From Broome beach to Salamanca Place (or Ljubljana to LA), torsos are twisting and buttocks are “sharpening up,” pointing to the sky, and lotus sitters possibly chanting Om (that’s the character on the left). If you are practising yoga, you have B K S Iyengar to thank for the discomfort. As a fellow student said to me one morning, if you’re comfortable you’re not doing yoga. Mr Iyengar is ninety-one today, 14 December 2009. Here he is at 88:
I don’t mean to be disrespectful, on the contrary, but I can’t help it – he reminds me of a great, wise frog. This is not bad; recall that the wonderful Tasmanian poet, Gwen Harwood, had a thing about men who looked like frogs. And Randy Newman, who once sang:
…these beautiful women arrayed for the night
just like countesses, empresses, movie stars and queens
And they’d come there with men much like me
Froggish men, unpleasant to see.
Okay, Randy is so wrong on frogs. And crazy associations, yes, but it’s what gets caught in the world wide web of the mind in the pale early hours as it floats on feather pillows. Mind, never mind, Mr Iyengar is above petty caricat characterisations.
As the man who invented modern yoga – “Today’s Yoga,” as one might intone in a deep voice – he has affected, is affecting, tens of millions of folk. One of Matisse’s art teachers (recounted in the Hilary Spurling biography) predicted that the young artist was destined to “simplify” art. That was Iyengar’s great gift; and his gift to us – he clarified and made simple a complex tradition as old as Indian civilisation (from roughly 5000 years ago in the Indus Valley). And he’s showered us with all these cheerfully impure props – the familiar yoga folding chair, foam bricks, cotton strap, bolster. Who knows if Shiva or Vishnu approves, but Iyengar had the stunningly realistic insight that the flesh is frail, not to mention joints and backs and ham strings, and then did something about it.
By the way the great man doesn’t approve of the term Iyengar Yoga – his version of the traditional 15th century Hatha Yoga – which is the “brand” that most Western folk would be contorting to.
Q: We’re back on Talk Asia with yoga master BKS Iyengar. Guru ji, what is the philosophy behind your brand of yoga?
BKS: Don’t call my brand of yoga, again I tell you, please. I improved the subject quality-wise, that’s all. I brought precision in the presentations, so it is as old as civilization. So naturally it is the traditional yoga in which I say I must’ve dressed the subject a little for the people to get attracted to it.*
(*His English sounds mangled in these transcriptions, but I think it’s not the case in reality – for correctives, see the youtubes below.)
Staying alive …”sexual pleasures, sensual pleasures”
Not that Iyengar started off being altruistic, when he took it up at fifteen.
“I took yoga in order to improve my health, because I suffer from tuberculosis, so my aim was to get rid of the tuberculosis. But circumstances forced me, and people started asking me teach yoga. So I took to yoga as a mission later.”
Q: Have you ever thought about where you would be if you didn’t have yoga in your life?
BKS: Probably, I would have died long ago. I would not have lived.
Q: Why do you think that?
BKS: Because I was suffering from tuberculosis. Even the insurance company, doctors knew that I would not, I would not survive long. Then I was 25 years old [sic – he was 15]. Now I’m reaching 90, so yoga has given me a bonus life of 75 years, how happy I am! (laughs).
The questions and answers above come from the useful interview by CNN/Asia. Here’s another demystifying remark from Guru ji, as they call him:
Q: But it’s an ancient Indian practice, why do you think that so many people in the West have taken it on and are now using it as a way of their life?
BKS: First, it was only for the pleasures and the joys of the world. They all want sexual pleasures, sensual pleasures, happiness, joy. So I gave certain postures which triggers such things.
And then later I told them, so you want this or do you want something more? And this was the turning point where people started getting interest on the spiritual aspect of life. It took a long time, but the transformation afterwards was very, very fast.
“In the beginning his students were better than him”
Later things may have happened “very, very fast”, but earlier, it wasn’t quite so fast. As his biography in the dormant Iyengar Yoga Resources website recounts, Iyengar struggled to become a yogi. At 19, some five years after he took up yoga, he was sent by his teacher, “an erratic and terrifying personality” to Pune to teach yoga.
