An Interview with Dona Holleman

by | Jan 26, 2023

Interview with Dona Holleman by J. Brown

These were the questions:

-The castle in Holland that you lived in as a child and its relationship to J Krishnamurti
-The Saanen Talks and what JK was like in person
– How you met Vanda Scaravelli and being introduced to Iyengar
– What was it like to study with Iyengar back then compared to the standardized method that came about later
– What the yoga scene was like in Holland in 1965 when you founded the Dutch BKS. Iyengar Yoga Werkgroup
– The differences between what Iyengar taught and what Vanda taught
– How the ‘The Thinking Body’, by Mabel Todd changed your practice and teaching
– What are the lessons to be learned from abusive gurus?
– What are some lessons to be learned from the mainstreaming of yoga?

Question 1

The castle in Holland that you lived in as a child and its relationship to J. Krishnamurti

To understand the period that I lived in the Castle and its relationship with Jiddu Krishnamurti we have to go a long way back. You probably know the story of Krishnamurti, but here is a sort introduction. In the late 1800 and the beginning of 1900 some people made the Theosophical Society, a kind of bridge between the religions of India and the West. They believed that the Messiah would soon return to the earth, and were looking for a suitable ‘vessel’ to house him. It was a time of great spiritual unrest, people were searching for something that would answer/solve all their problems.  Thousands of people joined this Theosophical Society, including my parents, who thus became theosophists and were waiting with all the others for the return of the Messiah, called Maitreya .

At one point one of the leaders was walking on the beach in Pondicherry and saw a young boy playing. Later he said that he had the biggest aura he had ever seen. This convinced him that this boy was the vessel for the Messiah.

Thus began the education of the boy: London, Paris, California. Krishnamurti was groomed by the Society to be the new Saviour, the Messiah.

Then came the disaster. In 1929 Krishnamurti, in front of thousands of followers , detached himself from the Theosophical Society and decided to go his own way, far away from the hysterical worship around him. His speech reverberated in the whole world.  

People were devastated, including my parents, because they now had to choose to either discard Krishnamurti as a fluke and continue with the Theosophical Society, or follow Krishnamurti. My parents chose Krishnamurti.

Another one who stayed with Krishnamurti was Baron Phillip van Pallandt, the owner of the Castle of Eerde in Holland. When Krishnamurti was barred from all the places of meeting of the Theosophical Society, he offered the castle to him to hold the yearly ‘Order of the Star of the East’ meetings. In the meanwhile my parents had become good friends with Philip, and from then on they attended the ‘Star of the East’ meetings in Eerde. The castle was used till just before the start of the Second World War.

When the second World War started, the meetings were stopped, and many people fled.

My father, who was a reserve officer of the navy, and my mother, were against any form of violence, and so for my father to avoid being drafted for the war they fled to Lebanon. Then, when the Vichy government was installed in France, they fled to Bangkok, where they were imprisoned in a Japanese war camp, carrying with them my brother who was then, I think, 2 years old. They stayed for many years in the prison camp, where I was born in 1942, ten years after their marriage, and where my father died.

When the war was over and we were liberated, my mother did not know what to do, so she took the children back to Holland and contacted her old friend Philip van Pallandt, who had at that point given the Castle to the Quakers to make an international school. She was given a job as a biology teacher in the school, and so we lived for a couple of years on the Castle. I was four years old by then and used to roam by myself the woods around the castle, bringing home all the creepiest creatures that I could find to put them in the terrarium that my other had built for me. My fate has always been to be the littlest everywhere I was, so at 4 year old the other children, and specially the daughters of Philip, spent a lot of time playing with me and letting me ride their pony. I still remember the name of the pony. Baby. That was the period of 1946 to 1949.

However, my mother was born on a tea plantation on Java where her father, my grandfather, had taught in the local school. My mother had met and married my father on Java in 1932, so she felt that her home was there. So after a couple of years on the Castle she moved back to Java with the two children. I think that was in 1950.

Wedding photo, 1932.                   The university where my mother worked after the war as a biology teacher

However, at that point, though the Second World War was finished, there was still a Dutch colonel, called Westerling, who continued to fight to keep Indonesia as a Dutch colony, even though the Japanese had ‘liberated’ Indonesia from the Dutch. Just to show the mentality and the courage of that time,  my mother, who in the confusion had been separated from her children, phoned this rebel colonel and told him to do whatever he wanted, but to bring her children to her. So my brother and I (I was 6)  arrived at her house in the trucks on the laps of the soldiers.

Tea plantation ‘Malabar’ where I spent many holidays.

