The importance of compassionate, non-judgmental self perception

Interview with Marta Rodríguez Mahou, Part 2

dibujo © Victor  Van Kooten

dibujo © Victor Van Kooten


“When you’ve been trained in an educational model based on copying and obeying, it’s very difficult to change that into one of “perceiving and deciding” for yourself, but it’s a fascinating journey. It’s the future of yoga”


“Listen to your body; use your brain when your body doesn´t understand” This is a teaching of B.K.S Iyengar’s during a master class, yet the whole class is a sequence of martial orders. How to find the balance between military control and dancing freely? 

(By) Creating a space of introspection and practice that aids and invites students to investigate on their own, without imposing anything on them... creating a space of trust where students feel protected by their teacher’s company, experience and presence.

Patricia Walden, cofounder of the B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, comments in an interview that in the 8 years she attended BKS Iyengar’s classes, he never once uttered a word to her. Patricia notes that as long as she got Guruji’s attention, she didn’t mind that he would kick her while she was doing Sirsasana II (headstand).

Patricia Walden, a magnificent asana practitioner, very slim and with visually spectacular asanas, was continually, publically mistreated by Iyengar. He would have her demonstrate a pose and make her hold it for a very long time while he criticized details of her impeccable asanas… and he used to do that to all of us, truth be told, more to the women than to the men. Iyengar said it was the way to break our egos…

“Psychologically I´m going to break you down”, he told her.

That is what he did (with good intentions, of course, lord, the meaning that that sentence holds!)  I clearly remember once when I was in the pose of ardha chandrasana, holding it for what seemed to me an eternity, without daring to stop although I was trembling from exhaustion. He came over to me and looked me right in the eye and said, “Now you can’t escape, you can’t run away”.

In his speech to the IYAUS (Iyengar Association of the United States) Abhijata Iyengar shows photographs of his grandfather pushing his thoracic spine in Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend). What’s your opinion of a teacher who makes well-intentioned violent adjustments?

I’ve witnessed violent adjustments that may have led to injuries and I know a certain old student from Pune well who has permanent injury to his spine. I also saw Iyengar adjusting his own daughter so violently that I never went to Pune again. In those days it seemed “normal” for us to be treated like that, to be taught with shouts and to be very stressed during classes. We have to keep in mind that   we’re analyzing the pedagogy of the 70s, 80s and 90s from our current perspective; at that time, at least in Spain (and I know for a fact that in many other countries) parents and teachers used methods to teach that would be unthinkable today, that would even be considered criminal, like (physical or psychological) abuse.  It was the pedagogical system in vogue at that time. Seen with today’s eyes, nearly all religious schools could be suspected of criminal action, as would ballet and gymnastics schools and so on.

So, when judging past events in light of our current understanding and the most forward looking teaching methods, we have to assess why we would do something like that.  I think self-criticism by the yoga collective is fine, but it must be to ensure that our masters’ degrading and obsolete behavior is never repeated again, not now, not in the future.  This should be the spirit of the criticism and we have to be careful not to turn it into a witch hunt…

That doesn’t mean that those people who suffered abuse (primarily sexual but also physical leaving long-term damage) at the hands of their yoga instructors shouldn’t report it. They should report it and make it public; those who have done so are brave and have all my support and respect. These reports have to serve so that it never happens again and of course for the perpetrators to assume their personal and/or legal responsibility if the crime can still be prosecuted...  

 What’s your opinion of the concept of omnipotent master who can read a body’s own interoceptive messages?

I believe that it’s insolence, arrogance on the part of the master. It’s one thing to see from the outside that a student is on the verge of an injury, perhaps due to lack of sensitivity, to hyper mobility or to the need to feel intensely, and to intervene by suggesting, not imposing, some other option, with compassion. It’s another to assume that you know more about students’ interoceptive sensations than they themselves do. I have to recognize that in the Iyengar system we were trained for this: to impose a way of practicing on students where “we know” and students do not; that is, to teach on the basis of submission, to a greater or lesser degree, with the safe conduct symmetry and alignment as sacrosanct, exactly the same for everyone  …

Actually, when I was starting out, I was a bit like that and took on that role … Through my own practice,  by analyzing my sensations and keeping up with research to stay on top of new advances in understanding the human body and neuroscience, as soon as I became aware of my error, I rectified and I continue to rectify, since every now and then if I’m not paying close attention, a burst of Iyengar slips out of me; I generally apologize when I realize it.

