Royce auditorium at UCLA was packed to overflowing. It was the night the most famous yogi in the world, teacher of the violinist Jasha Heifetz, author of Light on Yoga, and the most influential book ever written on yoga, came to Los Angeles. The year was 2005. People weren’t afraid of crowds then. Oklahoma had happened. 9-11 had happened. But homegrown acts of violence were few and far between. There were no armed guards, no metal detectors, and no hint of fear in anyone’s face.
I was sitting way in back and way up high with my friend Sarah and her friend Michael. All the famous yogis in town were there. There are a lot of famous yogis in Los Angeles. All the less famous yogis were there too. Even more of them. On stage were the movie star yogis, one or two dressed ceremonially bowing hands together in Namaste. A lot of speakers came on and said laudatory things. We had been there about half an hour when a voice came over the loud speaker. We were told to evacuate the auditorium. And we hadn’t even gotten to see the great man himself.
I have thought about the fire drill often, and especially these days, when people are so jumpy. When the world is so scary. A very dear friend of mine was caught last spring in a stampede in Penn Station when somebody thought a gun had gone off. She abandoned her suitcase and ran. It still freaks her out when she thinks of it.
That night, nobody ran. Nobody looked worried, nobody seemed to be in a rush, there was no pushing, no panic, the Royce Auditorium at UCLA which was packed to capacity, all filed out peacefully and we stood in little clusters in front of the building, schmoosing, waving to people we knew.
Then just as unceremoniously, everybody started filing in Royce Hall again. We found our place high high up in the highest balcony, and the auditorium was quiet again.
At last the great man himself appeared.
All eyebrows and fluid motion, in a soft colorful loose fitting outfit of bloomers and scarves in orange and white silk. BKS, moved with the grace and ease of a happy child. In fact, that’s what he seemed like, a happy grey haired child with floppy cartoonish eyebrows set loose upon us. He smiled. He touched his palms together; he bowed to us and said some words about his new book Light on Life. He was old and these were his final words on the ancient practice he had made so famous. And of course so lucrative for so many people. Then he bowed again and thanked us. Everyone in the audience gave him a thundering, cheering standing ovation.
Honestly it was pagan worship but I have nothing against paganism and neither did anyone else in the audience. Certainly not Mr. Iyengar who was perfectly comfortable being worshiped.
With its huge population of entertainers and want-to-be entertainers LA has always been a magnet for the cult, be it scientology, yoga, or nutrition. Where after all did the first yogi in the US find his home when he arrived at the turn of the twentieth century? High above the Pacific Coast Highway, of course. And his fellowship is still operating. I haven’t been to its wonderful garden since the big drought of the past years or perhaps more importantly the advent of Henry in my life. Unlike India, the homeland of Paramahansa Yogananda and Mr. Iyengar, dogs are not allowed to roam free in the garden.
Twelve years have passed since Mr. Iyengar came to town and Royce Hall evacuated peacefully and then filed back in to the see the great proponent of modern yoga who died a few years later. When he passed on, all the yoga studios put out shrines with candles and flowers.
There are shrines all over the country now, in Texas, in Nevada, in Colorado for various acts of violence. Ones that keep coming, gaining force…
Mr. Iyengar’s shrines, as well as his memory, are a beacon of hope for us all in these times when none of us are easy, when we’ve all forgotten what it’s like to feel really safe.
Illustration by the fabulous Aimee Levyby