An Interview with the Director of Stillwater Yoga Studio, Atlanta.
Wednesday night, August 17, 2014, the day after BKS Iyengar transitioned, many of us gathered in a studio at Stillwater Yoga for a brief talk about the rituals that took place earlier that afternoon. Laurel Thomas-Laulkar, an Iyengar instructor who spent over five years in Pune, India knew about some of the particular Hindu rituals that took place. She had several beautiful photographs of the event held for a man I’d only gotten to know from my studies at the studio and his books. Yet, upon hearing how his son, Prashant had to perform some very difficult tasks to honor his father and ensure a peaceful transition, powerful emotions began to surface for me. It made me realize just how much BKS Iyengar had touched my life. Over the years, through reading the precision in words, understanding his tireless efforts to explore in his practice, his inimitable discipline and uncommon integrity, I knew I’d finally found someone whose teachings I truly respected and wanted to learn. However, I never got the opportunity to meet him. Luckily, many of my teachers have and Stillwater owner, Kathleen Pringle has probably spent the most time with him.
Rhonda: You’ve spent a lot of time at the Iyengar Institute in Pune, India what has that been like?
Kathleen: It’s been transformative. It’s been an honor. The first trip was in 1990. India has changed a lot, but the Institute hasn’t changed – because it’s always been about the yoga and about being present. When I’m there, I feel smarter, clearer and more present. In our daily life, there are many people who have the potential to bring us down. It is rare to be in the presence of someone who can always uplift you and uplift a room of over a hundred people. That always happens when I’m in Guruji’s and Geetaji’s presence. I am always inspired and grateful by their presence, their teachings and their insights. It was more of a mystery in the beginning --how to be and what to think about it all but now it's my spiritual home. And it’s a home filled with wonderful friends from around the world that I look forward to seeing when I am there.
Rhonda: How many trips have you taken?
Kathleen: I’m not sure 20 something.
Rhonda: Do you feel you got to know BKS Iyengar?
Kathleen: Oh, absolutely. And in the way you may get to know a river by swimming in it every day. You are immersed in his presence and he moves you and he knows who you are. Even though we have had many conversations and interactions, each time that he greets me by name I am still thrilled. He’s helped me so much. On my second trip, I was watching the medical classes, and he pulled me out and told me to help. So, he would come by and guide me and teach me at that point. A couple of years later, I was there for a month assisting my friend Alice Plato with her 95% scoliosis and he would always oversee the work we were doing. Things got more up and personal when I had a frozen shoulder and came to medical class. The first thing he said was, “What are you doing here? If you’re here, I should be in the medical class.” I said, “Guruji, I have a frozen shoulder,” and he felt it and said, “Oh bad case.” Another of the long-time teachers from India came up and said, “Why do you have a frozen shoulder?” Guruji said, “It’s not her fault. Anyone can have a frozen shoulder.” I immediately was absolved of my self-doubt and shame from worrying about how I could have created it and that I had not been able to fix it. He worked with me every day. I did every medical class and he would always come by to put me in poses - even though it was excruciating at times. Even in general classes, which I went to as well, he would come by to make me do poses in a certain way. So, he was there all the time. Since then he has helped me with other issues. He’s looked over my practice and given me guidance. He’s given me so much, so much.
Rhonda: What were your interactions with him like? What was your first interaction with him?
Kathleen: On my first trip Guruji was out of the country for the first month and I had bonded (and am still devoted to) his daughter, Geeta. His return filled me with both excitement and trepidation. I was aware of his reputation as a fierce teacher, someone big and grand who I didn’t expect to have much interaction with. But just being in the same room and receiving his teachings was powerful, and the dynamics of the institute also changed. In the subsequent years, I was able to see how loving, compassionate, playful and inventive he was. And he was still fierce and very strict. If you are not getting it or doing something wrong there is like this lightening flash of anger. But it’s like a child’s anger in the sense that it’s gone the next moment - nothing lingers, there’s no resentment. It’s just like “No, not like this!” then when you do it right, “Yes, like that.” and there’s a big smile. He is a force of nature. An incredibly charismatic man who seemed really, really big even though in stature he wasn’t that big. I don’t know how tall he was, but he always seemed to loom large and when he walked in a room, his presence would fill the room. When practicing in the practice hall, he would stop the general classes and teach, or he would begin teaching individuals, and you would go over to listen and try to do what he was teaching. There was a particular feeling that you just knew you were in the presence of greatness.
