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Conversations with early Canadian teachers

 

How did Iyengar yoga come to Canada?

Conversations with Rajvi Mehta and early Canadian teachers

 

Rajvi Mehta, of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, India, had informal, free ranging conversations via zoom with some of Canada’s earliest Iyengar yoga teachers in October 2023.

Marlene Mawhinney, Margot Kitchen, Sheri Berkowitz, Marlene Miller, Donna Fornelli and Leslie Hogya joined the 13 October conversation.

 

Below is a free-form transcription of these conversations. The full recording is available from Leslie Hogya at leslie.hogya@gmail.com.

 

 

PART ONE: EARLY YOGA EXPERIENCES IN CANADA

Like spontaneous combustion, Mr. Iyengar’s method first came to Canada through various means, both east coast and west coast, in the mid-1970s, almost 50 years ago. Several of our now senior teachers were already teaching ‘hatha’ yoga from various traditions before Mr. Iyengar’s method was brought to Canada. Some of us had found yoga via television with Kareen Zebroff or at local recreation centres.

Margot Mawhinney pointed out that Kareen on her TV show said to get Guruji’s book Light on Yoga.

Norma Hodge in the mid 1970s had been exposed to Guruji’s method and brought his style of teaching to the Yasodhara Ashram in British Columbia. Shirley French was inspired and began teaching us in Victoria what she had learned supplemented by visits from Norma.

At the same time:

-Bruce and Maureen Carruthers from Vancouver brought Donald Moyer from California.

-Felicity Green, Ester Myers and Angela Farmer began teaching in Canada both east and west.

-Barbara Lansberg who had spent a year in Pune was teaching in Toronto about 1978.

From Europe, California, India, there was inspiration from B.K.S. Iyengar in different parts of the country, all pre-internet.

Ingelise Nherlan, Shirley and Derek French, Bruce and Maureen Carruthers all went early on to Pune.

Sheri Berkowitz was teaching yoga in Winnipeg and went to California in 1978 to take classes of various available methods in California. By chance while there, she ended up taking a class with Mary Dunn and was introduced to Mr. Iyengar’s style of teaching. The next year she went to Pune and took a month of general classes. Later, in 1984-85, she spent a year in San Francisco studying with Iyengar yoga teachers Ramanand Patel, Judith Lasater, Arthur Kilmurray and others.

We were all teaching, but we had started to look for something else.

Leslie Hogya and Donna Fornelli and others in Victoria took a Hatha yoga teacher training course in what was called Sivananda style, which gave us a good grounding in philosophy and sequencing. Amazingly, we were to wear a caftan to teach in; we were not allowed to touch anyone. We had to be able to explain poses very clearly since we couldn’t demonstrate. But we used Light on Yoga.

 

Leslie Hogya in her Sivananda teacher’s caftan

 

Marlene Miller knew after ten minutes in a class with Hilda Pezzaro that she wanted to study and teach this method.

For many reasons, we were drawn to yoga at that time. A lot of eastern philosophy was being brought to the west in the 1970s, and people were trying things like transcendental meditation, zen and so on. Quite a few of us had young children. One person said that as a young mother, she had tranquilizers prescribed. Many mentioned finding yoga on TV enabled them to do yoga at home with young children. We didn’t necessarily intend to teach, but we started showing friends what we were doing. Sheri mentioned that her grandmother who was doing yoga on TV with Richard Hittleman had inspired her. Margot was in Montreal and a young mother; her first (non-Iyengar) yoga teacher just about scared her away from yoga by saying she needed to be a vegetarian and celibate, but still, something stuck. And then later she found Iyengar yoga.

We were exposed to Iyengar yoga almost by chance in various parts of Canada, around the same time, and once we took classes in Mr. Iyengar’s style, we latched onto it, and stayed with it.

 

WHAT DID OUR FRIENDS AND FAMILIES THINK?

Some of our families were skeptical or worried we were going to shave our heads and dance with the Rama Krishnas at the airport!

Donna said it was 40 years before her husband tried yoga, and after a class with Derek French for back care, he said: “I didn’t realize it would be so hard.”  Donna surprised him when she said those were just the warmups.

Margot’s husband came to the Ashram with Shirley and Derek, saw the value, and tried it a little bit.

