The result of a lifelong study, yoga, its most famous teacher says, has given him the gift of life. He says if he hadn’t found it, he simply wouldn’t have been alive. This week on Being Legends, CNN-IBN’s Anuradha SenGupta meets BKS Iyengar at his Pune residence.
Anuradha SenGupta: Your first book Light on Yoga, your latest book Light on Life – these two titles pretty much sum up uyour changing attitude towards yoga, isn’t it?
BKS Iyengar: Yes, right. As I practised, something started striking me. How my body functions, how my nervous system functions, how my mind functions, how my intelligence reacts, how my consciousness behaves. So as the stages developed and people asked me what more had I learnt, I had to add. So from Light on Yoga, I wrote five-six books till Light on Life. Light refers to the light that dawned on me.
Anuradha SenGupta: You started out practising yoga purely for its physical benefits…
BKS Iyengar: For gaining health.
Anuradha SenGupta: Yes, first for gaining health, then as a means to gaining a livelihood and then to a higher level. And you keep stressing this to people, isn’t it?
BKS Iyengar: This is the way. Life’s like this. Someone masters something. After mastering, one shares. So naturally, earning starts. Then later, one wants to know better than what they knew. Then the last stage is experiencing self hidden within oneself.
Anuradha SenGupta: At various pints of time in your life, you have lost your hold or mastery over yoga. 1956 was one such point. Why do you think you lost it?
BKS Iyengar: I was, no doubt, practising very well. I did not know what happened to me but I was not getting any feedback on my presentations. There was no imprint on my mind. And I was worried that what was the use of doing when nothing can be felt. I was becoming desperate, there was disappointment and frustration but I thought: should I just continue or should I work out? I had to purge my body, my mind. I had to make my mind penetrate further to where something was missing, in order to establish a connect between the mind and the asanas. At that time, I was in Switzerland and I said: No, whatever happens, I won’t be disappointed. I will work out and find out the reason for it. I wrote a letter to my guru and also to Swami Shivananda because they all knew me. I said, ‘you have to give me the reason for the emptiness that I feel. Saying you are married and have children and it was different when you were young is something I don’t believe. Art cannot be destroyed. Art is art’. I said I will not stop but let me see how long it will take for me to come back to the stage where my mind will communicate.
Anuradha SenGupta: How long did it take?
BKS Iyengar: It took me about a month and not only that, while I was doing, I kept getting blackouts. Then I started doing backbends. When there was complete blackout, I would stop. So I increased my ability to deal with blackouts and limit their frequency. Soon, both blackouts and emptiness disappeared.
Anuradha SenGupta: So basically you kept at it. You have credited the fact that you are a healthy 90 today because of yoga. Yoga has give you a fresh lease of life, right?
BKS Iyengar: Yes. That’s why I am practising even now. That’s what gave me intelligence. How can I stop it?
Anuradha SenGupta: So does the fact that yoga is accepted today for its therapeutic value give you great satisfaction about what you have managed to do with it?
BKS Iyengar: When I started teaching yoga, in India it was not respected at all. Not even in the Western countries. Classical yoga was not attractive to people, no one was interested. They were all saying, ‘I am healthy’. So I thought in order to make yoga more popular, I will have to take to its remedial side. I started working on asanas that work on various ailments. Then I gave them the pros and the cons. That’s when I started succeeding very fast because I started giving them relief, faster than allopathic treatment in Western countries. They had a lot of money in those days so they knew only wine, women and wealth. Transforming them was not easy. So I used to tell them in their own language, ‘Enjoy if you have to. But have the power to enjoy. You have no strength. What is the use of simply tempting yourself?’
Anuradha SenGupta: In order to get them to listen to what you had to say, you had to speak their language. I thought it was very clever. I read you have said somewhere that because there was such a desire at that time in these countries to enjoy life, to look for maximum pleasure that you started giving them asanas for sensory and sexual pleasure.
BKS Iyengar: I do not deny that.
Anuradha SenGupta: Strategically, that was the best thing to do.
BKS Iyengar: I thought until and unless I win them over, there won’t be any other way. But these strong people could not hold a class for even 45 minutes and I was doing six to seven hours in addition to my practices. My food was coffee, bread and fruits. They said this man is a grass-eater and has such energy. I said, live like me, practice like me, you will also have the energy. I started transforming them. Today, I can tell you that in Western countries I am responsible for the way they live. I am the example for them to turn to vegetarianism. When I met Yehudi Menuhin (the violin legend who became Iyengar’s most famous disciple and a friend for life), I told him I would be very happy to guide you. But he was not willing, probably because of shyness or whatever. Then, I asked him if he wanted to see what I do. I gave him a 45-minute demonstration. He was observing carefully. His wife was a ballerina and was not at home then. Suddenly, she came and he said, ‘Oh Darling, you missed a wonderful chance. It was just like a ballet what this man performed.’ She said she wanted to see it too. So I had to repeat the demonstration, another 45 minutes. Both of them saw. I told them I have shown you what I can do, why don’t you show me what you can do. He did the sheershasana but he was gasping for breath. So I told him to come down and then helped him with it. Adjusted his head, his shoulders and took him to sheershasana. He moment that happened, he has an exhilarating feeling. He did it for two-three minutes and then came down.
