Remembering Ryan Conrad
By Edward Gardiner, Deborah Morgenthal, and One Center Yoga
Ryan Conrad, our friend, teacher, student, and mentor died peacefully on Thursday, February 23, at 6:40am, after a yearlong illness. Family and close friends gathered at his home in Asheville, NC, and sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as his body was carried away amidst rose petals, tears, and hugs. His body was 38 years old. His essence lives on. Ryan’s yoga story is an extraordinary reminder that the Iyengar method has the capacity to transform our shared and personal journeys through life.
Finding the Iyengar Path
“The light of yoga once lit will never die, the stronger your practice the brighter the flame.” —B.K.S. Iyengar
Ryan’s serious yoga practice began in his early 20s at Lighten Up Yoga in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2002, under the guidance of Lillah Schwartz, who held an Iyengar teaching certificate from 1985 to 2009. She recalls Ryan “… taking that very deep passion and flame and making it his own. Ryan recognized, as many of us do, the value of observation, honesty, and presence in each moment of our practice and our life.”
According to fellow student Letitia Walker, “Ryan’s exuberance was fueled by true dedication and sincerity, tinged with a little goofiness. Lighten Up was a place for serious practice with reverence for the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar. It was the blending of art and science, with the self as the object of study, that fascinated Ryan.”
“Ryan said that the map of his yoga practice allowed him to step through his cancer journey with Grace and a presence of mind that may not have been available to him without it.”
Exceptional Teacher and Student
In 2002 Ryan completed the 250-hour Yoga Alliance teacher training at Lighten Up, and began to teach alignment yoga at One Center Yoga in Asheville, a studio owned and operated by Cindy Dollar, Iyengar certified since 1990. In describing Ryan at that time, Cindy observed “Ryan was in his element when he taught— radiating clarity, strength, and compassion. There was no division between his yoga life and his ‘real’ life.”
“Ryan lived his yoga. He was incredibly devoted to his practice, to his studies, and to his students. As a teacher, he was genuine and taught from his experience while inspiring those around him every day until his last day on Earth. We are all better for it. I am lucky to have practiced with Ryan and will continue to share his asana anecdotes, his good-humor, and his kind-spirit to my students. “
As a work-study student, I used to open the doors at One Center for Ryan’s class on Sunday mornings. I learned fairly quickly that there was a huge bonus available with this job. If I arrived early, there was a good chance I’d be able to practice alongside Ryan or ask a question. I’d try not to interrupt his preparations, but I also knew he truly loved teaching and enjoyed giving feedback. His attention has been critical to my own development as a student.
Martin Fletcher, one of Ryan’s longstanding students, describes his teaching style as precise and passionate, with humorous zeal: “His students were lit up with his infectious fire as he held us in his laser beam and tricked us to go beyond our comfort zones.
Ryan always started his classes by invoking what he referred to as the Authentic Self and called upon his students to serve that which is greater than ourselves. Without fail, those two poles of intention were met by the end of class. He always encouraged us to practice at home, and his great respect for B.K.S. Iyengar was ever present.”
“Six years ago when Ryan was just starting at One Center Yoga, he taught a group of people, who connected with him through his social life, and soon word spread that he was holding classes in the large studio. Before class, we would congregate around Brooke, his beloved wife and a talented artist, to receive the weekly cheat sheet of an asana that she would have drawn of Ryan, with focus arrow demonstrating the action within the asana.
At the end of each class he never failed to encourage us to practice at home; his gentle and repeated nudge has made us fervent and dedicated students of the Iyengar Yoga way. Ryan brought to class his own practice, which was ever new, and the fruits of his intention to share all that provoked his curiosity. He was in many ways a teacher beyond his age in experience, and at his passing, I knew for myself that he would be part of the lineage of great yoga teachers who preceded him. He always invoked with great respect and humility his teacher B.K.S. Iyengar. The care we had for each and everyone in Ryan’s class and the friendship that resulted for many of us is testimony to Ryan’s calling. Simultaneously we found within a deep connected space to an intelligence and clarity that infused our daily lives.”
Deepening His Own Practice
Ryan was committed to learning. He believed that the sustained practice of yoga allowed him to gain a fuller understanding of his strengths and weaknesses—who he was as a person. “Yoga,” he said, “has given me a place of stability to move through life. I am grateful for all of my teachers who continue to humble me with their insights and knowledge.”
In 2005 at the IYNAUS convention in Estes Park, Colorado, Ryan attended an advanced Pranayama workshop led by Mr. Iyengar, who noticed Ryan as he struggled to settle his breathing and release his body in Savasana. Guruji stood over Ryan for at least 20 minutes. This close observation and encouragement ignited Ryan’s own practice and teaching of pranayama, which became subtle and refined.
In 2010, Ryan completed his Doctorate of Physical Therapy at UNC Chapel Hill in order to expand his knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and how to work with a variety of impairments. Applying this training professionally, Ryan worked in a rehabilitation hospital treating patients with neurological and musculoskeletal conditions.
