“We are drawn to different teachers for different reasons. To Karin we are drawn for her eye,” Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles Director David Charles said when he spoke about senior Iyengar yoga teacher Karin O’Bannon.
David Charles was one of many lauding O’Bannon at the event where she was the first recipient of the Manouso Manos Leadership Award. Her diminutive and unassuming appearance, dressed in white sari in a house full of celebratory well-wishers, was deceptive for a senior teacher with far-reaching accomplishments.
The award honored the lifetime of service, teaching and influence O’Bannon has contributed to the yoga community. The ceremony itself was a testament to her impact. Although devoted to honoring O’Bannon, it also renewed community, one which she was integral in creating. Strengthening the Iyengar yoga community has always been, and continues to be, part of O’Bannon’s mission.
“Karin’s astute eye for detail penetrates a canvas or a person.”
This was evident as amidst the rumble of voices, people lined up to speak with her. Her eyes focused on each individual as she offered encouragement for upcoming assessments or inquired about lives and practice. When party hosts Ken and Randee Devlin spoke about their teacher, they did so with a sense of devotion, saying they were at her feet. Another testament is evident: an anonymous donor began a scholarship fund in O’Bannon’s name, for students to study with the Iyengars in India.
This devotion was won through skill. And, as Charles pointed out, it was also achieved through attention and love. Charles described O’Bannon as a wildcat, with a tiger’s eye, who sees her students clearly. Also a painter, Karin’s astute eye for detail penetrates a canvas or a person. She has said that she doesn’t remember names very well; she remembers bodies. The bodies O’Bannon remembers include many of the Iyengar yoga teachers who trained at the Los Angeles center, where she was instrumental in creating the center’s teacher training program.
O’Bannon served by teaching teachers, taking a leadership role in the Southern California Institute, spearheading conferences and filling the role of president of the Iyengar National Association of the U.S. (INAUS). In her words, she’s just “been part of it for a long time.” She refrains from taking full credit, commenting on the numerous people who have contributed to the community. Her voice weighted with greater gravity as she honored her teachers, Manouso Manos and B.K.S. Iyengar. One of her comments on Manos is his ability as a teacher and how she has watched him grow. And she herself has grown.
With a glint in her tiger’s eye, she commented on the praise lavished upon her. “While people told a lot of nice stories tonight…some people will tell you I also have some sharp claws.” Sometimes it takes sharp claws to lead.
“– an anonymous donor began a scholarship fund in O’Bannon’s name, for students to study with the Iyengars in India.”
O’Bannon didn’t begin with a desire to become a leader in the yoga community. Always active, after taking a secretarial position, she took a yoga class looking for something to add more physical activity to her life. “If I had known, after the first class, how much yoga would have changed my life, I never would have gone back….It’s a blessing you can’t look into the future.” But O’Bannon has no regrets, and the physical classes brought her to a spiritual practice, as she quoted Iyengar saying it would: “spiritual practice comes from physical being.”
Through the practice, or her personality, she continues her curious, cat-like exploration through teaching and travel. When people comment on her continued sense of adventure at her age (she didn’t give a number, but her carriage and sense of grace evoked someone much younger than any guess could reveal), she expressed puzzlement. “I don’t see that any place in life is one where you can’t grow into new areas and new things.”
Serving and teaching in Los Angeles has given way to other adventures and explorations. Karin galvanized the Iyengar community in Orange County in 2001, before a swami’s invitation to teach in India initiated a move to Swargashram in Rishikesh. There, she teaches daily to students from all over the world. Still, this tiger is planning her next migration. After being feted in Los Angles, she was off to a teaching engagement in Malaysia. Then O’Bannon is preparing to move back to the U.S. to join her daughter and granddaughter in Shreveport, Louisiana, where there is currently no Iyengar yoga – at the moment. O’Bannon will change that.
Felicia M. Tomasko is a writer, Ayurvedic practitioner and yoga teacher in Santa Barbara, California.