He made yoga a global culture. DIVYA KUMAR catches up with the legendary B.K.S. Iyengar during his visit to the city
PHOTO: K. V. SRINIVASAN
The mane of white hair, the fiercely bushy eyebrows with the ubiquitous namam in between, and that perfectly upright figure familiar from thousands of pictures of impossible asanas…
Seeing yoga exponent B.K.S. Iyengar in person for the first time is a touch surreal, like watching a revered hero step out of the covers of a book you’ve owned all your life (in this case, it would be a dog-eared copy of his first book “Light on Yoga”).
It’s also rather awe-inspiring. At the grand old age of 91, Iyengar carries himself and moves like a man half his age, and is surrounded by quite an unconscious aura of power. And as he begins to talk about 75 years of practising and teaching yoga, his struggles and successes, what emerges is the portrait of a fiercely determined man who prizes strength and discipline over all.
“In the 1930s, yoga had no respect in India at all,” he says flatly, speaking at Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram recently. “There would not have been more than 10 teachers in the entire country — including Pakistan and Bangladesh, in those days — and it was a Herculean task for my guru T. Krishnamacharya to convince people that yoga had something to give.”
He recalls how his guru (also his brother-in-law) at one point lived literally in rags in Mysore, and his own humiliating experiences as a yoga teacher in Pune, of being called to do demonstrations, being made to wait for hours and being sent away at the end because ‘time was up’.
“I fought on because of my faith and belief in the subject of yoga,” he says.
‘Fought’, ‘combated’, ‘conquered’, ‘mastered’… these are words that feature repeatedly in his narrative, whether he’s talking about the racism he faced when he first went to the West with his teachings at the prompting of his close friend, world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin, or his battle with injury.
“After 70 years of non-stop practising yoga, I had an accident that left me unable to even move my hands,” says the man who is credited with making yoga a part of global culture. “Everyone thought my life was over. But I refused to surrender — if I had stopped, it would mean I had no faith in what I’d practised for over 70 years, it would mean I had become a slave to my mind. So I combated it; today I still do four hours of yoga everyday.”
Iyengar’s attitude as a teacher of yoga is just as uncompromising. If the great man has a rallying cry, it’s that ‘sadhana (practice) must go on’ and that one must never give in to fear. He says with twinkling humour, “I often didn’t have very many Indian students; Indians were afraid of my discipline. I’m a very strong teacher.”
It is precisely this dedication to practice and precision that has made ‘Iyengar yoga’ such a phenomenon worldwide. His aim has always been to perfect the asanas, in form and alignment; to Iyengar, that is the route to realising the full potential of what yoga has to offer. “When I began, no one taught the practical aspects of yoga, only the philosophical,” he comments. “But my research on yoga has shown that thorough practice of asanas is necessary to truly experience the conjunction of mind and body.”
There are few who would argue with this living legend of yoga, a man who would, one feels, through sheer force of will, be able to conquer any obstacle in his path.