooth and relaxed. A master in the house. He showered us with that magnificent big grin of his as his bushy eyebrows danced around the room.
You know that you are in the “zone” when all the chips fall into place. The Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles was born. I began teaching there in 1987 and worked alongside Scott Hobbs, Justin Herold and Lynn Theard to manage the Institute. So many stories about those early days! Suffice it to say that I donated a portable dance floor which supported many Tadasanas (literally!) for several years until we had the funds to install a hardwood floor. Scott and Justin hammered, designed, and got dusty and paint covered, as the space gradually took shape.
Many people, Bonnie Anthony, Francie Ricks, Karin O’Bannon, Aileen Epstein-Ignadiou, Gloria Goldberg, Eric Small, Elisabeth Whalley, Sue Garfield, Jim Benvenuto and Eddie Marks, to name but a few, all dedicated their time to our vision of a haven for Iyengar Yoga in Los Angeles. It was the only place where we had the props, the equipment, and could dedicate the space full time to Iyengar Yoga. The first teacher training began in 1993. Karin O’Bannon, Diane Gysbers, and I worked together with Manouso Manos. Over the years, Marla Apt and Gloria Goldberg took over and further developed the teacher training program. How many graduates of those trainings now populate YWCAs, community centers, and yoga studios across Los Angeles and beyond? What a testament to the inspiration and dedication teachers found through these programs over the last thirty-plus years!
When we first opened, we were a collective of mostly students and a few teachers. Guruji advised us to bring in a senior teacher to mentor and guide us. Mary Dunn would travel from San Diego regularly in those early years. When she moved to New York, Manouso Manos took over, visiting us every other month. Guruji suggested that we work with one teacher until we had established some maturity in our community. Manouso became our senior teacher for almost thirty years. I remember picking him up at the airport in my tiny red sports car. I fit, but he’s so tall we had to open the sunroof! We must acknowledge our history! Wherever you find your allegiance in the complicated and painful narrative around the last few years, Manouso was and still is one of the most influential and for many inspiring figures in our community.
For many of you, Karin O’Bannon was your mentor, the heart of the Institute, and the champion of Iyengar yoga in the greater Los Angeles area. She embodied what a yogi’s life of service might be. She was an artist, a poet, and raised all those around her through her dedication to the practice. Here’s a poem of hers I find inspiring:
Rain is smell and taste and touch
But rain has not sight.
It cannot see on who or what
I would be rain
And never see the difference
Between you and me.
In 2004, Guruji was listed as one of Time magazine’s most influential people, so his name entered the mainstream. In 2005, he traveled through Los Angeles on a publicity tour for his bestseller “Light on Life.” He visited the Institute, and at UCLA, we hosted a Q&A with him and Annette Bening. It was fabulous!
The first big relocation happened in 2008. Our original home on 3rd Street was destined for commercial development. Chris Beach, then President of the Association, Mark Harelik, and Anna Delury facilitated the delicate negotiations with the new landlord. Eric Small helped finance the build out, and Larry Heliker supervised the construction. The new facility was big, bright, and had lots of parking. As the business grew, prompted by Scott Radin, we moved from a manual registration process to a computerized key swipe procedure. We had entered the 21st century.
2010 – IYILA and Iyengar Yoga Therapeutics hosted an intensive with Sunita Parthasarathy, one of Guruji’s daughters. People from all over Southern California attended. Guruji’s take-no-prisoners teaching style lived on in his daughter Geetaji, and Sunita was no different. I came to understand that this impatience for our slow and seemingly clumsy studentship stemmed from their craving for excellence, and an allegiance to preserving Guruji’s legacy. Sunita demanded that we be completely focused on the material, just as her father, sister and brother did. It was formidable and inspiring.
2013 – For Guruji’s ninety-fifth birthday the Association, here represented by Garth McLean, Marla Apt and I, in Pune, presented him with actual US postage stamps bearing his visage. He was completely delighted!