Geeta came to the Ashram in 2008, saw pictures of Margot’s husband doing Virabhadrasana II, and said maybe it was Virabhadrasana ‘two-and-a-half’. Margot’s daughter is now involved.

Sheri: “My family was skeptical, but my younger daughter took to it. I found there was a resonance, a call for a spiritual need that has always been there for me.”

Marlene Mawhinney’s mother told her, “You are a nicer person,” and her daughters now are involved in yoga. She did Gestalt therapy in her first yoga class.

Marlene Miller said her family  was not interested. “They just thought I was weird.”

Leslie’s husband has taken her class for years.

Other styles of yoga abound, but Mr. Iyengar’s method made sense… “We felt no need to continue searching.

Sheri: “It spread by word-of-mouth. People could see we were feeling better. And we were going to workshops and bringing in guest teachers. There was enthusiasm, and it was exciting, interesting, and it caught people’s attention.” 

“Students see we continue to learn.”

Leslie:  “Now my  friends, say “I should have been doing yoga all this time.””

“We all realize that promotions don’t really work; it is by word of mouth that people come.”

“Our sincerity protected us”, Donna quoting Swami Radha.

 

PART TWO:  FIRST ENCOUNTERS WITH  GURUJI

The conversation with the group continued 20 October 2023. All but Donna were present.

Sheri went to India in 1979. She arrived in Pune and walked to the Iyengar home.  Geeta answered the door. Geeta gave her a class schedule and said to come back on Monday. That first day, that first class, she walked into the yoga hall with her shoes on. She certainly heard about that from Guruji. “Go down, go down!” he shouted. In class she found she had trouble with his accent. Sheri said she took it as it came; she didn’t know anyone; no other westerners were there, and the Indian students were busy with their lives.

She was appalled at the toilets. Now there is a big expansion in the women’s change room.

Marlene Miller went to Pune for the first time in 1982 for a three-week intensive organized by Shirley Daventry French. She was put into a certain spot in the middle of the room and there she stayed. There were no mats, just lines on the floor. When Guruji came in she was surprised that he wasn’t taller because his presence was huge. “I was overwhelmed. The third week, I finally started to relax. It was partly culture shock and partly ‘Mr. Iyengar’ shock. There was a lot of yelling, and a ceaseless litany of instructions would be given.”

For some of us, our first encounter was in 1984 at the first international yoga convention in San Francisco. Leslie recounted that she was a student in San Francisco with the “C” group (people were assigned to groups based on experience). Mr. Iyengar came into the class and found a lot of the people had problems. He showed his compassionate side. He opened his heart each time and he helped those in need. Marlene Mawhinney recounted that in her class at the San Francisco convention, Mr. Iyengar hit the roof when the person teaching was supposed to be doing Pranayama, but instead was doing intense back bends. Some of us noticed there was a lot the contention with Victor VanKooten and others. It was difficult to hear this and we wondered what was going on.

After California, Guruji came to Canada. Margot was to teach in Edmonton in front of him with Liz McLeod. As soon as she started the first pose, Utthita Parsvakonasana, he said “Enough!” An improvised stage was put up and he taught. After Edmonton, he came to Victoria. Marlene Miller said as she began teaching, she hoped he would stop her quickly. Marlene Mawhinney said, “I anticipated he would take over, so I wasn’t too worried.”

People were not accustomed to someone like Mr. Iyengar, who was so strong. We were not used to being reprimanded in front of our students. There is one example that happened in Canada; the teacher was stunned by being so harshly criticized. Rajvi commented, “The message came back to all of us in India; we learned: ‘don’t be casual.”

The following year, in 1985, Margot was in Pune for a Canadian intensive. She was shaking on her way to the first class going up the steps to the yoga hall. By chance, Guruji  was behind her and likely sensed her anxiety. He said to her, “This is it!”  When Geeta was teaching at that Canadian intensive, Guruji would start shouting, and she would yell back. And he would shout over her, and then, finally, Geeta would say, “Listen to my father.”

Margot asked Geeta a question and Geetaji sharply replied, “Have you read my book?”

Marlene Mawhinney: “India taught me so much.”

We have learned that Guruji was always instructing differently as he continued to learn from his own practice. We just did it!

Margot learned to always expect it to be new. Margot noted that she had many influences in her teaching, and at first was adding in other styles. But she realized that to really follow Mr. Iyengar’s method, one couldn’t stay on the surface, one had do dive down more deeply. So, her teaching was changing, and it became more efficient.

