Abhijata Iyengar

The Iyengar Yoga journey continues

–       in conversation with Abhijata Srindgar Iyengar


from Australian Yoga Life, September-November 2015, pp 65-68

Abhijata Srindgar Iyengar is the new international face of Iyengar yoga. The 32 year old mother of a toddler, who is known as Abhi, is the grand daughter of BKS Iyengar, who died last August.

Abhi taught a three day convention in Sydney in May, and she proved an insightful teacher; instructing, explaining, correcting, cajoling, and occasionally even joking, and with a great fund of stories about her grandfather. And judging by the chatter at Iyengar classes in the weeks after the convention, her teaching inspired and energised  many attendees.

Being a member of the family meant that, as a child, she was familiar with yoga. “I was acquainted with a few asanas,” she said, “and I would do head stand and shoulder stand before my exams as I believed it would help me get better results. But that was all.”

The asanas must have helped: Abhi achieved a Bachelor of Science in Zoology in 2003, and a Masters in Bioinformatics in 2005.

In 2000 she started studying yoga seriously. In 2005 the next step in her studies was to enrol in a PhD, so she had to make a choice. It is a story that will be familiar to many serious yoga students. “At that time I had not decided that I would take up to yoga, I was doing all the classes, taught by Geeta and Prashantji [Iyengar’s eldest daughter and son].  I went and met my head of department of science, Bioinformatics. She said I had to give the whole day commitment for about five years to do my doctorate, and a whole day commitment, it seemed to me that would take me away from yoga. That is not something that I wanted to do, though I did not decide I wanted to be a teacher, I just wanted to learn yoga.

“So at that time I decided to take a break from my science pursuit, do yoga for a year and then see what I want to do and that year never stopped.”

Abhi, who now attracts hundreds of students to her conventions, said she never decided to become a teacher.  “One year Guruji just told me ‘now you have to start teaching the beginners class’. In fact I first started coming to the children’s classes and they said ‘now start the children’s class’ and two years later he said ‘now start teaching the beginners class’.” She laughs and said “It was a shock because I didn’t think I was ready but he said ‘just go ahead’.”

Abhi accompanied Iyengar to China on his last overseas convention in 2011, and Australian students saw her in 2009, when she assisted her aunt, Geeta Iyengar, at the Twin Water Convention, held in Maroochydore Queensland.

Abhi first taught an international convention in France in 2011, and she estimates she has taught around 10 conventions outside India.

She began the Sydney convention addressing a question some attendees must have been asking. President of the BKS Iyengar Yoga Association of Australia, Bertha

Shakinovsky, introduced Abhi as a senior teacher at the Pune Institute. Abhi responded: “She called me a senior teacher,” then paused. “First of all I would like to say that I am one amongst all of you, we are all students of Guruji.

“There are probably students here who took to yoga even before I was born, so in that way I am a beginner, but like Bertha told you told you I was lucky. I am still lucky because I was around Guruji the last 14 years.”

On stage Abhi has the Iyengar gift of teaching, confident, clear, in complete control of the room and with a wonderful use of language. Off stage, she looks more like a young girl, shy even diffident. Until, that is, she is asked a question about yoga, when the confidence flows back into her answers.

In conversation with Australian Yoga Life, she admitted: “When I travelled for the first time overseas I was not confident about it. I said there are people there who are going to be more senior, so I am not confident about travelling abroad and teaching a big group. And Guruji said ‘you forget about their years of experience you just teach them what you learn from me’.”

Abhi brings to her teaching those 14 years of intensive practice and study with Iyengar. “I spent the last 14 years with him, around him, at home. I lived with him, and in the practice hall, so in that sense it was an ashram kind of learning, where I saw what he did and I saw how he talked with people, I saw how he ate, I saw his whole life so in that sense I am at a big advantage.”

Study and life with Iyengar also provided Abhi with countless stories. Like the day, ten years ago, when  she decided she would do a long sirsasana or headstand. “I put my watch in front of me, I took belts and I tied my legs together so staying there would become easier so that was my plan.” Iyengar was nearby, practising with his eyes closed, “so it was easier for me. After about 10 minutes my palms began to sweat. I was itching, in my face, in my back, in places I did not even know existed, all those areas began to itch. But I said today I have to stay come what may, 12 minutes, 13 minutes then I am sweating, I am shaking. Somehow the clock comes to 17 minutes and then at the 17 th minute I tell myself let me complete another 3 minutes. So the moment the clock struck the 20 th minute I came down and I was in Adho Mukha Virasan.