2013 – Marla Apt received the Leadership Award honoring her for her outstanding contributions through her teaching and guidance. Over 150 teachers and students joined us that evening. A demonstration of therapeutic applications of Iyengar Yoga and a dramatization of the Bhagavad Gīta with Mark Harelik as Krishna, Garth McLean as the narrator and three students, Laura Lenee, Dora Hasenbein, and Mary Ann Kellogg (who later became president of the Association) representing the different “Margas” or paths expressed in the Gīta. Bob Thiele and Billy Valentine performed the brilliant and hilarious “Yoga Man.” A must listen:
2019 – In honor of Geetaji’s Shraddanjali, the Institute hosted a festive memorial with a pūjā (ritual); remembrances of Geetaji by Marla Apt, Anna Delury, Chris Stein, Linda Nishio, and myself; followed up a scrumptious meal. Students showered the alter with rose petals as individuals bade farewell to our teacher. This was the last major event held at the Institute.
We hosted too many stellar workshops to list them all, but the ones I remember most fondly were Larry Heliker (seen here in the ropes), Gabriella Giubilaro (from Florence, Italy), Arun H. Shamrao (from South India), Christian Pisano (from France), Kofi Busia, Ramanand Patel, annual visits by Elise Miller (on scoliosis), Carrie Owerko, Sutra studies with Edwin Bryant and John Casey, Ropes with Lori McIntosh, multiple sclerosis with Eric Small and later with Garth McLean, and weekly pranayama classes with Chris Stein.
There were so many celebrations, workshops, and people who could and should be noted here, I apologize for not listing them all!
Perhaps my deepest gratitude goes to those unsung heroes who served as our directors, controllers and office managers. These are the people who stayed late to turn out the lights, who handled bathroom backups, air conditioning failures, student complaints, cleaning props, ordering merchandise, and coordinating staff. In the earlier years the director did almost everything, hats off to Leslie Peters (seen here smiling effervescently with Eric Small), she took the helm for eleven years. David Charles followed, and then, in our new La Cienega facility, Marta Foust. Ah, Marta! Many of you remember Marta. She now has a child, still studies yoga, and enjoys a simpler life. Lori McIntosh supervised an inspired renovation of the facilities under the guidance of Gitte Bechsgaard. Gone were metal prop shelves. The beautified Institute now fell in line with the science of Vastu Shastra, creating spaces that promote health and mental lucidity.
Anyone who worked behind the scenes, knows our rock, Joyce Ireland. She made sure that our ‘I’s were dotted and our ‘t’s crossed, she handled contracts, insurance, taxes, and more. Bless her! In the final years, Amy Israel worked her way from the ground up as a staff registrar, to become our office manager. She drafted a formal Employee Manual, I drafted Teacher Guidelines, and we did a 360° review from faculty and staff. The Institute graduated into a formal business! Sincere gratitude to everyone named and unnamed who worked behind the scenes; without you we would never have flourished.
I served on the Board of the Institute in the early years with Scott Hobbs and Lynn Theard; and again from 2012 until 2015 with Marcy Mee, Scott Radin, and Allen Grodsky, among others. We would discuss strategies, review business models, and change the infrastructure periodically as each Board adjusted to the lessons learned about running a business. I came to recognize how delicate managing and supporting a non-profit organization was! So many teachers and students tried their hand at “being in service,” only to realize that volunteering to keep a business afloat took a completely different skill set than practicing asana. While I had dedicated years to teaching, I realized that perhaps the most essential component of teaching – besides having a firm base of the material – lay in communications skills. As I worked with senior teachers on the Curriculum Committee, I cultivated what I call the 5 “C”s of effective communication.† To a greater or lessor extent, I hope I helped!
Communication is so key to everything we do. Our community had an excellent newsletter, Yoga Vidya, edited initially by Jacqueline Austin, Catherine Fisher then Christi Hall. Linda Nishio was the sole art director since the inception of Yoga Vidya. I savor these issues.