“What I’m most grateful for in the time I knew Ryan was getting to witness him becoming a man: a caring, sensitive, generous, but still fun-loving man. And I know that his growth happened within the context of living a yogic life. I think that the discipline necessary to become such a yogi helped him mature into the man he became, but the love that yoga fosters in a practitioner’s heart helped transform him into the husband, father, and friend he was as well. “
In 2014, Ryan attended a two-week-long class taught in India by Geeta Iyengar. The next year, Cindy recommended Ryan for Iyengar certification, which he earned in 2016, just months before his cancer diagnosis.
Going for Gold
When Ryan decided to pursue Iyengar certification, the entire community was behind him. Cindy said she was honored to recommend him. As Cindy explains: “Every week, Ryan and I met. I watched him hone his teaching skills as he studied systematically and asked specific questions. His poses shaped up and his words sharpened up. He was in his element when he taught. It was clear that yoga was his life and he lived it. He was transparent with no division between his yoga life and his “real” life.”
“Alert, intelligent, and sincere were my initial imprints of this young man who attended our first workshop in Asheville. His eyes, ever open and unwinking, would follow my every move, quietly and quickly absorbing what was taught. He was the kind of fine, sensitive, and thoughtful student every teacher hopes for. Only later when he asked me to be one of his recommending teachers for his Iyengar assessment did I come to know a little more about him and his life. What a fine young man he was and how noble, yogic, and honest as he faced his end. May we all soak ourselves in yoga that much that we might also be able to do as Guruji advised: ‘Live happily and die majestically.’”
A few months before the Iyengar assessment, his son, Harper Reed, was born. Shortly thereafter, Ryan began to experience abdominal pain. He chalked it up to the stress of new fatherhood and soldiered on. Although he worried a bit about the asana portion of assessment, he got on the mat, fortified his skills, taught classes, worked as a physical therapist, and attended workshops. He went up for assessment. He passed. He was ecstatic, thrilled, and proud of his accomplishment. We all were.
The Support of a Community
“I moved to Asheville the month Ryan was diagnosed with cancer. I had the privilege of teaching his Sunday class when he needed me to during his treatments and I was able to hold the space for him when he felt well enough to teach himself. I studied with him several times during his final year and saw his gift at keeping the mind engaged during class. He demonstrated integrity in every interaction we had on and off the mat and inspired me by his steadfast adherence to spiritual principals as he faced most difficult circumstances. We all grew in his presence.”
Then Ryan learned what was wrong: he had advanced pancreatic cancer. Characteristically, he tapped into his inner strength, wisdom, and kindness by going public with the news. With Brooke by his side, he announced the diagnosis at the end of one of his Sunday morning classes. He went public with his dismay, hope, sorrow, and uncertainty of the future. Those of us fortunate enough to be there that morning had our suffering lifted for a time. We consoled one another.
Ryan began weeks of aggressive chemotherapy and alternative modalities. During the next several months, when he had energy between chemo treatments, Ryan taught his classes. He continued to attend yoga workshops and correspond with senior teachers, including Manouso Manos, Dean Lerner, Eddy Marks, and Lois Steinberg. He reached out to family and friends from all over the world. Everyone reached back.
Ryan was deeply moved by the abundant support, generosity, and kindness he received from those close to him, as well as from people he’d never met, whose donations have left a nest egg for his wife and son. As soon as he went public with his illness, donations started coming in. And coming. People who knew someone who knew someone who knew Ryan gave freely to support this remarkable man and his wonderful family. We wanted to show up for someone we could all see didn’t deserve the fate he was handed. There were spontaneous community gatherings to raise funds. We shared stories. We shared our love for Ryan, his wife Brooke, son Harper Reed, and mom, Dianna.
The most obvious lesson I have learned from Ryan’s illness is that our capacity to do good in the world seems to be limitless when we understand the stakes and get involved personally.
The availability and generosity of the IYNAUS community of teachers and practitioners provided tremendous comfort to Ryan and all of us who were supporting him day to day. Throughout his illness, he continued to attend workshops and correspond with senior teachers, including Manouso Manos, Dean Lerner, Eddy Marks, and Lois Steinberg. Cathy Eising, a certified Iyengar instructor, moved to Asheville within a month of Ryan’s diagnosis and was able to hold his teaching spot until he was no longer able to maintain it. Ryan’s chemotherapy and radiation treatments required extended time away from his beloved wife Brooke and son Harper Reed; Graham Williams, owner of the Iyengar Yoga Center of Raleigh, gave him keys to the her studio so he could come and go as he was able. Lois Steinberg’s book and advice were crucial companions. When Randy Loftis joined the team of Iyengar teachers at One Center, he reassured Ryan that his students would continue to receive training. Ryan attended a Manouso Manos workshop midway through his cancer treatment, and later received personal attention from Dean Lerner.
“Ryan was a consummate practitioner and inspiration. His belief in the powers of Iyengar yoga was infectious, even during his health struggles. He took our community as part of his family and allowed us into his heart. He will be deeply missed by all who came in contact with him.”
