Remembering yoga guru BKS Iyengar

‘Mint’ reproduces a late 2013 interview of him as well as a 2014 tribute


B.K.S Iyengar, who taught yoga to thousands, died on Wednesday morning. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
B.K.S Iyengar, who taught yoga to thousands, died on Wednesday morning. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

B.K.S Iyengar, who taught yoga to thousands, died on Wednesday morning. We reproduce a late 2013 interview of him as well as a 2014 tribute.

BKS IYENGAR: BODY AND SOUL

By Sanjukta Sharma

With arms around the shoulders of his granddaughter Abhijata, B.K.S. (Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja) Iyengar walks up a flight of stairs in small, brisk steps, not for a moment resting both feet on one stair. Pune has a semblance of winter, and the yoga guru, in a flimsy kurta and veshti, proceeds to survey a “medical class” in the cavernous first-floor practice hall at his home and establishment, the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (Rimyi).

His famous style of prodding and admonishing students is as sharp as ever. In crisp Marathi, he pulls up a teacher who does not place the correctly-measured prop under a student’s back. He intermittently smacks the backs of those who appear sluggish. A good-humoured man outside of class, here he is similar to what, he has himself said, his own guru (and brother-in-law Sri Krishnamacharya) was like. The frail and sickly teenager Iyengar was knocked cold by the guru if he could not master an asana. Iyengar turns 95 today.

This is, by no means, a professionally-run yoga studio, the kind ubiquitous in most cities around the world today. This is a therapeutic class, meant for people of all ages, suffering from ailments such as cervical spondylitis, osteoporosis, post-stroke trauma and clinical depression. The guru moves from case to case, adding and removing props, pulling and aligning limbs, avoiding the crescent-shaped pulpit as much as possible. Abhijata, in her 20s, who teaches and manages the institute along with her brother Prashant, is an apparent heir. She says she spends most of her days with the guru, learning from him—not by being a shishya (student) or through a structured syllabus, but by being around him, imitating him.

As a revered exponent of this ancient discipline, or as a “sadhak”, as he calls himself, the nonagenarian is unmatched in his pursuit. Every morning, he practises for 2-3 hours, trying to perfect the stretches he has devised, combining and cementing the eight-fold path to enlightenment in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. He can still do the sirsasana, or head stand, for half an hour at a go.

At 80, the guru suffered a heart attack, but he bounced back to health soon. His diet is basic Tamil vegetarian, with curd, rice, sambhar and cooked vegetables.

This is the longest a yoga guru has sustained his or her practice to perfect more and more. Pattabhi Jois, the guru of the Ashtanga school, also a disciple of Iyengar’s guru Sri Krishnamacharya, stopped active practice long before he died in May 2009 at the age of 93. Often impatient with interviewers, Iyengar does not really answer my question about being able to go on and on, offering instead a distilled view of what he practises and shares with the world. “Regarding perfection, that’s a very difficult question. I can say that I have superseded most in my sadhana (devoted practice). I am in it, and my mind and my intelligence gets better in my sadhana, and it reaches a certain place. When I stretch, I stretch in such a way that my awareness moves, and a gate of awareness finally opens. When I still find some parts of my body that I have not found before, I tell myself, yes I am progressing scientifically. My body is a laboratory, you can say. I don’t stretch my body as if it is an object. I do yoga from the self towards the body, not the other way around.”

Iyengar Yoga is the most widely practised form of yoga in the world; its home the entire world, from Broadway to Botswana. Currently, there are Iyengar Yoga schools in 72 countries. Its hearth, the modest building which houses Rimyi at Shivajinagar, Pune, is still sacrosanct. It is essential for teachers, who come here for training from other countries, to have completed eight years of practice and an elementary certificate course. Their fee is the same as any student’s—Rs.1,100 a year for regular classes and Rs.2,000 a year for medical classes.

It is a rigid fold, loyalists often unequivocal about the superiority of their method over that of new, hybrid ones.

Iyengar has so far avoided the difficult questions of his legacy, keeping his attention on reaching more people through what he calls his “art and science”. In the 80 years that he has been practising, the 5,000-year-old Indian discipline has burgeoned under many brands, names and experiments. Iyengar was less tolerant of yoga entrepreneurship seven years ago when I met him for Mint Lounge’s inaugural cover story. Now he says it is probably a good thing that yoga has proliferated. “Who knows, we may be reading it wrong. It all depends on what state of mind the practitioner is in when he is doing yoga. Without knowing that, I can’t say this yoga or that is bad. I think overall the majority of people who are practising it as a subject are following the right line. For the aberration, don’t blame yoga or the whole community of yogis,” he says.

In the 1960s, violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin introduced two Indians to a bigger, more appreciative audience in the West—Pandit Ravi Shankar and B.K.S. Iyengar. While the gifted sitarist embraced a new home and acquired instant fame and following, Iyengar stubbornly stayed home. In Pune, where he had moved from Bellur, Karnataka, at the age of 18 to teach yoga, he had six children with his wife Ramamani.

