Elizabeth Brass, Senior Iyengar Yoga teacher and Co-founder of Iyengar Yoga Zentrum Berlin, has spent several months studying at Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune over the past 25 years. In January 2020 she went there again, sharing her latest experience and impressions in the following interview.
Claudiyengar: Back from Pune, back from India, by the way, when was the last time you spent a whole month at the institute?
Elizabeth Brass: Five years ago, so 2015. Guruji had just passed away in the August before and I was there in February 2015.
Claudiyengar: …so there was already a change?
Elizabeth Brass: Yes, there was already a huge change.
Claudiyengar: After this break of five years, how was your general impression and experience now?
Elizabeth Brass: My general experience was surprisingly wonderful. I have to say, I was nervous to go since Geetaji has also died and I didn't know what it would be like with all the changes that are currently happening. Even though the absences of Guruji and Geetaji are clearly felt, my stay now in January 2020 was a pleasant surprise. I felt that Abhijata and all the teachers there are really taking their position and moving the Institute into the present. It is a new phase.
Claudiyengar: Did you see these huge wooden chairs with framed photos of B.K.S. Iyengar and Geeta Iyengar on the ground floor?
Elizabeth Brass: Yes, of course, these chairs were still so nicely decorated with the white stolas.
Claudiyengar: …and people were sitting in between the chairs or next to them, as if they would be still sitting with Guruji and Geetaji on the same table…
Elizabeth Brass: …yes, right! They are still so present everywhere there!
And I also saw, that there were a lot of new people coming, a new generation from all over the world. So I felt, that Iyengar Yoga started into a new time.
Claudiyengar: What was for you personally the biggest change or completely new to you now?
Elizabeth Brass: For me it was a different schedule, as I took more of Prashantji´s classes this time than I had in the past. So this was a really wonderful experience because I had the chance to go deeper into his teaching and combining that with the others classes. My timetable felt nicely full and very rich. Then there were the Sutra studies on Sundays, too.
Claudiyengar: …that is a new class, right?
Elizabeth Brass: Yes, Prashantji´s nephews and Prashantji himself are doing this class together since last year only and it is great! So my schedule was very different from the past and I did enjoy it very much. I had more classes with Sunita Iyengar, too and it was great to have her on a regular base this time.
Claudiyengar: What other teachers did you go to?
Elizabeth Brass: Apart from Prashantji and Sunitaji Iyengar, I did classes with Rajlaxmi and Abhijata and then I assisted in the remedial classes.
Claudiyengar: What was your impression of the work in the remedial classes?
Elizabeth Brass: It is definitely quieter now in terms of yelling (laughs) – there is still a very high level of concentration as well as a high level of ordered chaos with there being so many people and so many things happening at once. Everyone is extremely taken care of with Abhijata and Raya leading the instructions whether before or during the medical class. They are really instructing the assistants before and during the class how to assist. That is completely new, it did not exist before. In the past you were learning by doing. In some parts that is also still happening, but I got the sense that the teachers try to bring people more onto the same page now.
Claudiyengar: Would you say, that is already part of the RIMYI mentorship strategy – explaining things and teaching the assistants during classes?
Elizabeth Brass: My sense is, that there a lot of new people coming now so that they feel the need of instructing more explicitly. Maybe in the past people who came were more experienced and had already been trained by Geetaji and Guruji for a long time. Now that there is a whole new generation of teachers who are already quite experienced but haven’t been to Pune as much, it might be their way of checking that everyone is on the same page, I guess.
Claudiyengar: Self-practice is a huge part of a RIMYI-Stay – how was it for you this time?
Elizabeth Brass: It is always very crowed in the room and I am used to that and I can manage that. Probably people that come for the first time find that quite hard to handle at the beginning. I still very much miss Guruji in the practice hall, but it is nice to see that some of his long-term students and some of the RIMYI-teachers as well as Abhijata and Raya practice in his corner. That corner was always a bit like the holy space, the actual center of the room. I was glad, that there is still this location, that you can look at which I find inspiring. I also see people still working together, that always happened when Guruji himself was around, so there are still moments of teaching going on during self-practice and that is exciting and enriching.
Claudiyengar: So there are many possibilities to lean – in the classes and outside of the classes – what would you say, is the most important thing you gained and took from studying at RIMYI this time?
Elizabeth Brass: Going back there is going back to the source. For those of us who study and practice Iyengar Yoga, that is the source. It is an amazing place, also because the family house is there and all the generations of the family are living there together, so you are really part of this private-public space. I find it always very touching to see how the Iyengar family negotiates that. Some of us might remember how it was when Guruji was still there, watching television, Geetaji walking back and forth and helping prepare food. Now it is Abhi´s children playing infront of the house with their grandparents – I find that touching, because it brings me to the question, how I bring yoga and practicing yoga into my family live back home.
A part from all that, spending some time in India always makes me look at my own reactions in such an environment, that is much louder, noisier and with much more traffic than back home, which is also Yoga, right? I also enjoy meeting yoga practioners from all over the world an dmaking new friends.
Claudiyengar: So, I hear already from your recounts, that you recommend to go and study at RIMYI…, why should in your opinion especially “new” Iyengar Yoga teachers still go there?
Elizabeth Brass: Even if Guruji and Geetaji aren’t alive anymore, so many teachers at RIMYI have been studying with them since they were children and their parents sometimes have also studied at RIMYI, too, so there is such a vast amount of knowledge about yoga being passed on from generation to generation. It's almost as if yoga is running through these people´s veins there. This you can feel. Taking classes with Prashantji and Sunitaji is different from taking classes with Abhi and the younger teachers, so you learn so much about the history and development of Iyengar Yoga and Yoga and philosophy in general. I know, people are busy living their lives and to go to Pune is expensive and you need time for it, but if you can swing it, do it, it is worth it!
Claudiyengar: How do you see the future of Iyengar Yoga after your stay in Pune? What is your wish or hope for the future?
Elizabeth Brass: We are in a transition right now and I know, that uncertainty is hard for some people for different reasons, especially in systems that have been set up a long time ago and provided guidelines and structures. Still, I think it is important to remain open and to stay committed to the yoga practice that we all have been doing for many years and to trust. To trust in yoga and to trust our teachers and to help by, for example, speaking and exchanges about the changes during weekend seminars and gatherings. Above all, it is the responsibility of all of us to bring the knowledge and the teaching that so generously had been shared with us into the next generation. At the same time, to stay open and flexible not only in the body, but also with our mind.
Claudiyengar: Thank you so much for taking the time and for sharing your experience with us.