The Teaching Continues
“I met Ryan when I moved to Asheville this past August. Ryan met with me on several occasions to help me find my way into the yoga community. He was so warm and welcoming. Here he was, fighting this disease, and his concern was for the community and his students. He wanted to make sure his students had a teacher. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to continue teaching and learning from his students. Though Ryan’s physical presence at the studio was rare this past year, his teaching was strong. He continued to share and teach through his journeys and his battle with this disease. He is, in a very real way, still teaching us.”
Ryan as a teacher amplified what I learned from Mr. Iyengar’s writing, and, as result, my practice became regular and more focused, although class work was routinely more intense than my typical home practice—something that all of us appreciated deeply. He pushed us beyond mental limitations; labels such as “muscle-bound”, “overweight”, middle-aged”, and “inflexible” simply were not relevant as he deliberately applied the Iyengar method to teaching, sharing insights won through personal devotion to practice and asking no less of his students.
In the last class he taught in November 2016, Ryan reflected on the cycle of practice and learning. The teacher observes, offers insight, and the student goes home and works with the offering. The student then becomes the teacher, asking questions internally and moving to a new level of understanding. This is the lesson Ryan wanted most to pass on: to use the specificity of alignment cues to deepen your awareness and grow our practice from that center.
Moving Towards Grace
“After his diagnosis, Ryan began the yoga of his life and death, which he approached with the same equanimity and clarity as he approached assessment. He inquired of his teachers, sought out the writings of Mr. Iyengar, and kept on living…right up until his last exhalation. On his bedside altar sat a photo of Guruji in Savasana. I imagine them practicing together on the yoga mat of the great beyond.”
Years of practice prepared Ryan for death. He accepted and spoke openly about his disease. He said cancer was the greatest spiritual teacher he ever had. With a smile, he told us he wished this teacher wasn’t deadly, but its relentless nature required him to pay attention in every moment. His practice shifted from vigor to restraint and eventually to an exclusive focus on Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Showing yogic intelligence, Ryan conserved his energy through the dying process, at the end withdrawing from the attention that so many admirers would willingly have given in order to save precious words and emotions for his wife, son, and mother.
Ryan Conrad’s eyes shone brightly. Facing his own mortality did not diminish the glow. In fact, just the opposite. Confronted with this great adversity, his deep love and practice of Yoga and zest for life seemed to awaken the qualities of his heart and soul. He exuded a joyful peace and knowing. Ryan was a dear member of our Yoga family. May his memory be for a blessing.
When I visited Ryan towards the end, I read to him from Mr. Iyengar’s translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and we discussed Light on Life, one of the few books he was able to continue reading even as his energy faded. We agreed that its clarity delivered a penetrating, life-affirming message. Facing his own death, Ryan never stopped being Ryan—selfless, whole, loving, and joyous.
Ryan once told me that a student at the Estes Park convention yawned during one of Guruji’s speeches. Although the person was far from the central stage, Mr. Iyengar saw and made it clear to everyone that it was important to pay attention because he would not be around forever. In the last class Ryan taught, he caught me yawning and called me out. I hear you, Ryan, and yes, I do miss you. I cherished Ryan. I am his student. I will always be his student.
–Ryan Conrad, December 11, 2016 ~
Transcript from Ryan’s last asana class
Classes…are not your practice…classes teach you how to practice. As we develop our practice, we also have the internal teacher and the internal student. The teacher’s job is to ask questions. The good teachers are always asking those questions, and it’s the student’s job to try to answer those questions. In a strange way, my cancer has been my best teacher that I’ve ever had, hands down. It’s been the most amazing spiritual teacher that I’ve had because it’s always there. It’s the relationship that I’ve always wanted. It just sucks that my teacher is so violent and deadly. At the same time it’s very omnipresent. As we develop this relationship with ourselves in this practice, there should be something akin to that that we develop. Because, like I said, it’s the teacher’s job to ask questions and the student’s job to answer those things.
And so we can come back to this practice, time and time again, and go through the motions like a checklist. A lot of us–we’re well trained. We’ve studied with the people. We know the alignment points. We know the process. But at the same time, what happens when you have to leave all that behind? You start getting creative. It’s a wonderful platform to start out with all of those alignment points and the structure. But then each of our human experiences are different.
It’s our job to stand on the shoulders of the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar and his students and all the people that we consider to be teachers, and then become our own teachers. And that’s really where our responsibility is if we choose to take up this path. And that’s where we really can become yogis. We’re students always, but how to become the teacher? If you’re doing your job, there should be a lot more time where there’s nobody out there in front of you–in this spot where I’m sitting right now. So how to start to develop that? It’s a cycle: You come to class. The teacher sees something going on, and he gives you some cues. Then you go home and you struggle with it. You process through it. You develop critical analysis and you develop your own awareness. And that’s really where it goes from there. So yeah, let’s practice.
–Ryan Conrad, December 11, 2016