I celebrated my 7th birthday in a completely empty house, as she had not yet bought any furniture.

I remember the shooting and the cannons barking at night. I spent the following years going to school, first elementary, and then lyceum, learning to play the piano, learning to ride horses and ponies, spending the holidays with my mother in the jungles, still looking for creepy things to add to the University collection, where my mother taught biology. My dream was to buy a bridle and a backpack, and travel the world over, riding horses on all the continents. I was 12, 13 years old and horse sick. I did buy the bridle with my pocket money I had saved up, but never went to roam the world, riding. Instead, later on I roamed the world teaching yoga.

In all the madness of the post world war two period and the unrest in Indonesia, then called the ex Dutch-Indies, my mother still managed to take us on holiday to a remote island called Bali. There were no tourists there, only several famous painters who painted the daily life of the inhabitants  and scenery. I think Gauguin was one of them. In her typical go-for-it attitude she wrote to the king of Bali, called the Anak Gunung Agung,  or the ‘child of the Agung Mountain’, to ask if she could bring her children and stay at the palace, which he consented. For fun they dressed me up in the local Adat cloths and so they photographed me.

Back in Bandung she also enrolled me in the local riding school, held by an ex-colonel of the ex-army of the ex-Dutch colonials teaching the kids on the ex- Australian  race horses that he had managed to procure. His name was Krijnders, and I worshipped him. He was my first ‘guru’.

Pengalengang where  I used to ride the wild Sandelwood ponies on the weekends.

Then came the coup-d’etat of Sukarno in the mid fifties, soldiers everywhere, cannons going bambambam at night, guns going plokplokplok in the day, servants each time screaming that we were all going to die. The Dutch people were thrown out of their home, their country, away from their friends and children. People lost everything overnight, their house, belongings, everything, keeping just a small suitcase and their documents. Most of them, including my mother, lost their roots. That was in 1956.

We went back to Holland. My world, as far as I was concerned, had finished.

Looking back on those years in Java, and the previous years in the war, in the concentration camp, amidst war, confusion, devastation,  my deepest respect goes out to those men and women who still managed to raise their children in that confusing world and give them unforgettable memories. That was a race of real men and women which has died out, and will never come back.

After the revolution and civil war in Indonesia, just before the coup d’état of Sukarno in 1956, the family moved back to Holland, where I finished my classical schooling. During that time my mother started to do yoga with a local lady, and, at the time I at age of 17,  accompanied her, immediately taking to yoga like a duck to water.

After school I went to live in another city, in the house of an 70 year old lady, who let rooms, to study sport massage. I was 21 years old. It was November 1963. At one point she called me in her living room, crying. We had a black and white tv, (colour was still far away), and watched in horror the shot that changed the world forever. The world was in shock and we cried for days and days, watching over and over the shooting of J.F. Kennedy, the maybe most beloved president of all times.

Then came the mid sixties, the crazy sixties, where we were all budding Jack Kerouac’s, identifying with the Beatniks. Of course, everyone’s bible was ‘On the road’.

Question 2

The Saanen Talks and what JK was like in person
In the meanwhile, my mother had kept contact with the Krishnamurti crowd, so when she heard he was coming to Saanen in the summer, we decided to go there.

 I was just 18 and the proud owner of a driving licence. I still remember vividly , driving down the mountain to Saanen, thinking: Tomorrow I am going to see the Buddha. It was overwhelming.

Saanen is a small village close to Gstaad, which became famous because Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton used to spend the summer there. We often saw them strolling through the village with a whole string of children, both hers and his.

Also the famous comedy series with Peter Sellers, the Pink Panther, was shot entirely in the Palace Hotel in Gstaad.

I spent a couple of years camping in Saanen on the little camping ground in the summer, listening to the ‘Talks’. Again I was the ‘little ‘ one, everyone being over 40. Taking all my courage in my hands I asked for an interview with Krishnamurti. He was staying in Gstaad in a chalet called Tannegg, which was rented for the summer by this lady called Vanda Scaravelli.

I had several meetings with him, and together with the others kind of looked up at him as a grandfather. I also had many individual sessions with him, as I wanted to become a Jivanmukta. Everyone wanted to become a Jivanmukta.

I am the classical person of the saying: Be afraid, but do it anyway. I think all my life I have been doing that. John Wayne turned this into: Be afraid but saddle anyway your horse. So though being shy, he made me feel at ease. I do not know what he thought of the 19 old kid asking all kind of questions

He was very patient, and I felt shy but at ease. He answered all my questions, and I think that he felt that I was quite serious, not just the usual spiritual tourist. I also told him that I had been practising yoga in Holland.

