An Interview with Leslie Peters

Bee Ottinger interviewed Leslie Peters on January 17, 2015 at the B.K.S. Iyengar Institute in Los Angeles.

Bee: How did you get started with yoga?

Leslie Peters

Leslie:For Christmas in 1990 I was given a gift certificate for an Introductory Course and a month of unlimited classes at the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles.  On January 9, 1991, I found myself in the company of a dozen people of all sizes and ages, sitting in a circle on the floor sharing our names, degree of yoga experience, as well as our list of aches, pains, and injuries.  Gloria Goldberg was our teacher, and after everyone had spoken she made the following statement; “Yoga will change your life.  I don’t know how and I don’t know when, but I promise you it will.”  I remember thinking, “Well, it probably won’t change my life.”

My initial impression of yoga was that it was difficult - both physically and mentally.  I was used to taking aerobics classes at a gym with fast movements and loud music, so the deliberate actions and slower pace of yoga made me antsy at first.  Also, because I am not naturally flexible, I found the stretching to be very challenging and quite painful.  I stuck with it though, because the headache I had been experiencing every day for 6 months straight was going away.

Bee:  How did you become the Director of IYILA?

Leslie: About two years after that first fateful class, Gloria, who had been the Institute’s Director, decided to move to the San Diego area and open up her own studio.  I had just completed a Master’s degree in Communications Management and was thinking about my next career move.  Long after Sue Garfield (then President of the Board of IYASC) approached me about stepping into the job and I had accepted it, she told me that someone on the Board heard that I had just gotten an MBA, and that’s why they thought I was the right person for the job.  I didn’t know the first thing about how to run a business.

Bee: You were the Director for 11 years.  How did you shape IYILA while you were there?

Leslie: I didn’t have any formal business administration training, so I just went in and followed my instincts.  At the very beginning, I wasn’t conscious of having a particular agenda for IYILA, I just wanted to make sure the doors stayed open.  In retrospect, it’s clear that the main motivation behind everything I did was to create a sense of community in that special space.  In a huge, rambling city like Los Angeles, I wanted the Institute to be a place where people would feel welcome and comfortable, so that they could enjoy a full exploration of  the art, science, and philosophy that is Iyengar Yoga.  The bottom line is that the Institute has Guruji’s name on it, so I felt that it was incumbent upon us as teachers and administrators to do our best to faithfully represent his integrity, compassion, joy, and love of yoga.

I also wanted the Institute to be a supportive and nurturing place for the people I considered the most important of all - the teachers.  I was very clear then, as I still am today, that without the teachers, there is no IYILA.  One of the first things on my agenda was to meet with each teacher to learn about what was and wasn’t working for them, as well as discuss their ideas and concerns.  I tried my best to accommodate them.  While not making any specific promises, I knew that as soon as the Institute’s financial picture brightened, the very first thing I would do was give the teachers a raise.  That remained true throughout my years there; whenever I could, I bumped up their pay.  I could go on for days about what is required in order to be a yoga teacher and how much respect I have for the profession, but let’s just leave it at this:  I still believe the teachers at IYILA are underpaid!

In addition to developing the community within the walls of IYILA, I was also interested in carving out our place in the community that was our immediate neighborhood.  I met the business owners who shared the block with us, sometimes because I stopped in, but more often because one of our student’s had parked in one of their parking spots.  I did a lot of apologizing in the first years - the parking over there was a nightmare - but overall, the relationships were strong.  A few shop owners even came in to take classes.  Over time it felt like a little piece of Mayberry right in the heart of Los Angeles.

Those are examples of the intangible ways I attempted to change the Institute.  The degree to which I was successful in bringing my vision to life is for others to say.  On a more tangible level, I was able to oversee lots of changes to the physical plant itself.

Bee:  How was the Board of Directors of IYASC involved?

Leslie: I was quite fortunate that the Board who hired me trusted me to get the job done without much day-to-day involvement.  I met with the Board to report on IYILA’s financial health as well as the plans I had to improve things, but Sue Garfield, who was the President during those crucial first years of my Directorship, offered support when needed but never got in the way of me or my work.  At that time, the Board’s focus relative to IYILA was in fundraising.  They held fundraising events and those funds went to IYILA so I could make much needed renovations to the space.  Based on the results of a poll I conducted with our students, I started with the outside of the building, which looked abandoned from the front.  We painted the storefront, fixed the broken panes of glass, and Richard McLaughlin (a gifted artist and certified teacher who lives and teaches in Santa Barbara) made the most spectacular sign for us, which was the crowning touch.  Over time there were all sorts of interior renovations: the walls were painted, the carpeting was replaced, the asana room floors were refinished (a number of times), beautiful custom prop cabinets were installed, the office was re-done, and the bathrooms were upgraded - you name it.

