Dona

A SHORT BIOGRAPHY OF DONA HOLLEMAN


Dona Holleman was born on the 23rd of February 1942 in Thailand in the middle of World War

Two. The family spent six years in a Japanese concentration camp (talking about ‘lockdown’)

where many people died, including Dona’s father, of tropical diseases.

When the war was over, the remaining family moved to Holland where they lived for three years in

the castle of a friend of her mother, who had given this castle initially to Jiddu Krishnamurti in the

twenties, and afterwards to the Quakers, to make an international Quaker school.

The castle was surrounded by woods and Dona, at the age of four, spent many hours roaming the

woods and fields by herself, observing nature. These solitary roamings left a deep impression on the

young child of freedom and observation. Dona’s love for nature and the woods was born there.

As her mother was born and raised on a tea plantation on the island of Java, where she met her

husband, Dona’s father, they moved back to the island. Living in Java again was for Dona an

experience never to forget. They moved to Java in the middle of a fierce civil war, and her first

impressions were of the military everywhere, cannons going bambambam at night, servants each

time screaming that they were all going to die. Nevertheless Dona fell in love with the country, and

has ever since considered Java her ‘real’ home. Afterwards, going back to Holland, she never

adapted, and eventually left Holland forever.

Looking back on her years in Java Dona’s deepest respect goes out to those heroic men and women

who still managed to raise their children in the confusion of war and give them unforgettable

memories. In all this confusion and war scenes Dona managed to go horse riding and do other

sports and outings in the surrounding mountains, and have piano lessons and other ‘amusements’.

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 Dona finished her classical schooling. During that time her

mother started to do yoga with a local lady, and Dona, at the time 17 years old, accompanied her,

immediately taking to yoga like a duck to water.

Her mother was also a follower of Jiddu Krishnamurti, one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth

century. Again Dona accompanied her to Gstaad, Switzerland, in 1961, to meet and talk with this

great man.

After this she would go back each summer to the Saanen Talks and had several interviews with

Krishnamurti. She also met Vanda Scaravelli there. It was also in the chalet in Saanen that she first

came into contact with the ‘teachings of Don Juan’, as written down by Carlos Castaneda. Her

curiosity drove her to buy the book, after which she seriously began to study these teachings. It was

only much later that she realized that in reality Don Juan was talking about quantum physics, and its

application in real life. She kept studying Castaneda parallel to yoga, and many of her spiritual

concepts are the result of these studies.

Apart from the Krishnamurti talks there was also one, or maybe, the most famous violinist of the

twentieth century, Yehudi Menuhin. At one point in his history Menuhun was unable to sleep and

rest due to stress, so he went to India to look for someone who could help him. After many fruitless

attempts to find a suitable yoga teacher he was almost tempted to leave India when someone told

him about a young brahmin boy in Puna.

As a last resort he went to Puna to meet this young man, whose name was Bellur Krishnamacarya

Iyengar who, within half an hour, put him to sleep. Menuhin was deeply impressed and invited

Iyengar to Gstaad in the summer, where he held his famous Saanen concerts every year. As

Krishnamurti had also started to practice yoga, they ‘shared’ Iyengar between them.

This is where Dona, age 22, 1964, met BKS. Iyengar in Vanda’s house in Gstaad, where both he

and Krishnamurti stayed as Vanda’s guests, in one of her meetings with Krishnamurti.

As everyone was talking about this yoga teacher, and Dona had already decided that she wanted to

be a yoga teacher, she asked Krishnamurti to kindly introduce her and her friends to the yoga

teacher. They were a small group of sixties hippies camping on the river, and Iyengar was furious

and probably disgusted by these ‘hippies’. As a sort of ‘revenge’ he made all six undress and taught

them standing poses on the lawn of Chalet Tannegg in their underwear, with Krishnamurti hanging

over the balcony, laughing.

It was then that Dona decided that this man was going to be her teacher. For those of you who were

born after the wild sixties, as a heritage of the Beatniks EVERYONE in Europe 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, So too Dona arranged with Iyengar to meet him in Bombay, now renamed

Mumbai, for a year of intense yoga practice. She went on a cargo boat from Marseille to Mumbai,

third class, to spend one year living in the Salvation Army building in Mumbai, learning yoga.