We were realizing we knew nothing. We had to teach from our own experience and by observing the students. Following Guruji’s method meant teaching from the heart, not mechanically, and not to waste time. When he taught, there was a strong flow of instruction; it helped people experience the pose.

Marlene Mawhiney: “It always seemed that Guruji gave me the next instruction I needed to learn to move the next level.”

 

HOW DID WE GET INTO TEACHING?

Marlene Miller said she wanted to change her occupation. When she met Hilda Pezzaro, who was teaching in the Iyengar yoga style, she was very inspired, and then went to the Yasodhara Ashram, where she met Shirley Daventry French. Marlene wanted to learn from Shirley, so she moved from Alberta to Victoria to apprentice with her.

Margot took an early yoga training program in Calgary, but it was a ‘mish-mash’. But that changed after her first visit to Pune in 1985.

Marlene Mawhinney had already been teaching one method, but when she introduced Mr. Iyengar’s style of teaching, her students didn’t like it. She changed from sweet and nice to teaching strongly in the Iyengar style.

Sheri: “In Winnipeg there was a large community of teachers, and a lot of diverse styles and approaches.  Guruji’s influence was not accepted by all. The group split apart, but Sheri and Karen Fletcher carried on with teaching Iyengar yoga.”

 

SETTING UP THE CANADIAN ASSOCIATION

In 1987, Guruji was in Boston and had a meeting with the Canadian teachers there. Guruji said we must organize and work together in Canada. From 1987 onwards, we started to meet annually. We had a lot of meetings! It was a big undertaking. Independently, we researched what other countries were doing. In 1993 when he came to Toronto, Guruji said we had to start certifying teachers. This met with resistance and there was lots of disagreement. Not everyone believed that this was needed. In 1997 he certified 11 of us so there would be a core group to carry on with future assessments. The first group requirements were: we had to be over 50, had to have been to Pune several times in the previous five years, and had to have been teaching for ten years.

These eleven were: Shirley Daventry French, Bruce and Maureen Carruthers, Marlene Mawhinney, Ingelise Nherlan, Margot Kitchen, Marie-Andrée Morin, Leslie Hogya, Sheri Berkowitz, Marlene Miller, and Hilda Pezzaro. The first Canadian assessment took place in Vancouver in 1998.

 

Several members of the first Canadian assessment team | 1998 | L to R: Leslie Hogya, Marlene Miller, Shirley Daventry French, Marlene Mawhinney, Ingelise Nherlan, Hilda Pezzaro, Maureen Carruthers

 

A tremendous amount of work took place to make a structure for certification. It was a rich time. We learned together and practised together as we travelled across the country each year to different areas. Our first organization was called the Canadian Iyengar Yoga Teachers’ Association. We became a legal Canadian Society in 2000.  In 2005, we changed our name to the Iyengar Yoga Association of Canada and our new bylaws were in alignment with the Pune Constitution.

 

L to R: Donna Fornelli, Leslie Hogya and Marlene Mawhinney in Pune for the silver Jubilee in the year 2000. All three were part of the original executive of the CIYTA (now IYAC/ACYI)

 

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

How do we get across to younger teachers to not get rigid in our way of teaching?

The pandemic affected everything.

It is a challenge now to go forward and work with beginning teachers.

It is a time of change.

What do people get from yoga when they come?

How do we impart the deeper aspects?

Younger teachers sometimes are too much in their head, and not giving the experience to be in the pose.

Taking time to go over our history is important. Someone might insist that Guruji used to do just this or do it this way or say it that way, but everyone’s memory is different. It is important to remember the roots.  Guruji was not ever just one thing; he never had just one approach or taught just one method of doing a pose.

The influence of Guruji is world-wide. There are interactions with yoga communities in other countries that bind us; there is the emotional factor. This strong feeling has built up and the underlying principles of the philosophy hold.  Guruji quoted Sutra I.33 often to us often: “practise friendliness, compassion, joy…”. We all continue learning. Our legacy is unique.

Rajvi, at the end of the discussions, commented that there is now a push to certify Indian teachers. RIMYI is looking at various models for this.

 

 

For more on the history of Iyengar yoga in Canada, check out our History page under the ‘Iyengar Yoga’ tab on the IYAC/ACYI website.

 

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