 Do you believe that the Iyengar system can mean a loss of confidence in bodily self perception?

Not only a loss of confidence in perception but the loss of perception itself. It happened to me. Through the body taming I voluntarily submitted to for years, training to raise my threshold of pain to excessively high levels, I experienced an enormous loss of sensitivity. It was sort of like being slightly anaesthetized. It was (and still is) a great effort to feel myself again…. and I verbalize this frequently in my classes.  The importance of feeling again, perceiving oneself compassionately and non-judgmentally, accepting one’s own structure and its peculiarities, how damaging hyper-mobility and excessive flexibility are…

I first heard the word compassion in association with yoga when I met with Donna Farhi again many years after we had been in Iyengar training together in San Francisco. It was in a course she taught in Edinburgh entitled “Yoga and Compassion”, which was tremendously revealing and profound for me. Donna is a pioneer in this new pedagogical model for teaching yoga, a brave and intelligent woman. I’ve invited her to teach in Madrid several times. 

When you’ve been trained in an educational model based on imitation and obedience, it’s very difficult to change that to “perceiving and deciding” for yourself, but it’s a fascinating journey. It’s the future of yoga.

What’s somatic dominance?

Somatic dominance is everything I described earlier, that is, pedagogy where the teacher imposes his/her criteria on the body and mind of the student on the assumption that the teacher is the one who knows and who therefore subjects the student to his/her criteria on how the asanas should be done. It’s an intrusion on student independence (“somatic dominance” is a term coined by Matthew Remski to describe this situation). Currently there’s great controversy with regard to adjusting, about how to correct manually, by touching. There are people who do not like being touched; it’s invasive or disturbing for them. In many places (especially in the USA, Australia, etc.) the use of consent cards has spread. This is a kind of card that the student places on his/her mat to expressly authorize the teacher to use touch to correct or adjust a posture. It’s a direct consequence of the abuse that has been detected in methods of violent adjustment based on obsolete teachings.

How can yoga be disconnected from a whole system that is a hierarchical pyramid, the Iyengar family cult dynamic?

By doing just what some of us are doing, and there are more of us every day: honestly reviewing the origin of our training with our masters, rectifying it, accepting and recognizing the good in that learning, of which there is a lot, and recognizing both our own errors as well as those of our masters, analyzing and understanding why, at a certain time, we chose that system, and avoiding perpetuating its negative aspects. Perhaps eliminating the ancestral lineage system of yoga, reviewing the student-teacher relationship, eliminating the frequently toxic and outdated vestiges of the guru-disciple relationship (toxic at least for Western thinking, with its parent child connotations…). That unconditional surrender that assumes the guru never makes mistakes and is nearly a divinity, while the student is a servant, subject in body and soul, must be questioned.

Yoga has always evolved according to the socio-cultural context where it develops. There is no authentic yoga or fake yoga. The definition and evolution of yoga has always been contextualized and must continue that way, with traces of tradition in an updated version. That should be our task, that of the “elders” passing on (their knowledge) to the next generation, without fanaticism but with great self-criticism and honesty...

Interview with Marta R. Mahou, Part 1: Yoga without authoritarianism


Marta Rodríguez Mahou has taught yoga for 37 years. In her classes, she talks about questioning certainties, dialoguing with your groin, the weight of an astronaut’s bones. “Don’t force lengthening; your breathing itself is what creates space. If you apply tremendous force, what you create is deafness,” she asserts. Marta Mahou’s style of yoga has evolved towards one that is less authoritarian, which doesn’t seek the perfect posture but rather to listen to one’s own body.

Interview by Rocío Westendorp
Translated into English by JoAnne Hadden and Rosemary Samalot Amils
Copyright © Marta Mahou 2019