Rhonda: Would you say he fostered a kind of curiosity and sense of exploration?
Kathleen: I would say, he was thinking and inventing all the time. He’d say, “Oh, I want to show you something," and he would teach something he had just discovered and he’d want to share it. His enthusiasm and excitement about sharing something was infectious. “Oh, look at this!” he’d say, and he would be really excited and he’d want you to catch what he showed you.
Rhonda: Would you catch everything he showed?
Kathleen: Well, sometimes you could catch a glimpse of it. Sometimes he would adjust people and it would be so quick and so dynamic; and then they would say how did he do that? And they’d have to catch up. You couldn’t let your own mind think, ‘I would do it like this’, but you’d have to try to remember exactly what he did and try to explain it. However, it’s like if there was a lightening flash and you were asked which way the flashes of light went. All you have is this imprint and you have to work from that impression. Of course, while he was working on you, you immediately knew what he wanted you to do, even if you were not sure how to do it.
Rhonda: Did you feel he had a powerful energetic ability to shift people? People talk about his presence filling a room and stuff, and he’s changed masses of people. From all the work he did on himself, do you feel he had an energetic effect on people’s lives as well as from his physical teaching and books.
Kathleen: I know that being in his presence you were changed. His vision was so clear. He could see who you were and so his adjustments changed you. He did remarkable things in medical classes. Fixing things Western doctors couldn’t fix. I’ve watched him a lot of times and people would change and conditions would shift under his hands. His touch was really powerful.
Rhonda: What do you remember most about him? Personality-wise.
Kathleen: Like I've said, he was extremely compassionate, extremely generous, and very playful…but he didn’t put up with fools. He was quick to anger when it was to clarify something when the thinking was wrong or the actions were wrong. He would get angry if you weren’t paying attention it was like wake up I’m sharing all these wonderful things! Be present! Open your mind! There was this mixture, for me, it was about his compassion ---just how much compassion and love there was in his teaching.
Rhonda: Did you ever see him in a dinner situation or casual situations?
Kathleen: He would be sitting outside and you would greet him. Exchange words. He always wanted to interact even when he was housebound at the end. He was always smiling and wanting to engage with people. He was just so present. It wasn’t like he was one person in the studio and someone else outside– he was who he was. He was just authentic all the time.
Rhonda: Have you heard any reactions over his passing from your peers?
Kathleen: There are lots of reactions. Everyone has his or her own stories. It’s a great loss. Hundreds of people have expressed different reactions.
Rhonda: How do you think the school will be run?
Kathleen: That is up to Prashant and Geetaji if there are any changes. Guruji was their father, but he was their Guru as well.
Rhonda: In your opinion, what is the future of Iyengar Yoga?
Kathleen: It should continue to grow and expand. Just because he has transitioned, I don’t think it’s going to stop what people share or practice.
Rhonda: As far as how BKS would always come up with inventive, new things, and different ways of looking at poses, do you think that part of the practice will keep evolving through his children and grandchildren?
Kathleen: I think it will always evolve because that’s part of the practice of trying and exploring and figuring out what is happening. It’s part of the practice to question and observe. It’s part of the teaching as well.
Rhonda: What would you like for the Iyengar Community here?
Kathleen: Well, there’s a National and International community -- I think just carry on his work and honor his teachings. I think that will happen.
Rhonda: When you heard of his passing what was your reaction?