Maybe what I appreciated  most in him, then and later, is that he did not advertise himself by special clothes and paraphernalia  In India he wore dhoti , in Europe he wore a three piece suit, or jeans and jacket. Nothing to advertise his ‘saintliness’, like so any so-called gurus do. Just blending in with the place where he was. There is the saying: A good wine does not need a label. Well, he certainly did not need a label.

 I was horrified when later on, when Iyengar went to America, that he started to wear all those layers of I do not know what clothes, and let people call him Guruji. For me that is just advertisement.

Question 3

How did you meet Vanda Scaravelli and were introduced to Iyengar
In one of those meetings with Krishnamurtei I met Vanda Scaravelli, ‘la contessa’ as everyone called her. I remember she had this gorgeous, heartbreaking Jaguar Silver Cloud of the fifties/sixties in which Krishnamurti used to drive around. He absolutely loved cars, specially this one, and loved to take it apart and ‘fix’ the motor.

Vanda Scaravelli and B.K.S.Iyengar doing Mayurasana on her back at Tannegg

He also went every day for a two hour walk with her in the mountains. Later on she told me that on several occasions he had fainted in front of her eyes, and that his face in that moment was transformed. I think that she meant that in that moment the Maitreya or whoever was overshadowing him. In this age of terrible materialism, if you talk like that, people do not understand. For us it was part of the whole thing, that some people like K. would be overshadowed by higher entities or angels, taken over as it were for a period of time.

Vanda also had brought her son with her, Alberto, hoping he would take to Krishnamurti and yoga. Sadly he never did. Later on he died in a terrible accident with his tractor on the land that he loved so much.

I met many people in Gstaad, amongst other a lady called Vimala Thakar. It was whispered that she was enlightened. I kind of became friends with her, and asked her to introduce me to this yoga teacher Iyengar, both of them being Indian.

He was teaching, apart from Krishnamurti, also the world famous violinist Jehudi Menuhin, and not having a car I drove him every day to the chalet of this musician in my Volkswagen bus. Meeting Menuhin was another milestone in my life. I still think that he was the greatest violinist that ever lived, and being in his presence was awesome. He was extremely courteous, gentle and above all passionate about bringing young musicians out in the world. For that he organized each year the Menuhin Festival in Saanen/Gstaad to promote young artists.

Jehudi Menuhin                                            Gstaad Menuhin Music Festival

Being in Menuhin’s house I felt like a mouse and tried to sink as deep as possible into the sofas, watching him doing yoga with Iyengar. His wife was an ex ballerina and used to drift in and out of the room, tall, elegant, wondering what this hippy was doing in her house.

After I started working with Iyengar Krishnamurti remained interested in my progress with yoga, even though he himself broke up with Iyengar, and he asked every year how I was progressing in yoga.   

Iyengar was 25 years older than me, so must have been in his forties.

I asked Krishnamurti to arrange a class. Iyengar was furious because I was not a rich lady, but a camping hippy without money. Krishnamurti had asked Iyengar to teach me for free. He made the sky come down on me.

I was useless, I was stupid, would never learn yoga, who did I think I was, better put my head in the oven. He took me apart.  But not knowing me, when somebody does that to me, I rear up like a horse.

I told him I would see him in Bombay in August 1964. Phoned my mother, have her  buy a ticket on the Messagerie Maritime sailing from Marseille, and a month later I settled down in the Salvation Army in Bombay, now Mumbai. My learning had begun.

For those who were born after the wild sixties, as a heritage of the Beatniks EVERYONE in Europe in the sixties went to India, Japan, China etc. in search of something, of enlightenment, of a guru, of meditation, of a monastery where to spend the rest of their lives, of satori. People went by boat, by bicycle, by bus, by train, by

car, some even on foot.

Question 4

What was it like to study with Iyengar back then compared to the standardized method that came about later
I spent 9 months in Mumbai dividing my time between learning yoga ( 6 hours a day) and hanging out with the Irish jockeys in the  English club eating ice-cream.

There were four people in the class. Three Jains and me. As there were only four of us in the class, of course there was no standardized method. It was a person to person teaching, often without words, only adjusting manually. Neither Iyengar nor I knew much English. Teaching by words came much later. I did a lot of crying, especially in the back bends, at which Iyengar used to send me to the bathroom saying that probably I had not gone to the bathroom in the morning so the water came out through my eyes. All in pidgin English on both sides. I was more scared NOT to learn yoga than to learn yoga. 

 I got the key of the school where Iyengar taught and went there every day to practice, three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon. The rest of the day I used to spend at the Bombay Club hobnobbing with the Irish jockeys and watching the horse races. My love of horses had not diminished. I even made a discreet amount of money on the side betting with the tips I got from my jockey friends.

