When I was younger, I never gave a lot of credit to fate. But, in hindsight, it is easy to connect the life events that drew me to yoga.
©2012 Bruce M. Roger
When I was almost thirteen, influenced by my grandmother’s tour of India, I painted a watercolor of the Taj Mahal. Who knew that exactly twenty years later, in 1984, I would be photographing it?
As a teen I was interested in music and architecture. Even though the post-war years were turbulent, it was a great time to be growing up in the suburbs: the maturing of the industrial age along with the GI Bill resulted in greater racial, cultural, and religious integration and an exciting turn towards modernism in the arts. But, it was my fascination with my ancestral religion, Judaism, that generated not only a worldly interest in social justice, but also a spiritual interest in why we exist.
After graduating college and working as an architect, I lost my job at the beginning of the recession that marked the end of the Vietnam War.
Reigniting my love of music, I joined a band that played rags, blues, and country tunes. In learning the violin, I found a slim book in the library in 1976, Six Lessons on the Violin, by Yehudi Menuhin. “First you must learn yoga,” he declared. Impatiently, I thought, “I don’t have time for that!” How could I know that eight years later I would be sitting at the feet of Menuhin’s guru, B.K.S. Iyengar?
The year 1979 was pivotal. At the age of twenty-eight, and divorced following an eleven-month marriage, I was working full time as an architect. My friend and I joined a yoga course held at the Hanley Junior High School gym taught by an elderly woman without much training. My friend quit after she pushed his six-foot frame into Halasana, in spite of his cries of pain. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the stilling and introspective nature of yoga. But I, too, found Halasana difficult.
Everything changed in 1982 when I attended a weekend workshop taught by Judith Lasater, a senior pupil of B.K.S. Iyengar. Up until that time I practiced on faith alone. Without an experienced teacher, the postures were always painful, sometimes even creating pain. I was not flexible.
As Judith was promoted as a “Teacher of Teachers” (she helped start the Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco and Yoga Journal), I demanded to know why Halasana was so painful. She used me to demonstrate how to properly adjust and support the shoulders on blankets in Sarvangasana, shoulderstand. My relief was immediate, but something more had happened: for the very first time it felt right! I had discovered what the famous architect Mies Van Der Rohe had meant when he said “God is in the details.” Iyengar yoga also helped my migraines, sciatica, hip, knee, and foot pain. That summer, and the next, I spent ten days in class with Judith and Felicity Green at the Feathered Pipe Ranch.
When I saw Iyengar’s award-winning film, Samadhi , I was hooked: the grace and beauty of his hand balance sequence defied gravity. I vowed to meet him. In 1984 I found myself in India at the feet of my teacher’s teacher, the yoga master himself, B.K.S. Iyengar. I was moved by his compassion and the precise way in which he worked with students. For him there was no demarcation between body and mind. He was the best teacher of anything I had ever met. It was uncanny how he could read his students.
There’s a story behind this photo. During the first week of the intensive course in Pune we were expected to balance in Sirsasana in the middle of the room for ten minutes. I had practiced it for about a month leaning into a wall — for three minutes. Although terrified of falling, and shaking like a leaf, I was determined to do it. Unbeknownst to me, Guruji had started to silently adjust students. When he tried to straighten me out, I felt I would fall. Knocking me over he growled, “How dare you resist!” I thought, “Oh, God! My mother told me not to come here, and now he is mad at me.” Chastened but unperturbed, I responded, “Let’s try it again.” He lifted me up, took me through all the twisting variations with a grace and lightness I’d never felt before, and then said softly, “You can come down now.” I never was afraid to balance after that.
A week or two later he needed a demonstrator to make a point. Everyone was afraid of being embarrassed — even senior teachers. With nothing to lose, I eagerly raised my hand, “I’ll do it.” “The worst one!” he countered. Then he taught how to lift the inner heels, as I struggled to do in the photo.
When I returned to St. Louis I began teaching yoga because students wanted to know what I had learned. I felt an obligation to teach any student, regardless of his or her limitations. I worked really hard in my practice, and started to study Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and anatomy. But, more than anything, I wanted to repay my debt to B.K.S. Iyengar by teaching his method. And so began my life’s work.