His yoga spread across the world steadily, attracting a certain kind of follower. In 1975, after his wife’s death, Rimyi opened, its spiral structure inspired by the eight-limbed theory of Patanjali’s yoga system. The guru travelled all over the world, propagating yoga as much as an art form as a science, performing his asanas on top of cliffs, at the centre of stadia and on podiums in countries which had perhaps not seen any other famous Indian.

He repeatedly petitioned for permission to establish a temple for Patanjali, who formulated the original yoga sutras in ancient Hindu texts. Each time this was turned down because Patanjali could not be characterized as a god. The latest version of the Oxford English Dictionary added Iyengar to its lexicon: “A type of hatha yoga focusing on the correct alignment of the body, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids to achieving the correct postures.” Iyengar has devised around 50 props that include ropes, blocks and mats used to align and stretch the body—the props have won him accolades as well as brickbats.

Iyengar Yoga also became India’s best export, recently, to China. After a school started teaching Iyengar Yoga in Beijing in 2005, the guru and his close disciples visited the country in 2011, and around 20,000 people attended a workshop that he conducted in Beijing. Chen Si, a disciple of the guru who runs the The Iyengar Yoga Institute of China in Guangzhou, says: “As with many other imports, yoga came to China from the US, in 1985. Now, those who are familiar with yoga realize the worth of Iyengar Yoga. After guruji’s visit, there’s been a huge growth in the number of followers.” Chen Si organizes yearly nationwide trips in China for workshops and orientation programmes.

So Iyengar Yoga evolved as a brand, the non-brand way. Unlike, say, Ramdev, who is a one-man marketing vehicle for a popular brand of instant solution-oriented yoga, Iyengar is known as much for its process—the props, the long therapy sessions—as for the master who can do a head stand for half an hour.

Rajavi Mehta, a teacher at the BKS Iyengar Institute at Lower Parel in Mumbai, and a disciple of the guru, says: “There is nothing to the Iyengar brand except quality and the rigour that is associated with it. The medical aspect adds to its image as a serious, difficult form.” You become an Iyengar Yoga loyalist after you have endured its demands over a period of time—discovering parts of your body over years, as the guru says you ought to. Many sportspersons and athletes, including our cricket stars, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Zahir Khan and Anil Kumble, have found fitness solutions in Iyengar’s methods.

A strictly family-run, private institute, primarily a yoga research centre and a school, outstation students who come here to learn have to find their own accommodation. None of the institutes across the 72 countries is obligated to share its financial returns with Rimyi, although it is the only place that issues certificates for Iyengar Yoga teachers beyond an elementary level. No other institute has to follow the fee structure of the parent institute either.

While Iyengar has always maintained that he has no right to brand his yoga “Iyengar Yoga”, and that his pupils have named it so, some of the younger teachers of the form, who have certificates from the institute in Pune and teach individual students or small groups at homes, charge astronomical fees, giving Iyengar Yoga the stamp of an elite, purist brand—the fee goes up to Rs.22,000 for 12 classes in a month in Mumbai.

Most institutes in India, however, retain the standards of the parent institute. Rajavi Mehta says the fee structure remains the same for many years, with nominal hikes every seven to 10 years.

Insiders, both teachers and students, tend to believe Abhijata is the guru’s successor. Iyengar’s son Prashant, now 65, who is known for his classes on the philosophy and theoretical aspects of yoga, says he will leave it to the next generation, specifically his niece, to decide how she wants to run the institute in future. “If they believe in a professionally run organization, they will do it.”

The guru is completely averse to the idea of choosing a protégé or successor. “I never thought of this and I can’t think of this. I have shared my knowledge with millions of people. A yogi can’t develop favouritism. I consider the grossest of the gross and finest of the fine students as equals,” he says.

B.K.S. IYENGAR, YOGA’S GREATEST GURU, DESERVES NOBEL PRIZE

By Chandrahas Choudhury/Bloomberg

On 1 February, the Nobel Committee will close nominations for the 2014 Peace Prize. The list of eligible nominees (there were 259 last year) will be huge, partly because the question of what constitutes enduring work for peace allows for so many convincing answers. The Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai was strongly tipped last year, and will have many backers again. The names of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden will be considered. Even Vladimir Putin appears to have become a contender.

Curiously, although India is often associated with ideas of peace and tolerance, no Indian has ever been awarded the Peace Prize. (Mahatma Gandhi remains the most prominent of those denied it.) Is there an Indian today who deserves it? There certainly is, and it’s curious that his claim on it has apparently never been taken with the seriousness it merits, when one might say he hasn’t just advanced the cause of peace in the world, but considerably enlarged its meaning.