In the meanwhile Iyengar taught me all the postures that he, in turn, had learned from his teacher Krishnamacarya. No explanation, just do.

There was no standardized method as you call it. Iyengar taught me the sequences of asanas and pranayama that he had learned from Krishnamacarya. Standardization of any method is, as far as I am concerned, the death of that method.

We just ploughed through all the poses and to hell with anatomy and all that. It is a miracle that I did not break any bones.

I paid for these nine months with the money that the Dutch government had given to every ex prisoner of war ( called something like ‘smarte geld’, or ‘money for the suffering’).

Question 5

What the yoga scene was like in Holland in 1965 when you founded the Dutch BKS. Iyengar Yoga Werkgroup
At the end of the 9 months in May 1964 this money was finished and I had to go back to Holland where I stayed with my mother and taught yoga to a small group of people which we called the Dutch BKS.Iyengar Yoga Werkgroup. Amongst them was Victor van Kooten.

There was very little yoga in Holland, and no Iyengar yoga. Nobody knew who he was. If I remember well, there was some man, I forget his name, who taught some kind of yoga.

I held a teacher training course with the group from 1966 to 1969, wrote a text book for the course complete with photographs and went back to India in 1969, this time to Puna , then Poona, where I spent another 9 months at the house of Iyengar. There was no Institute then.

That time I lived for a while with the Iyengars and practiced mornings and afternoons with Iyengar. Mostly alone, and sometimes with Gita. Again no explanations, just practice side by side, with Iyengar every now and then adjusting my posture. It was tough, but I made huge progress.

Back to Europe, this time to London, where Iyengar introduced me as his ‘European Gita’. I was 28 years old and taught there from 1970 to 1972.

When Iyengar returned to London that year he expressed his wish to go see his friend Vanda Scaravelli in Rome, so in line with living ‘On the road’ I immediately offered to take him there in my Volkswagen van. By that time I had enough of London where the politics already had started. It was not a pleasant atmosphere, a lot of jealousies and gossiping.

Travelling over the Alps and playing football on the way we finally arrived at Vanda’s house in Rome. There were also some other people who had heard  by that time of Iyengar and joined us. It was a friendly and relaxed group, and we all enjoyed it.

When Iyengar left to go back  to India Vanda suggested I stay on for a while, which I did, teaching a couple of people.  Vanda taught me the piano (I already knew how to play since childhood) and I helped her with yoga. It was an exchange. Then she suggested that I go to Florence. That was in 1972. Somehow word got out, and I straightaway had a small group. We found a small studio in the centre of Florence where I taught for the next 15 years a group of about 8 people that I trained to be teachers, as well as ‘normal’ students.

These students trained by me were later caught up in this new frenzy of diplomas and after having studied with me for 15 years they left for Puna to ask Iyengar to give them the diploma, as I refused to do so. He gave it to them without question. I never had a word of gratitude from any one of them.

On the contrary, after having received their diplomas thanks to my teaching,  they then proclaimed that I was not an Iyengar yoga teacher. Even though we as yoga practitioners  should show the world that we are evolved from the animal instinct of wanting be number one in the herd, this instinct is too strong and difficult to resist.

Question 6

The differences between what Iyengar taught and what Vanda taught
Later on Vanda also moved to Florence, where she had property in Fiesole. For a while I went to visit her almost every day, and we had lunch together.

When Vanda started to teach, she made some import adjustments. I think Iyengar’s exuberance and posturing were far removed from her aristocratic upbringing. She was after all a countess and though she admired Iyengar who had gotten to where he was under his own steam, she wanted to bring a softer, maybe more sophisticated edge to yoga.

I do not know much about ‘her’ yoga.

She tried to convince me to join her in this new way of doing yoga, and though many of my students moved over to her, I could not. I am by nature a loyal person, and do not abandon the people who have helped me. Moreover I was used to Iyengar’s boisterousness and do not like by nature too much softness and sweetness and gentleness and femininity. Also I wanted to stay ‘classical’, so sadly enough she and I lost touch. I do not know if she blamed me for that, and for not joining her, but I could not. My first loyalty is to myself, and I did not feel that her path was mine. I am a classical vedantist.

I lived for many years in the hills above Florence, where I bought  a 400 year old stone house, till I decided to move to Lake Garda in the North of Italy, where I still live.

In 1980 Patricia Walden invited me to go to Boston, and that became the beginning of my annual trips to the States, which lasted twenty years, and where I taught many students who, in their turn, became well known teachers, amongst others Patricia Walden, John Schumacher, Erich Schiffman and many others.