“By that time Guruji had come up and he said ‘come here, lazy girl what are you doing?’  And I told him very proudly I had an accomplishment, I said ‘today I was not lazy, I have been in sirsasan for 20 minutes’. He said ‘OK what did you do?’, I said  ‘Guruji I stayed in sirsasan for 20 minutes’. ‘What did you do?’

“I didn’t understand the question at all. I said ‘I was in sirsasan, I stood on my head for 20 minutes’. He said ‘the moment you went on your head you abused the position of sirsasan, what did you do for the 20 minutes’. I was stumped, I did nothing for the 20 minutes, I was waiting for the 20 th minute. And he said ‘what a waste of time’.”

Abhi began the Sydney Convention by asking students to be open. “The most important lesson before we start any pursuit is being open.

“It not that you are going to learn from me, it is not that I am going to teach you.

I am only going to take you on a journey in which you are going to learn from your body, from your mind, from your breath, you are going to learn through me, you are going to learn from yourself.”

Abhi brings to her teaching the precision and clarity of an Iyengar. But she presents as a gentler soul than her grandfather, who could be famously ferocious in his approach to his students, and as less piercingly critical than her aunt Geeta.

But Abhi’s life is also very different from theirs.

Iyengar was seriously ill as a child, and at the age of 16 he was sent to his brother in law, the yoga guru T. Krishnamacharya, to learn yoga in the hope of regaining his health. By 18 he was teaching. During his early years he was so poor that he often lived on rice and water. In 1952 he taught yoga to the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who became a great advocate, and brought Iyengar to Europe.

Iyengar married and had five daughters and one son. But he was widowed in 1975, the year he opened his institute in Pune, naming it in her honour: the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute. He remained faithful to her memory for the rest of his life. Both Geeta and Prashant dedicated themselves to the study of yoga and remained single.

“When the time came of my marriage, there was no discussion on whether I just get married or not get married,” she said. “When Guruji saw the prospective groom he said ‘he’s a nice boy, go ahead’.” Abhi said Iyengar “hoped I would continue what I am doing. He never enforced it upon me. And being a family woman, yes things are maybe different to Geeta and Prashant but they had bigger responsibilities back then, the Institute was just beginning to be formed. But now it is all set up, it is on a silver platter for me. So in that way that side of it is easy.”

Traditionally yoga was the province of men. Iyengar not only scandalised some by teaching women, he explored the particular benefits yoga could bring to women. His daughter Geeta wrote the classic, ‘Yoga – a gem for women’, which featured photographs of her sister, Vanita Sridharan, practicing poses while in an advanced stage of pregnancy.  Geeta wrote: “Women need yoga even more than men, as the responsibilities thrust upon them by nature are greater than men’s.”

Women have certainly answered yoga’s call in far greater numbers than men in Australia. And in the question and answer session, the perhaps inevitable question was asked: how to juggle family, children, and a good strong practice?

Abhi giggled and replied: “I don’t know, I am trying.”

Later she admitted she was lucky to have the help of parents and parents-in-law to support her. She said prioritising was necessary, but so was flexibility. “That is important, because if my daughter is unwell I can’t go to the class on a certain day. That doesn’t mean I am doing the wrong thing, it is about which duty, which duty needs you the most.”

Iyengar died at the age of 95 in August last year (2014).  He remained a strong and charismatic figure until the end of his life.

Abhi said she does not feel any special responsibility after having had such intensive teaching from him. “You see, I do not think that Guruji gave me anything more than what he gave anybody else. Those who have seen Guruji know he has always given anybody who is front of him what they need to be given at that at that point in time.

“I feel the responsibility in terms of keeping him alive, but I think that responsibility is on each of his students.”

In response to a question about the most important thing she learnt from her grandfather, Abhi said:  “I vividly remember he said ‘life is as dynamic as the River Amazon. As that river flows, life flows with that energy, hence your practice and your living has to be so dynamic’.”

The question many Iyengar practitioners are now wondering about is: what is the future for Iyengar Yoga; where will it go now? “It will go on its own current,” Abhi replied.  And in all likelihood, that current will be ably guided into the next generation by Abhijata Srindgar Iyengar.


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