Bee:  How did you become a teacher?

Leslie: When I started my tenure at the Institute, I was not a teacher, and I had no interest in becoming a teacher.  In fact, when Gloria suggested that I join the Teacher Training Program, I told her “thanks, but no thanks”, because I didn’t want to become a teacher.  Famous last words…  She said that wasn’t a problem because it was for aspiring teachers and “serious students,” so I joined the program in 1993 with the express purpose of simply learning more about yoga.  That coincided with my becoming the Director.  Talk about baptism by fire!

After about 9 months in the program, I went to Pune to study and left IYILA in the hands of a fellow teacher and friend, Carol Fridolph(now living and teaching in Florida).  While I was away, Carol decided to put me on the schedule because she thought it was about time I started teaching.  I never would have made that move myself, but decided to just go with it.  I wasn’t officially certified until 1995, but back then, because there weren’t that many certified teachers, we could teach at the Institute if we were working toward certification.  Sue Garfield (also not yet certified) and I shared a class by teaching every other week - it was like the wild west back then!

I was a member of the Teacher Training Program’s second graduating class. By the time we reached the end of the program, we had all become certified teachers.  Back then, the third year students had their own, separate weekend retreat with Manouso, and it was there that he made a little speech to us that has remained with me all these years.  He said that each of us had a particular gift to bring to our teaching, and that we should use our gift rather than try to emulate someone else’s style.  That meant a lot to me, and I still think about that speech every now and then.  Teachers are individuals and their teaching should reflect that.  Being yourself does not mean you have to sacrifice the integrity of the practice. The poses themselves are done in a particular way -- the legs are straight in Utthita Trikonasana -- but you don’t have to instruct in the same way anybody else does.  People will find the teachers that they like and whose style resonates with them. The most effective teaching comes from being connected to yourself, so that your teaching is authentic.  Students can sense that.

Bee: Speaking of a style in teaching, your style is very disciplined, you demand a lot. But Mr Iyengar, you, and a lot of yoga teachers get away with it because your care for the students and the underlying warmth is so obvious.

Leslie: I wonder about that.  Do I demand a lot?  Sometimes I don’t think I’m demanding enough!  Yoga is a discipline; it’s a practice.  I think that sometimes people may feel criticized in a yoga class, especially in an Iyengar yoga class.  As teachers, we are encouraging but we don’t want to sacrifice the integrity of the practice for the ego of our students, or to become popular.  In order for the student to really progress, there has to a connection with the yoga, not with the teacher.

I like to think I have a lot of compassion for all of us humans who are trying to get through life with a modicum of grace and equanimity.  Life is full of challenges and change; our minds provide us with endless challenges, and our bodies challenge us as well.   I know that change and transformation are often quite difficult, but if you understand that change is going to be a process,  and that things may get a bit uncomfortable in places, then you won’t  be surprised and/or resistant when the going gets rough.  We all have evidence that we can adapt to change.  If you think back to your first yoga class and how strange it felt to line your feet up for standing poses and compare it to how it feels now, you can begin to chart your own evolution.  I have to believe that each student who comes to one of my classes is dedicated to change, because Gloria was absolutely correct when she said that yoga changes us.   It’s a courageous act of faith to be an Iyengar yoga student, to come before a teacher, wearing very little, and agree to be challenged and supported in the process of making change.  Anytime you stand before a teacher as a student, there’s a tacit agreement that you trust the teacher and you are willing to do what they instruct you to do.  If you don’t trust your teacher in that way, you need to find someone else to study with.

If you are in my class, I assume that you are giving me permission to correct and adjust you. The student’s job is to pay attention and to follow to the best of their ability.  My job as a teacher is to keep my students safe and help them learn.

Bee:  Please describe your direct experiences (times] with Mr. Iyengar.

Leslie: The first time I met Mr. Iyengar was at the 1993 Convention in Ann Arbor.  I would have been perfectly content to stay in the background and not actually meet him, but I was running his Institute at the time, and he needed to see who I was.   Manouso made sure to formally introduce us - emphasizing that I was the Director of IYILA.  Based on our 5 seconds together, I decided that Mr. Iyengar had little to no interest in me - and I was just fine with that!