For me, one highlight was our Tuesday night therapeutics class. Marla and I launched this class after we had completed a three year teacher training with Stephanie Quirk and had assisted therapy classes in Pune. Students came with all kinds of conditions, rheumatoid arthritis, hip replacements, concussion, depression, shoulder injuries, to name but a few. We were fortunate to have almost as many certified teachers assisting us as students in the class. Tuesday nights exemplified a strong collective wherein we studied, reviewed and refined our approach to enable students to guide them on their path to healing. After the challenging class work, teachers and assistants congregated in the teacher’s lounge to debrief. Someone always brought fabulous chocolates, cupcakes, lassies or fresh juice. Our last class was the week before quarantine began, March 2020. Nine years of healing and such fond memories.
My love affair with the Institute has been a rocky one. Anyone who engages full on with a non-profit will tell you the same thing. I have taught classes, served on the Board for six years, worked on the Curriculum Council for seven years, created events, drafted schedules, handled occasional crises, and more. Ultimately, the Institute was a sanctuary worth dedicating many years of creative energy to, and a community that encouraged in-depth study.
Cheers and salutations to what we were, who we were, and to everyone who entered our sanctuary. I hope that the Association and the Institute will survive in these trying times. There are only three other non-profits in the United States that bear the name “Iyengar Yoga Institute”: one in San Francisco, another in New York, and the third in La Mesa in Southern California. All things change, but Guruji’s legacy continues through his teachers, students, books, and videos. This legacy has been a foundation in my life, and will continue to support me, my colleagues and my students as we move forward.
Upon reading this post, I realize that I have been avoiding the complicated and painful final two years prior to closure. While the pandemic ultimately caused the physical closing of the Institute, a rupture in the community had fatally sealed the harmony of our family. It drove a wedge between colleagues as teachers monitored what they said, paranoid of being reported for questioning the decision of the National Iyengar Yoga Association (IYNAUS). Just as roses have thorns, people are inherently political.
The Me Too movement enabled women to speak forth, if they had ever felt victims of inappropriate behavior. Allegations against Manouso Manos caused IYNAUS to hire a lawyer to conduct an investigation. As teachers claimed their positions pro or con, the hostility was palpable. Teachers were prohibited from speaking Manouso’s name in the parking lot; he was being ghosted and systematically canceled. Divorce is never easy. The emotional toll can be crippling.
This closing chapter of the Institute was painful and tragic. Most spiritual communities that go through this process rarely recover. While we had many meetings to discuss how to heal our community, the writing was black and white, the die already cast. Any challenge to the investigation meant that you might be ghosted or cancelled as well. For many of us, akin to Arjuna’s paralysis in the Bhagavad Gita, this was a decisive moment. Is this the reason I was never invited to teach online when the Institute graduated to a virtual classroom?
The grieving cycle has its own internal rhythm. Trauma cannot be quantified, it is a deeply subjective experience. The letting go of an idea of a cohesive community amidst the politics of this event will be ongoing for many of us. I find myself discovering renewed strength and refuge through my students, teaching, practice, and dedication to the gift of Iyengar Yoga, sans any need for the institutionalization of his legacy. Now, when I begin the invocation, the memory of the Institute resides with those who have passed on, sitting on the right side of Patañjali.
* Requiem: an act or token of remembrance
† My five “C”s of effective communication are: to be Courteous, Clear/Correct, Curious, Courageous, and Compassionate. I could count the pearls on my hand, like a mala, to assure that I had respectfully covered both the receptive, and the active part of dialog. I connected the C’s to the Yoga Sutras to establish my foundation for communication in yoga. In ancient yoga lore, one would practice awareness in body, speech and mind. Constructive speech was considered a primary virtue to be cultivated, and words were weighed rather than counted. I decided that my yoga practice would be to serve the community through these roles, on the Curriculum Council, or the Board, or as a senior teacher. I hope that the relationships I cultivated were as satisfying to others as they were to me.