Geeta Iyengar: The Fire of Compassion
Geeta Iyengar was a fiery woman, a fearless teacher and a faithful propagator of her father’s unique approach to Yoga.
Despite my grey head, I am only a partial old timer. Even though I read Light on Yoga the year after it came out, I was not able to come to Pune until the late 80’s. A dream about Guruji as I was reading the book inspired me to the path. In the dream he invited me into yoga and indicated that it is a good path for me. Dreams were given special weight in my family, for my brothers and I were raised by a Freudian psychoanalyst who always told us to pay attention to our dreams. Family responsibilities kept me from Pune till after Guruji had retired, though I did experience his teaching at the first International Iyengar Yoga Convention in San Francisco and again in Boston in 1987.
It was Geetaji, however, who taught the first intensive I attended at RIMYI. She was fiery in her teaching even then. My friend Theresa Rowland and I were staying together at the Christian Ashram, and it was Theresa who told me that yes, Geetaji had kept us in Halasana and Salamba Sarvangasana with variations for over an hour in the very first class of the intensive. Her teaching was intense, there was no doubt.
Our group that year was surely small compared to the size of today’s classes, yet we must have numbered 50 or 60. Guruji interrupted Geetaji constantly, but she bore the interruptions without comment. At one point, when we were all filing to the prop closet to fetch some props, I was moving too slowly to suit her, and she suddenly struck me on the back. Not being used to such treatment, I reacted with tears, which I tried to hide, of course.
It still brings a shock to my emotional body as I tell this story, for my feelings were deeply hurt, as I had had to wait so long for my first visit to Pune. Geeta asked us at that point: “Why are you even here—why did you come?” Naturally, her questions and my upset state gave rise to a fair amount of soul-searching. This inquiry lasted into the weeks and months after I returned to Austin, Texas, where I lived then and live now.
One of my students at that time was a Jungian analyst. As I related this story of Geeta’s question and her blow on my back, he told me, “Peggy, you should think long and hard before you return IF you return.” He was right. I had to understand that returning would not mean that I am a willing masochist and would put up with further abuse. The gap of years between my first visit and my second was the longest of all my visits there. I made peace with the incident by realizing, as I kept returning, that Geeta’s fire was not limited to me. She would use that fire on Indian students, European students, and teachers from everywhere. At times the fire seemed completely arbitrary, at other times justified, even to an outside viewer, though it was always impossible to truly know.
I was not able to attend her 70th birthday celebration, but I did hear from colleagues that Geeta spoke at length about the trials and tribulations of her life—her mother’s death throwing her into the role of not only looking after her father’s needs, but those of her younger siblings and the household in general. The heavy burden of Guruji’s depending on her to teach so much as he travelled around the world. The even heavier burden of taking over the medical classes after he retired from teaching (though not entirely from occasionally appearing in the medical classes himself).
And I was not able to be present at Guruji’s 100th birthday celebration either, where Geetaji taught her last classes. I did hear from colleagues, however, that at one point, during a question and answer session perhaps, someone asked Geeta: “Do you love us?” She apparently said, much to the relief of all present, that yes, I love you. But I was told that under her breath she said “but not like that.”
No, Geetaji was not one to coddle us. When there was self-pity, when there was ego, she was quick to strike out against it. I can only imagine that within herself there was also a battle to overcome self-pity with such heavy burdens on her shoulders.
But I had to forgive her before I could return and forgive her I did. She continued to inspire me every time I came to study, and she further inspired me to study Ayurveda, for she would occasionally give us glimpses of how her studies of Ayurveda informed her practice and teaching.
Apparently, her fire was not finished with me even in 2018. The last time she saw me she shouted at me because I was not using the trestle for standing poses during a class. After not seeing me for two years, she could see how much my broken back has caused me to stoop. She had helped me with a sequence for spondylolisthesis in 2009, after the broken vertebra was discovered. Her lesson to me on that day in July, when assistants dragged the trestle to the front of the class so I could use it, was that she had shown me how to help myself and I was failing to do it.
So I thank her for her lessons, for her fire and for her fearlessness. I miss her deeply, from the bottom of my heart.