Lovingly described as “the world’s leading female yoga teacher”, Geeta Iyengar was a true pioneer in the world of yoga in the 20th century.
Her dedication to precise, intense asana practice, the promotion of physical and mental wellness, and the advocation of traditional yogic philosophy have left an indelible mark on the global yoga community.
Daughter of the revered B.K.S. Iyengar, Geeta was deeply influenced by her father’s teaching. She helped establish the internationally renowned practice of Iyengar Yoga, in which there is a focus on alignment, sequencing and the use of props.
The impact of her teachings is widespread, and isn’t limited to just the physical aspects of Iyengar Yoga.
Geeta’s personality shone through in her lasting legacy of teaching countless yoga teachers, pioneering yoga for women, and advocation of yoga as a therapeutic practice.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at her life and her teachings on the below topics:
- Early Life
- Influence From Her Father, B.K.S. Iyengar
- Her Yoga Style
- The Ramamani Memorial Yoga Institute
- Her Impact On Yoga For Women
Life And Background
“It [yoga] was always around me.”– Geeta Iyengar
Geeta Iyengar was born in Pune, India in 1944 to the legendary guru B.K.S. Iyengar. Geeta dedicated her entire life to yoga, and started practicing at 6 years old, mentored by her father.
She was technically his first student, and he trained her rigorously. She was a sickly child, enduring everything from repeated colds, to nephritis: a potentially fatal kidney inflammation.
After a bout of this inflammatory disease which left her unconscious for several days, her father put her prescribed medicine aside and said “either you practice yoga or get prepared to die”, which she mentions in her famous work “Yoga: A Gem For Women”.
We can see here a very strict faith in yoga seems to have pervaded her childhood.
A naturally gifted future yogi, as a teenager she began teaching yoga to her classmates.
Her father used to travel teaching yoga, and in his absence, some of his local students asked if she could teach them on his behalf. He agreed, and so from around the time she finished high school, she officially started teaching Iyengar Yoga.
Never looking back, this was the conception of an entire lifetime dedicated to yoga, wherein she became her father’s successor following his retirement.
During the 1960’s, it was in fact very unusual for women to practice yoga, let alone teach. Yoga nowadays celebrates lots of female involvement and empowerment, and this contrast to its patriarchal roots owes its change to pioneering individuals such as Geeta Iyengar.
Influence From Her Father, B.K.S. Iyengar
B.K.S. Iyengar is widely considered one of the most impactful yogis of the 20th century. In 2004, we saw B.K.S. labeled as one of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time magazine.
He developed the Iyengar Yoga style, which Geeta taught alongside him at the Ramamani Memorial Yoga Institute throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
Based on the classical yoga sutras, B.K.S. promoted a yogic path that focused on the cultivation of samadhi through a holistic design for living, on and off the mat.
Importantly though, Geeta Iyengar adapted her father’s much loved yoga style into a format for women throughout different stages of their lives.
Her Teachings And Impact
Her Yoga Style
Geeta Iyengar was an absolute master of asana practice and breathing techniques of pranayama. Her yoga classes (much like her father’s) were known for their precise attention to detail and intensity.
She was a huge inspiration to yogis around the world, mentoring countless teachers on correct alignment and safe practice of Iyengar Yoga.
She believed in the basic attributes of yoga philosophy: that yoga is about union and achieving physical, mental and spiritual balance. She understood that yoga was a code to deeper self-understanding, and layered its ancient roots with modern techniques.
Her style of Iyengar Yoga focused on the below aspects:
#1: Precision of Alignment
Geeta emphasized the importance of a strong focus on alignment and strict adherence to the correct positions of poses. This is because Iyengar Yoga is all about asana progression and does not limit itself to basic poses.
This strict adherence cultivates an advanced understanding of alignment so that students can reap both the physical and mental benefits of asanas.
#2: Use Of Props
Geeta’s Iyengar Yoga employs a variety of props during practice such as belts, blocks, straps, ropes, and walls.