My next encounter was later that year when I traveled to Pune and attended public classes.  I traveled there with someone who had experienced a dramatic health scare and he was assigned to the medical classes.  Iyengar told me to come with him to assist.  I had no idea what I was in for!  Those medical classes were wild, with students and assistants all over the place and Geeta and Guruji walking through and adjusting.  Mr. Iyengar would assign us a pose and we would do our best to do what we thought he wanted and then he would come back and yell at me for setting it up incorrectly.  What I didn’t know at the time was that Mr. Iyengar frequently yelled at the assistants so that the actual medical students would shape up.  I’m not sure if knowing that would have made me feel any better.  

During the trip, I had another encounter with him that was quite memorable.  It was during one of Geeta’s classes and we were doing Urdhva Mukha Svanasana.  She had us doing all kinds of variations and at that moment, I was on the floor getting ready to do the unsupported, classic version.  She called the pose and because I was tired, I decided I was going to take a nice deep breath before I went into the pose.  As I started my big breath, the next thing I knew, I was in the pose.  What I didn’t know was that B.K.S Iyengar was standing next to me and he had decided that I wasn’t getting into the pose fast enough.  He put his foot into my tailbone, pushed forward and moved me into the pose. And I didn’t feel it! It was as if it just happened.  His foot was faster than my consciousness.  He scowled down at me and said, “She said Urdhva Mukha Svanasana.” And he walked away.  I thought, “yep, that’s right, she did.”  So when I tell people that Mr. Iyengar literally kicked me in the butt, they think that’s so shocking and horrible. But in fact, that action went past my mind, way past my ego, and got me into probably the best version of the pose that I’d ever been in.

Three years later, I went back to Pune.  I arrived 10 days after I had a stone removed from my left kidney.  Although I felt fine, I told Geeta about it, just in case.  She told me to do my standing poses at the trestler (the horse).  When class started, I headed over to the horse. As he often was, Guruji was positioned right next to it, doing some heavily weighted version of Supta Virasana. He looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with you?”  I told him and after that I did not study with Geeta again for that month. I was his.  It just so happened that one of India’s national soccer players was in class that night and he had a stone in his right kidney.  He put the two of us through our paces!  At the end of that class, he told me to come to the medical class.  Yikes.

It turns out that it’s much different when you are a student in the medical class, and it was in this setting that I really felt his love and compassion.  He put me in a very deep, supported  version of Ubhaya Padagusthasana that made me feel a very particular pain in what felt like the exact place that the stone had grown.  He told me to stay for five minutes.  The pain made me feel very sad, and big hot tears began to slowly roll down my cheeks.  At exactly five minutes, he was back.  I saw him look at my streaky face and he said, “I think that was a very good pose, no?”  “Yes,” I said, “very good.”   He then told me to set up for Paschimottanasana, (extreme forward bend), not exactly my best pose.  I got into it as best I could and he came over and sat on my back so that his sitting bones were positioned at my kidneys.   He then took hold of my upper arms, lifted me up and stretched me forward until the middle of my forearm was resting on my toes.  On a good day, I can hold my wrists in the pose, and he moved me so that my hands were 6 inches beyond my feet.  I was amazed and felt perfectly fine. He got off my back and said, “Five minutes; don’t move!” I didn’t dare move because I thought I might shrink back to my old pose.  When five minutes had passed, my friend, Jo Zukovich, a teacher in San Diego who had been assigned to me as my assistant, told me to come up.  I looked at her and started to laugh because I’d never been in a pose that deeply, and it was delightful. I looked up, still smiling, and there, of course, was Guruji.  When he saw my smile, he smiled and walked on.  I learned that true compassion isn’t taking someone else’s burden or pain on, or even trying to minimize it, it’s being with the person and supporting them through, and beyond it.    

The most incredible experience I had with him however, was in 1995 when I posed for the book, Yoga: the Path to Holistic Health. I had been selected to be the female model for the book, and traveled to Pune for the photo shoot.  My male counterpart and I  spent a week in a very small photography studio with Guruji there every minute, working 10 hours a day to get the project done.  My favorite way to describe the experience is that it was like taking “Physics 101” and then going to Einstein and attempting to explain the Theory of Relativity to him.  We would do a pose and Mr Iyengar, seated about five feet away from the platform we were on, would get up from his chair, come over and adjust us - over and over, all day long. Sometimes his adjustments were very strong and sometimes I could barely feel them.

