I was born in San Francisco, California in 1944. At the age of 33 I took my first yoga class, in San Francisco. BKS Iyengar had come to the Bay Area two years earlier, and there were a handful of fresh, new Iyengar yoga teachers offering classes. I met Mr. Iyengar himself seven years later, in 1984, when he came to San Francisco for the first International Iyengar Yoga Convention. Three years after that I went to India to study with him at his school in Pune, and I’ve had the good fortune to study with him and his daughter Geeta several times since.
I taught my first yoga class in 1985, so I’ve been teaching over 30 years so far, full-time. Yoga teaching is my only profession. I grew up in a large poor family. I had four brothers and my father was psychotic, in and out of mental hospitals all through my early life. This gave me a self-reliant attitude, plus I loved to read, as did my mother, so my love of books was a gift from her. The house was always full of books. This gave me a window out to a larger, richer world. My inspirations and heroes were the poets and artists. I earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature, and a master’s degree in painting. It was about that time that I took my first yoga class. I cannot say that I was so very thrilled or inspired by it, but something caught my attention, because I went back, and kept going back. I think it was the way that a certain mental quiet came to me in the midst of all the physical effort that intrigued me. Plus the intricacy of the poses had a kind of rhythmical and coherent quality—a quality of wholeness and aliveness—that was very enticing to somebody like me with a literary and artistic background, and whose childhood had been so chaotic and confusing.
People have always wanted to know the truth of what it means to be human, and how we each fit into the larger world of community, the other creatures, the plants and weather, all that. Plus what holds it all together, and how can it all be so beautiful and yet so difficult at the same time. People have always had these questions, and I think that yoga is only one way, one practice, that people have invented to help themselves explore these questions. The impulse to question and to seek is age-old, yoga is just one Way, and there are many others. If yoga did not exist, still we would question.
The one thing that modern yoga offers which some other practices don’t—at least not so much—is how many different ways there are to use the practice. Some people do yoga just for the health benefits, to relieve their low-back pain let’s say, or to get over a cold a little quicker. Other people enjoy the athletic beauty and artistry of the poses. Still other folks are drawn more to the inner meditative aspects of yoga. Or yoga can be a kind of prayer, a devotional practice. Or you can practice with some combination of several of these intentions. So the yoga practice itself is very pliable, which is part of its current popularity.
For someone just starting out, especially a young person, keep an open mind and be steady and patient. Give yourself time to find out what part of the yoga really matters to you. Give the yoga a chance to slowly unfold and disclose itself, and give yourself the same chance too—because we never really know where life will lead us. Has yoga changed me? Over the years I feel like the yoga has given me a clearer sense of who I really am. It’s not so much that the yoga has changed me in any way, but rather that I know myself better, and I have gotten more comfortable with myself, and a little easier with myself. The word “yoga” is often translated as “yoke” or “union”, and those are correct. In English we have the word “kindred” which means having to do with families or kin, or creatures that share something essential amongst themselves. From this comes the word “kind”. So I think that yoga is to help us be a little kinder to ourselves, our family, our community, and all the other creatures that we share this planet earth with. I think that is the best use we can make of our human lives, and of the yoga.