“In Pune life was still very difficult as he was a stranger there with weak language skills, speaking only a little English and the local language Marathi. As he had left school before he could complete his examinations and had no skills, he was left with little choice but to continue to make his living through teaching yoga. Moreover as he felt he had little experience or theoretical knowledge, he decided to practice with determination and learn by trial and error. In the beginning his students were better than him so he would dedicate many hours a day to practice, sometimes surviving for days on only water and perhaps some bread or rice.”
“I was not allowed to go unless the whites passed in New York airport”
The bio goes on: “it was a meeting with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin (left) in 1952 which led to Mr Iyengar’s eventual international recognition. It was Yehudi Menuhin who arranged for Mr Iyengar to teach abroad in London, Switzerland, Paris and elsewhere and so meet people from all over the world and from all walks of life.” [According to Iyengar, he fixed up a 20-year-old Menuhin complaint in three days.]
But as the Indian Express noted: “Iyengar … struggled for a decade from 1954-65, barely charging ten shillings to teach yoga in the United Kingdom.”
Iyengar is by no means fuzzily touchy-feely everything-is-good. He is quite frank about his reception in the West.
Q: So when you first went over to Europe, how were you received by people there?
BKS: The British had ruled over India for hundreds of years so to be honest. It was very, very difficult for an Indian to move to England with his head up. And they all treated me that I am a slave, though I’d gone at the invitation to teach yoga, but still, I was a slave to them. So that was also a thing which I said, now, how to work for these slave-drivers to become my slave-drivers?
Q: But then how did you convince people that yoga was the way to go?
BKS: Because my mind was only stuck to yoga. I wanted to make yoga very popular. So that was a very difficult task … I was a guest of Mehnuhin. Mehnuhin booked a place with Hotel Deviar in Kensington Road. Hotel Deviar people said because we can’t lose my customer Menuhin, we are to keep you. You are black, you cannot have food or breakfast in the breakfast hall. And also, same happen to me in 1956 when I went to America. I was not allowed to go unless the whites passed in New York airport. So only blacks were allowed to go at the end, not first. But because I was a fast walker, I could go fast but they told me no, please go out, you cannot enter, you cannot go fast, you are the last. Because I was the only colored man there, in that plane, coming from India.
I know, I can’t help but imagine him speaking with an “Indian” accent. But no, play the youtube to hear the real thing. This is a very cool little video; he has a cheeky little-boy pleased-with-himself expression after demonstrating the inhalation.
Is there a Mrs Santa Claus? In the case of B K S Iyengar, there’s a certainly a woman behind the great man. I love the story about the wife: “In 1943, his brothers arranged his marriage to Ramamani. Mr Iyengar had avoided marriage for some time as he felt he could not support a family, but on meeting her consented. Initially life continued to be very hard for them but bit by bit they worked their way out of poverty. They agreed that she would take care of their family while he would provide the income.”
Q: Guru ji, this center was built and named after your late wife. Tell us a little bit about this establishment and why you decided to hold it forever in honor of her?
BKS: You know, when I got married, she was not knowing anything about yoga, one. Secondly, when I was practicing, I could not share my knowledge as a comparative study with anyone, so naturally I was practicing with so much attention – 10 hours a day, I used to practice – but still, I have no mirror to even look all my position is about. So there was struggle going on between me. So then I thought that I should some more of that, present myself. So I thought, when I accepted to marry, I said I’ll use my wife as a mirror for me to learn the process. So it so happened that my wife completely gave everything for my practice. She never called me one day, let us go to cinema together, she never said, let us go to market together, then I said, no, no, if you want to you can practice, I will go. So that affection she had for me to learn this subject made me to name this institute after her.
B K S Iyengar, retired now for 25 years, can still be found at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute. Geeta, his daughter, and his son Prashant teaches there.
The last word, from Guru ji
Iyengar’s English in the transcribed answers above seems exotic. But he is perfectly lucid, in fact, a straight-shooter. Check out this youtube, where he explains about starting his yoga practice for the sake of his health, rather than for philosophy or spirituality; and debunks the religious mumbo-jumbo around yoga, all inside of 2 minutes. (For a longer interview on Indian TV last year, rather poor quality, go here.)
And so, happy birthday, Guru ji, happy birthday!
PS: Tiger Woods, he’s back … and front
Can’t resist, a friend of mine just got off the phone having made this remark:
“Poor Tiger – he’s on the back page of the papers, and the front.”