My biggest yoga triumph happened when I was being photographed in Sirsasana.  That pose had been my nemesis for years.  Because of my history of whiplash injuries, Manouso and I worked very hard to strengthen my neck so that I could do it without hurting myself.  I used to watch my classmates go into headstand in the middle of the room and I would get really angry.  It looked so easy for them.  How could that be?  I’m not kidding when I say it took a lot of sweat and a bunch of tears before I got there, but eventually I did.  When I stood in headstand in front of Mr Iyengar, he came up to me and I braced myself for a bunch of corrections, but all he did was gently run his finger up my scapula and in a very quiet voice he said, “this has to lift.”  

There were so many important lessons I received during that week with him.  One of the first things I saw was how protective he was of me.  On the first day of the shoot, I noticed that there was a group of men hanging around the studio.  Guruji kicked them out when he realized they didn’t have anything to do but check out the scantily (by Indian standards) clad American woman.  I watched him give instructions to the photographer about how to frame shots so that everything remained “modest.”

The other big lesson was I finally realized that when he gave me an instruction, he was not speaking to me, my personality, or who I thought I was. He was speaking to the part of my body that was dull in order to awaken the dormant awareness. He was waking me up: sometimes with a feather, and sometimes with a jackhammer.  That was the most valuable gift of that experience and put everything in the proper context.  You really have to move your ego aside so that you can receive the teaching, otherwise you interpret it as a judgment and the ego rejects it.

Mr. Iyengar’s legacy

Bee: Mr Iyengar has said that when he started researching yoga, and the poses, that every yogi did something different. He consolidated it, but there has always been a rich tradition of individual variations and time. It has always evolved. So as we go forward without Mr Iyengar on this earth…

Leslie: Mr Iyengar left so much for us. He was so far ahead of the rest of us, we may never catch up with what he left behind. He was the absolute pioneer, the absolute champion of modifying poses, changing them and developing them - and they changed.  For example, the distance between the feet in Trikonasana changed--it widened, it shortened, then it widened, because he was always exploring.  Exploration is what he encouraged in each of his students, not necessarily to change the pose, but to change our experience of ourselves in the pose.  Changing things around just for the sake of changing them is of no value.  We know that any changes Guruji made were done as a result of a new understanding that grew out of decades of direct experience through his daily practice.  None of us has that depth of knowledge.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t explore the poses in creative ways - your practice is all yours - I just think we should be rigorous in our examination of any changes we might consider making in our teaching of the asanas.  The integrity of the practice must be maintained.   

Dispelling misconceptions about Iyengar yoga in L.A.

Bee:There are a lot of preconceptions about Iyengar yoga in L.A. Some people are intimidated because it seems so foreign and Indian and because we have a reputation of being very strict. How would you address someone who is considering Iyengar yoga?

Leslie: Well, I think you address it by example. I remember when I took over the Institute and people used to comment on how “mean” the Iyengar yogis were. They would say that our practice was just physical, and all about alignment, that we were “harsh,” “dictatorial,” “unyielding,” and “arrogant.”  One of the best responses I ever heard about Iyengar yoga’s focus on the physical came from Guruji himself.  I believe it was in Ann Arbor, during a Q& A session.  He said, “When you sit in a chair, what sits: your body, your mind, or your soul?”  Then he paused, smiled and said, “How can you separate these things?”

I also think it’s great that Iyengar teachers are teaching in venues that are not strictly Iyengar. As we go out in the world and people get to experience Iyengar yoga, it demystifies it and gives people a direct experience with the practice. Each teacher has their own appeal, and certain students will be drawn to certain teachers. Nobody disputes the fact that we know what we are talking about.  We are respected for the training we receive, because when students get hurt, they are sent to the Iyengar yogis.  I like to think that our reputation is more well-rounded than it used to be.  We are unparalleled in the area of therapeutics, but we also have so much more to offer to students of all kinds.  I believe friendliness, equanimity, and joy should be part of the Iyengar reputation, too - at least as big a part as anything else is.  Especially the joy.  Joy is vastly underrated!

Leslie Peters served as Director of IYILA from 1993 - 2004.  Certified in 1995, she lives and teaches in Los Angeles.