I also taught for many years at Yoga Works in Los Angeles, which was then run by Chuck and Maty, and did several interviews for local tv stations .

I travelled all over the states, but to again be in line with my love of freedom I asked that first year that I went to Boston that the people there would take me to Walden in Concord. The cabin of Thoreau was gone, but the site marked. Going there was for me like making a pilgrimage to a sacred place. I had been reading ‘Walden’ since my school years.

There again, with the consequent developments in the yoga scene and the making of the B.K.S.Iyengar association, most of the people I taught in a free environment joined the association, forgetting the adventure of learning and teaching yoga, free from shackles. Their main concern became the diploma.

Question 7

How did the ‘The Thinking Body’, by Mabel Todd changed your practice and teaching

In 1979 someone gave me a book called ‘The Thinking Body’, by Mabel Todd. This book was written in 1937, and produced a profound change of understanding yoga and the body in me. Mabel Todd taught in a dance school, and saw that there were many injuries, so she worked together with some doctors to see how that could be avoided .She developed some ideas, which I later on adopted, for instance the importance of anatomy and the relationship with gravity, the ‘core’ or hara and the center, and other concepts. It was a revolution.

In one of those strange coincidences that life gives us, as I was still with my heart with the horses, I bought a horse magazine, and opening the page at random, there was this article called ’Centered Riding’, written by a woman who was a rider and had studied personally with Mabel Todd. This article set me off on a new journey of integrating gravity, intent, hara, alignment, centering and others, and culminated in the Eight vital principles of practice, in which many of Mabel Todds ideas are incorporated.

As I saw that on the internet that there was another man, a skier, who apparently also used Mabel Todds principles and called his skiing ‘Centered Skiing’, I decided to call ‘my’ yoga Centered Yoga’. 

Question 8

What are some lessons to be learned from the mainstreaming of yoga?

In my opinion mainstream yoga does not exist. It is a contradiction. The word yoga and the word mainstream do not go to together. The two are mutually exclusive.  Mainstream is always the opposite of being whole in yourself, of being yourself, of being unique. Mainstream means being part of a crowd, doing what everyone else does . It is intrinsically uncreative and does not take you anywhere apart of maybe being a little bit more healthy or supple. But any gym class will do that.

Yoga on the other hand is a solitary journey. Yoga means the individual search for freedom, enlightenment, whatever you want to call it. That cannot be done in a crowd, nor can it be ‘sold’ or ‘bought’.

Now what you see everywhere and on YouTube is OK, people are moving, they feel good, they see their friends, they go on retreats together, they go for a coffee afterwards, but for god’s sake don’t call it yoga. Call it gymnastics, or acrobatics, or calisthenics, or pilates, or whatever you want. But not yoga. But people use the word ‘yoga’ because it sounds easy and exotic, while  gymnastics sounds like work and too common. Also it is fashion, and so people want to be in fashion by going to yoga classes instead of walking in the mountains.

Question 9

What are the lessons to be learned from abusive gurus?
I am not a psychologist, but I think that a person who is abusive has a terrible lack of

self-esteem, suffers from an inner insecurity that tries to fill in the lack of security by debasing others, by bullying others. Someone who is secure and confident will never be abusive, will never bully anyone, but will always sustain others. Yoga is based on dharma. This Sanskrit word comes from the root dhr which means to support. An abusive teacher is definitely not supportive of his/her students.

In the nineties I disassociated myself from the Iyengar community as, in my opinion, it had become a cult like every other cult in which the original spirit has died. I never looked back.

Gita and I have been Iyengar’s first students in Puna. With Gita’s death, and the death of Iyengar, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and Vanda Scaravelli, who, together with me, brought the teaching of  Iyengar to Italy, I am now the sole survivor of a time where yoga had still a meaning as a spiritual path free from material gains, in which the sadhaka’s first goal is the search for truth and liberation from samsara by living the millennial teachings of the great yogis of the past.

In 2002 I went back to my first love: Horses. I bought my first horse, called Cisco. He stayed with me for 12 years before he died in 2014 of an incurable colic. With him my childhood cowgirl dreams died. He was the one thing that after a lifetime of practicing and teaching yoga I loved more than anything else on earth. Love does not know race, gender, species or age.

Now I am getting old. I will be 81 in February 2023. Maybe it is time to remember and pay testimony to a world that has gone forever and my participation in it before it is too late. Between all the ups and downs, between the crashes and elevations, between the good, the bad and the ugly, I have enjoyed every moment of my life. Aum namah Shivaiah