Both Inspiring and Unsettling, ‘First There is a Mountain’ Gives Inside Look at Iyengar

As the nine-month anniversary of the death of renowned yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar approaches, we revisit a memoir by one of his students

May 20, 2015, will mark the nine-month anniversary of the death of B.K.S. Iyengar, who many consider the father of modern yoga. Iyengar was not a young man; he lived to be 95 years old. Still, his death left a sadness in me. Even though I have never met Mr. Iyengar, or Guruji to his students, his teachings have deeply influenced my life. As a yoga teacher I am obsessed with conscious alignment, and the vast therapeutic effects of a yoga practice. B.K.S. Iyengar paved the way for much of the alignment taught in yoga studios across much of the world today. After Iyengar's death, I found myself revisiting many of the books I have thumbed through over the years. Certainly I've taken my volumes of Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama, and Light on Life (all written by Iyengar) off the shelves. In addition, I found myself rereading Elizabeth Kadetsky's First There is a Mountain Kadetsky's book, published in 2004, circulated through yoga studios for years. This is not simply the story of a woman finding herself as she journeys to India and studies yoga—it is a firsthand account of what it was like to be a student of B.K.S. Iyengar. First There is a Mountain is part memoir, part history lesson, part fangirl fodder. The yoga Kadetsky describes through her book is simultaneously inspiring and unsettling. Iyengar seems both a hero and a villain, as does yoga itself, imposed upon Kadetsky's vulnerable frame when she arrives in India. Seeking spiritual fulfillment while battling an eating disorder, the narrator left me wondering if yoga was really healing her at all through much of the early part of the book.
Iyengar seems both a hero and a villain, as does yoga itself, imposed upon Kadetsky's vulnerable frame when she arrives in India.
Interlaced through the personal story of the author are lessons in the history of yoga and the life of Iyengar. The book's categorization as a memoir makes one point clear: This book comes from Kadetsky's recollections of what she's learned through her studies. It's through her lens. Legend and history become entangled and the details are hard to suss out. But I easily forgive the ambiguity, as it seems to me that the author's experience of seeking the true history of yoga and her teacher was equally murky. This is not a history book, certainly, but it is an insider's peek into Pune. Reading it I feel both more connected and less connected to yoga. I marvel at the differences between an average American yoga class and the stringent teaching of Iyengar and his students in India. In the end, I am inspired by Kadetsky's personal journey of healing, and by her time in India. I'm left both satisfied and deeply wanting to understand more. I am reminded of the vastness of yoga, and of its roots, which I am so grateful to have grown from. — elizabeth-crisciElizabeth Crisci is a yoga teacher and artist in Fairfield County, Connecticut. She is the creator of Love by E, handmade gemstone mala and jewelry. She teaches in workshops, special events, and trainings in the Northeast in addition to a range of regular, weekly classes. She teaches smart and accessible yoga designed to make you feel good. She loves every minute of her work. You can find her writing and her teaching schedule on her website.