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light…on gravitas

In the Upanishads, one of the most ancient texts of Yoga, when asked by his wife to describe what the Absolute (Brahman) is, the sage Vajnavalkaya responds to her by describing instead what God is not. Neti, Neti: neither this, nor that, is the literal translation of this expression. Sometimes the truth can only be found by the negation of all of the other thoughts around it, sometimes it is easier to see clearly what something is by understanding what it is not.

This certainly applies to the concept of gravitas. Gravitas, one of the Roman virtues, ” may be translated variously as weight, seriousness and dignity, also importance, and connotes a certain substance or depth of personality.” We live in a society where style is admired more than substance; where volume is often mistaken for value; celebrity takes precedence over capability; everything is disposable, so no investment is made in what is eternal; exposure is more admired than experience. That is why, when we are presented with someone who really is composed of depth, substance, wisdom, and integrity, the contrast to this pervasive transience is stark—and all that is flimsy and of the surface just falls away. The light of true gravitas is so bright, it dims all the superficiality that surrounds it .

This week the yoga world mourned the loss of one of its last original and true pillars of gravitas, B.K.S. Iyengar. Mr Iyengar, one of the most renowned and revered figures in Yoga, came to America in 1956, and although it took almost a decade for the hundreds of yogasana demonstrations he presented to take hold and gain interest here, now an estimated 20 million Americans practice this ancient art/science/philosophical system in some form, and he is credited as much with yoga’s integrity as with it’s teeming popularity. In 2004, Mr Iyengar made Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people; the 14 books he has published on the his subject have sold millions of copies; Light on Yoga (the veritable bible of asana) sold 3 million alone. These are the types of numbers any PR person would covet, and yet with Iyengar, pith prevailed despite popularity. When some of his own students became famous, often notoriety/celebrity eclipsed their calling; empires imploded or collapsed, causing upset and disillusionment among their following. Throughout it all, in the Iyengar world, the focus stayed on Yoga. Real Yoga. Not Yogalates, Yoga Fusion, or any of the other myriad attempts to make Yoga more marketable; there is a relentless diluting, diffusing and confusing what Yoga is NOT with what it actually IS. And that is a spiritual practice. To Mr. Iyengar, the postures were prayers, the connection between mind, body and spirit immutable, the importance of breath, immeasurable. And of course, the presence of God unmistakable. “Inhale the Lord, exhale service to the world.”

In order to have faith that is unshakable, we need the object of our faith to be unwavering and unassailable. Stable. Strong. Steadfast. Based fully in the earth but always reaching toward the sky. Like a Tada, a mountain. In this regard, Iyengar truly was the last man ( or, if you like, mountain) standing: for teachers, he was the gold standard. In a culture obsessed with youth, Mr Iyengar showed by embodied example that with age comes wisdom, with experience one receives well-earned respect; that years of practice accumulate into a body of work and a life to be admired and aspired to. A man to be honored and awed.

After his passing, on the Iyengar website a quote of his was posted: “Live happily, die magnificently” In my humble opinion, he lived magnificently, too.

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