Anuradha SenGupta: I believe he called you his best violin teacher.
BKS Iyengar: Yes. Later he told me that everyone told him what to play on the violin, you the only man who taught me how to play the violin. So that made him to call me the best violin teacher. I was only 15 years old (when he went to live with my sister and brother-in-law Tirumalai Krishnacharya – also his guru). I had lost my father and we had to depend on others during those days. We had to live like slaves. He (Krishnacharya) neglected me initially. It was when he lost his pet student that he took me in and gave me attention. He was demanding and was creating fear complex in me. He told me he would not give me food if I did not do my presentations well.
Anuradha SenGupta: In the hindsight, you have taught so many people. You think that was a good way to teach?
BKS Iyengar: No I don’t think so. Though I have that quality but I don’t force because I learnt I should not give that kind of fear to my students. His actions reacted on me and made me believe that I had to react in a sympathetic manner to make yoga popular.
Anuradha SenGupta: Yet, you are also known to be a tough guy.
BKS Iyengar: I am a tough guy on my subject. I suffered and so did not want my students to suffer.
Anuradha SenGupta: You spend four hours daily on yoga, three hours on asanas and one hour on pranayam?
BKS Iyengar: At this age too I do not stop. Sometimes I do pranayam in the evenings as well. Deliberate pranayam is for one hour and non deliberate pranayam goes on.
Anuradha SenGupta: Would you advise people to study on their own or you think teacher is important. You studied on your own.
BKS Iyengar: That was one rare case. A teacher is needed. But teachers are rare today. That’s why I found a lot of props.
Anuradha SenGupta: When you first thought of these props, was it instrinctive or did you think of culture, sex etc?
BKS Iyengar: It was instinctive. When I had an accident, my spine got tilted. But I can show in pranayam how my spine is tilted. No one else can understand it. Normally, my spine is straight, alert and active. But in pranayam you can’t see that division. I became a beginner after my accident. I had to remodel my props to be able to practice and not stop yoga at all. Suppose I lose my limbs, should I stop or should I use some methodology to continue practicing? So I created all this. Now I can even teach an amputated person because I have done it on my own.
Anuradha SenGupta: There are no references of this in old scriptures and sculptures?
BKS Iyengar: There are references. Take Narsimha, for instance. He was tied with a cloth. That’s enough for me that if Lord Narsimha crosses his legs in his dhyana (meditation), why should I not find means. Yogis were doing asanas on trees. How do they do it? I started using ropes for them to do sheershasana. If you see a banyan tree, there are roots that are tied in loops. So I told my students they could practice sheershasan there. That’s how I found out how yogis were doing.
Anuradha SenGupta: Is there a right way and a wrong way of doing yoga?
BKS Iyengar: There’s a right way. There can’t be a wrong way of doing yoga.
Anuradha SenGupta: As a novice, how do I decide whether to buy a CD of Baba Ramdev or go to the Iyengar institute near my house?
BKS Iyengar: General practice is needed. God has given us discriminatory powers. Through that, you have to think for yourself. If there’s no feedback, try finding you from presentations what is wrong. And then decide what is better.
Anuradha SenGupta: With the kind of respect, recognition, fame, affection and love you have got from people, how do you ensure your ego doesn’t get into your way?
BKS Iyengar: I am thankful to God and yoga that they punish me. I keep getting injuries and become quiet. I am happy that something comes to me so I can devote more time to my practice and be free from these egoistic issues.
Anuradha SenGupta: I normally don’t ask this question because it’s the simplest question. But what is it being BKS Iyengar? With yoga you have seen inside yourself. What have you seen of yourself. Who are you?
BKS Iyengar: ‘I’ is the soul. I can live in that ‘I’ without any movement in my mind. But that’s not my aim in life. My aim is that I have suffered and I have to share my knowledge with others. So I know what freedom is but somehow my mind tells me to share whatever I have. So I come back to my life. And if you leave me, I go back to my original ‘I’. My life is about giving the world something they can live happily with.
Anuradha SenGupta: Thank you for sharing so much of your time with us.