There were four people in the class. Three Jains and Dona. Dona 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 she used to spend at the Bombay Club hobnobbing with the Irish

jockeys and watching the horse races. Her love of horses had not diminished. Quite a combination!

In the meanwhile Iyengar taught her all the postures that he, in turn, had learned from his teacher

Krishnamacarya.

In 1965 Dona returned to Holland where she founded the Dutch BKS.Iyengar Yoga Werkgroup.

There she taught from 1966 to 1969 a teacher training class, which included Victor van Kooten who

later also became well-known as a yoga teacher, after Dona had encouraged him to, in his turn,

travel to Puna to study. She also wrote her first book on yoga. Dona herself went back to India in

1969, this time to Puna, to spend another year with BKS Iyengar.

In 1970 she went to London at the age of 28 at the request of Iyengar, where he introduced her as

his European Gita. She spent two years in London, teaching many people. Amongst those taught by

Dona were Angela Farmer, Maxine Tobias, Mary Stewart and many others.

In 1972 Iyengar expressed his wish to visit Vanda Scaravelli in Roma, and so Dona offered to drive

him from London to Rome in her VW van over the Alps. Some other people joined in and they had

a fun time, doing yoga on the rocks, playing foot ball and visiting some mountains on the way.

In Roma they were joined by some people from Venetia and spent a week practicing yoga, using

Vanda’s furniture as ‘props’.

When Iyengar left to go back to Puna, Dona stayed a couple of weeks in Roma to teach, after which

Vanda encouraged her to go to Florence. In Florence word went around quickly that this student of

BKS Iyengar was going to establish herself there, and in no time students turned up and found her a

small studio in Via Ricasoli, the center of the city. That was in 1972.

Dona spent the next 15 years teaching in that studio in Florence, where she formed, apart from the

regular classes, a small group of students, training them a couple of times a week free of charge to

become teachers. Amongst these students trained by Dona were Gabriella Giubilaro, Emilia

Pagani, Bianca Strens-Hatfield, Gabriela Corsico Piccolini, Emilia Pagani and others.

In 1980 Patricia Walden invited Dona to go to Boston, and that became the beginning of her annual

trips to the States, which lasted twenty years, and where she taught many students who, in their

turn, became well known teachers, amongst others Patricia Walden, John Schumacher, Erich

Schiffman and many others.

She also taught for many years at Yoga Works in Los Angeles, and did several interviews for local

tv stations .

In 1979 someone gave her 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 Dona. For

the first time in her yoga practice she began to understand the importance of anatomy and the

relationship with gravity, and more than anything else the discovery that the speed of learning of

the patterns of movement of a skill precedes its practice in actual performance. It was a revolution,

and out of this book came eventually the concept of the EIGHT VITAL PRINCIPLES OF

PRACTCE, in which many of Mabel Todds idea were incorporated. Gravity, intent, hara came all

out of this new understanding.

With Diana Eichner she made a movie called ‘A fish in search of water’, which earned a small

reward in the New York amateur film festival. Dona’s philosophy is that it is as absurd for a fish to

search for water, as he is completely submerged in it, as it is for the human being to search for God,

for Life, as the human being is completely immersed in it, is an integral part of the Divine. All he

needs to do is to be aware of it. (see insertion at the bottom).

In Hindu tradition this concept is called Advaita, Non-duality. Advaita Vedanta, which is the

spiritual basis of yoga, will be discussed in another section of this web site. Shri Shankaracharya

was the great acharya of this system of thought, and here we find the most famous quote of Advaita

Vedanta: ‘Thou art that’ (‘Tat Tvam Asi’). Advaita means ‘non-duality’: Brahma is inherent in

everything, IS everything. It is US , YOU, the trees and the stars.

In the nineties Dona disassociated herself from the Iyengar community as, in her opinion, it had

become a cult. She herself continued to practice and teach the pure and original tradition which she

had learned from B.K.S.Iyengar in the early years and to encourage her students to adhere to this

too.

Gita and Dona had been his first students in Puna. With Gita’s death, and the death of Iyengar,

Jiddu Krishnamurti, Vanda Scaravelli, and Radames Silvestri who, together with Dona, brought the

teaching of BKS Iyengar to Italy, Dona is 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.


DONA WITH BKS IYENGAR IN PARIPURNA MATSYENDRASANA