Kathleen: Well, I knew he was sick and I knew when he went into the hospital because I was keeping up with his situation through friends. So, based on what I was hearing, it seemed pretty evident that these were his final days and he was getting ready to leave his body. I knew that was the most logical thing. When I got the news that he died, it was expected in a way. And yet, while I know he is mortal, I also know he is immortal. I don’t know how I will feel when I go back to India, and he’s not there, but right now it feels like he is here. He’s still here in the sense that he’s in transition. But I think he will always be here in terms of his essence and his presence. He’s become bigger in the sense that he’s not limited to a body at this point. The teachings that he’s given us will continue on through his teachers. I hope to do my part in continuing on with what I have learned from him, Geetaji and all the other teachers who have studied with him. There will be an essence of him that I’m sure will be an inspiration for a long time to come.
A special commemoration of the life of Guruji will be held on the thirteenth day after the last rites. This commemoration will be held on September 2nd, 2014 at Stillwater Yoga Studio in Midtown at 7:30 pm. Chai and some light fare will be offered for this celebration. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to attend.
For more of my interview with Kathleen Pringle continue reading below:
Rhonda: How long have you been an Iyengar Practitioner?
Kathleen: I started with a book when I was living in Hong Kong, but I didn’t connect with it. It seemed to be just a lot of stretches. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1979, someone suggested I try yoga and it tuned out there was an introduction to yoga course that same weekend at the Center for Yoga. I went and just fell in love with it. The teaching was primarily Iyengar yoga at that time and I have been studying it ever since.
Rhonda: What do you feel attracted you most to the practice?
Kathleen: First, it felt like I was home. That I had found something that completely nourished me and that held the potential to answer the questions that had always intrigued me.
Rhonda: How long have you been an instructor?
Kathleen: I started teaching three years after I started at the Center of Yoga and then I also taught at the Iyengar Institute in Los Angeles when it opened.
Rhonda: There are a lot of certification levels in the Iyengar Tradition talk about those levels and the level you’re at.
Kathleen: The levels start with the Introductory Level. After you pass the Introductory levels I&II you become a Certified Iyengar Instructor, at that point, you have all the basics to need to teach people the introductory poses and to safely teach them Sālamba Śirsasana, headstand and Sālamba Sarvāngāsana, shoulder stand, two of the most important poses. The poses in the Introductory Levels give you everything you need for a full experience of yoga. You now have the tools to show others the way, and have an understanding of how to progress into the more complicated poses. Next are the Intermediate Levels. There are three of these. The āsanas become more complicated in each of the three levels and you’re expected to have a greater understanding of the philosophical aspects of yoga, and to begin to help people with physical issues while in class. You should now have a good understanding of how the poses relate to each other and how learning one action in a simpler pose now gives you the key to understanding other asanas. You begin to have a deeper understanding of how the poses are integrated within them and have the ability to communicate that. After that there are three levels of Senior Level, which asks more of you. In the United States, we have a few people who have been given the Advanced level by Guruji [BKS Iyengar]. I am Senior Level 1 teacher.
Rhonda: And you’re the only Senior Level in the Southeast?
Kathleen: Yes, until you get up to John Schumacher, who is an Advanced Level Instructor in Washington, D.C.; and then there are teachers in New York, Michigan and Minneapolis, who are also Advanced Level teachers.
Rhonda: But in the state of Georgia and the Southeast you are the most senior instructor, correct?
Kathleen: Yes, in the State of Georgia and the Southeast.
Rhonda: You’ve been on the board and an assessor for certification. Tell me a little about that.
Kathleen: First, I was asked to be on the board by the then current board when a vacancy came up. I accepted and I served for two years. Then, the general Iyengar communities elected me back to the board and I served another for four more years. Later, the assessors themselves elected me to be in charge of certification for our organization. I did that for four years. I’ve been an assessor for quite a long time. The first group started with the early Advanced Level teachers. As the number of people wanting to be certified increased we needed more assessors. Guruji was given a list of people who met certain standards in terms of trips to India and certification level and he chose the people he wanted to be assessors and I was lucky enough to be one of the people he chose.
Rhonda: How many students have you seen go thru the system to become Certified Iyengar Instructors?
Kathleen: I’m not sure. As of this year, I will have done 30 assessments. Each assessment usually has twelve people and some of those people I have seen more than once seeking higher levels of certification – hundreds certainly.