After all, although the Nobel Prize tends to be associated with a political interpretation, the arts of peace certainly go beyond conflict resolution or resistance to state power. As the Dalai Lama, the winner of the Peace Prize in 1989, has said, World peace must develop from inner peace. And there’s perhaps no man alive who has taught humanity as much about inner peace and its many dimensions—peace as a physical science, peace as a state of self-awareness and power—as the great Indian yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar.

This would be a good year to award the prize to Iyengar. He turned 95 in December. Remarkably, he continues to keep up an exhausting schedule, radiating the positive effects of yoga practice for both body and mind. Two years ago, he travelled to China to start an Iyengar yoga institute there. He can still do the sirsasana, or head stand, for half an hour at a go, Mint’s Sanjukta Sharma wrote in his profile last month. This is the longest a yoga guru has sustained his or her practice to perfect more and more. To millions of practitioners who have passed through Iyengar yoga schools in 72 countries, or have deepened their understanding of yoga poses through one of his books (most notably the 1966 classic Light on Yoga), Iyengar is the face of yoga.

More than any other yoga teacher in the last century, it’s Iyengar who has taken the practice both forward and outward, developing his own version of the art while also making it accessible for millions without any sacrifice in depth or rigor. Even Indians previously conversant with the nuances of yoga acknowledge his leading role in the systematization and conceptual advancement of an ancient spiritual discipline, and it was on his watch that the yoga movement became a revolution in the U.S. and Europe. If yoga is ubiquitous in the US today, much of that can be attributed to Iyengar’s remarkable efforts over a lifetime. (The advance of yoga in the US from fringe movement to multibillion dollar industry is told well by Stefanie Syman in her 2010 book The Subtle Body).

What’s the connection, though, between yoga practice and peace?

To be sure, for millions of yoga practitioners today, it is valuable for its fitness and wellness benefits or as a source of relief from stress. But no one who has ever practiced seriously and reflected on its experience of dynamic stillness cannot have seen a glimmer of what the ancient Indian sage Patanjali asserted about 2,500 years ago in the opening sentences of the Yoga Sutra, a set of penetrating aphorisms (a sutra is literally a thread) about yoga and the human condition. Patanjali’s wide-ranging treatise remains the classic exposition on yoga as a science of the mind and the body as a pathway into self-awareness. It is a book that can be read profitably by anyone, even if you never get close to doing a warrior pose or headstand.

Patanjali’s deeply challenging opening sentences are (I quote from the late American scholar Barbara Stoler Miller’s 1996 translation of the Yoga Sutra): This is the teaching of yoga. Yoga is the cessation of the turnings of thought. When thought ceases, the spirit stands in its true identity as observer to the world. Otherwise, the observer identifies with the turnings of thought.

As Iyengar, who has written an acute commentary on Patanjali’s text, explained in an interview: “When you cannot hold the body still, you cannot hold the brain still. If you do not know the silence of the body, you cannot understand the silence of the mind. Action and silence have to go together. If there is action, there must also be silence. If there is silence, there can be conscious action and not just motion.”

These words contain a powerful argument about the ascent to a higher form of selfhood and equipoise, through a detachment that isn’t a turning away from the world, but rather a renewed engagement, only cleansed of the distorting lens of egotism and the instinct for violence. In our distracted age, flooded with sense stimulation and frenetic, unfocussed activity, the practice of yoga (as many already know) can lead to a radically renewed awareness of the self as an agent that controls its own experience of the world.

For this reason, Iyengar’s trilogy, Light on Yoga, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and Light on Life, are among the greatest self-help books. They take a line contrary to the world’s major religions, which hold that the body is inferior to the invisible (and hypothetical) soul, and is a transient vessel that breeds selfishness and egotism that can only be transcended by submission to God.

Iyengar demonstrates instead that the body can itself serve as an instrument of transcendence through hatha yoga, or the disciplined practice of physical postures. Body and mind typically hold human beings captive in a net of illusions, desires, appetites and memories, but even by momentarily detaching ourselves from what Patanjali calls chitta-vritti, or the turnings of thought or mind chatter, we can achieve a disinterested, compassionate point of view upon ourselves and the world—a revelatory state with enormous ramifications for the way we pursue our lives.

As Iyengar writes in Light on Life, Yoga does not just change the way we see things; it transforms the person who sees.

By turning a daunting and often rarefied philosophical system with many divergent internal strands and arguments into a universal program of education available to anyone who seeks it out, Iyengar has ensured that yoga has become India’s greatest export to the world, the brightest example of its abundant soft power. To be sure, many others have merit as Peace Prize candidates, with work involving courageous resistance to power, which Iyengar’s doesn’t. But I can’t help thinking that Iyengar stands for a much more foundational notion of peace, one greatly relevant to our times.

Followers of Iyengar like to quote his saying, Before peace between the nations, we have to find peace inside that small nation which is our own being. Perhaps the Norwegian Nobel Committee should look more closely this year at the astounding work of a man who has over the course of 80 years forged for himself and millions of others a durable peace inside that “small nation of the self”.

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