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Spencer Rendahl: Achieving Surrender

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I walked into Jyoti Hansa’s Thetford yoga class in 1998, unsure of what to expect. I didn’t think she could help me with my tight hamstrings, scoliosis, and level of grace which frequently prompted comparisons to President Gerald Ford . None of a dozen or so other teachers I had tried could.

I quickly discovered that Jyoti was unlike any other teacher I’d ever met. An African-American mother of five, Jyoti started taking yoga in the late 1960s – during the birth of American popular yoga consciousness - after getting bored with working out to Jack LaLanne on TV. She began a 40 year teaching career in 1970 and discovered Iyengar Yoga, an alignment-focused style from India, after picking up a copy of Indian yoga master BKS Iyegar’s seminal book "Light on Yoga" in 1973.

Jyoti never looked back . She met Iyengar in 1974, studied with him during his first US tours, and became a certified Iyengar teacher – one of the most difficult yoga teaching credentials attainable – by Iyengar himself in 1983.

Jyoti’s blunt style and deep knowledge drew me back to class week after week, but far more about her impressed me. Jyoti taught in simple cotton t-shirts and shorts. She had a recommended fee but let anyone come to class. A farmer paid her in vegetables. And at a time when yoga had already become trendy with new age music and “power yoga” themes, she imbued her teaching with stillness, silence, and ancient philosophy.

As I improved, Jyoti encouraged me to teach and travel to study with other teachers, including her former student Patricia Walden, now widely considered one of the top teachers in the United States. Jyoti then cheered me through the multi-year process of becoming a certified Iyengar teacher, myself.

Jyoti suffered from arthritis and heart problems but attended workshops when she could and taught private students from her Thetford apartment in person and over Skype. She hoped that her health would improve this year, but suffered a stroke in late January.

I made my way to her hospital room knowing that her left side was partly paralyzed, yet still uncertain of what to expect. I quickly found that her spirit remained intact; she told me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t recommend aging. I spent about an hour massaging her paralyzed arm and asked if there was anything I could bring her as I left.

"New body,” she replied.

Jyoti always understood that my biggest yoga challenge wasn’t my hamstrings or scoliosis; she saw that I needed to find stillness and softness and encouraged me to see these qualities as sources of strength, not weakness.

“Die daily,” Jyoti instructed, suggesting that I could simply lay down my burdens rather than fight them.

Achieving this surrender helped me not just become a better yoga student and teacher, but also a better friend, sister, daughter, wife, and mother. And it prepared me to sit beside Jyoti in her hospital bed 10 days after that first visit, kiss her forehead, and say goodbye.