As a by-product, this prop use helps support beginners, but the primary reason is to help promote precise advanced alignment, which is unrelated to the experience level of the student.
#3: Methodical Sequencing
Geeta pays respect to the esoteric roots of yoga with her style, but also employs a scientific focus on anatomy and safety in curating pose sequences.
Iyengar Yoga can have students holding poses for 5-10 minutes, and so her classes follow a regimented and methodical approach to safe opening and balancing the body and mind.
#4: Pranayama Alongside Asanas
Geeta was a strong advocate for the transformative benefits of pranayama alongside asana practice. Unlike with asana practice, she recognized that students generally do not feel an immediate effect.
For this reason, she recommended beginners focus on the sensations of breathing, develop their asana practice to masterful levels, and then give more time to pranayama. In the meantime, she suggested curiosity in breathing during savasana as an intermediary process:
“I feel that Savasana is a kind of threshold between asana and pranayama. Once they begin to feel the relaxation in Savasana, students come closer to their breath.”– Geeta Iyengar
#5: Adaptations For Women
Geeta also explained how women should be able to adjust their asana practice to accommodate the hormonal and physical changes experienced during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and menopause.
Much like her father, she considered yoga as a method to unify the body and mind and strengthen bodily systems such as the respiratory, circulatory, muscular, and nervous system. Her lasting legacy is in the application of this to the female body.
The Ramamani Memorial Yoga Institute
Geeta was instrumental in developing the Ramamani Memorial Yoga Institute, considered the home of Iyengar Yoga. Established in Pune by her father in 1975, it is named after her mother: Ramamani Iyengar.
Geeta ran the institute for decades, running regular asana and pranayama classes at levels ranging from beginner to expert.
The center is heralded as one of the premier yoga institutes of the world, and houses a library compiled of thousands of titles in multiple languages on subjects such as philosophy, anatomical science, ayurveda, scriptural commentary, modern medicine, and of course yoga!
Her Impact On Yoga For Women
Not just an exponent of Iyengar Yoga, Geeta also acted instrumentally in creating a safe and active yoga practice for women. In her lifetime, she wrote guides and blogs on yoga for women, providing instruction for practice alongside menstruation, pregnancy and menopause.
Geeta was also the author of several yoga books, highly celebrated by yoga practitioners of all levels. Her literature is a direct reflection of her lifelong experience of yoga.
She believed that yoga could help women achieve harmony and balance at all stages of life, and examples of her dedicated work include:
#1: Yoga: A Gem For Women
This book covers everything from female teenagehood to menopause. It is a solid explanation of yoga from asanas to meditation with a female lens.
#2: The Woman’s Yoga Book: Asana and Pranayama for All Phases of the Menstrual Cycle
In this book, Geeta curates a unique yoga program that adheres to the monthly cycle of menstruation for optimal practice and health.
#3: Iyengar Yoga for Motherhood: Safe Practice for Expectant New Mothers
Considered a “must-have guide” for yoga teachers and mothers alike, Geeta covers a meticulous view of Iyengar Yoga in conjunction with the stages of pregnancy.
Within the communities of those that practiced Iyengar Yoga under Geeta, there are claims of her teaching style being aggressive and hostile.
It has been said that Geeta directed insulting comments during her teaching, and would shout at students in her classes at the Ramamani Memorial Institute. The fact that the cost of attendance was high meant there was potentially too much at stake to complain at the time.
On the other hand, it’s also been suggested that despite the apparent surface-level intensity of her delivery, there was no malice in her intent.
Geeta Iyengar passed away in 2018, not too long after celebrating her father’s birth cenetary.
Her legacy continues to inspire the yogic community and will continue to be felt for years to come. Ultimately, she expounded that yoga is not just a physical practice, but a way of life and art form that can be used to balance our mental health and spiritual well-being.
If you’d like to learn more about the practice of Iyengar Yoga, why not check out our article:
If you’d like to learn more about Geeta’s father, take a look at our article here: