MEMORIES OF MR. IYENGAR ABROAD 1972-1976
(printed in Yoga Samachar Vol.8, No.1 Spring/Summer 2004)
While I first met Mr. Iyengar in his native city Pune in the early winter of 1969, apart from a few master classes he taught in Bombay which I took, my first serious studies with him began in London in the spring of 1972. For the next four years I followed him everywhere I could. This brought me to Gstaad, Switzerland, to Amsterdam, back to London and then, of course, to various venues in Paris.
In fact, I was living in Paris at the time. I had been running a Yoga center near Montmartre. It had already been three years since those first classes in Bombay and I was longing once again to study with this great teacher. India seemed far away. So when I received word that he would be offering a three week intensive in London which would be open not only to the small coterie of pupils who had been studying with him for some years, but to others as well, I was beside myself with joy. I signed up immediately.
As I took the train from Paris to Calais and then the ferry from Calais to Dover and once again the train from Dover to London, I was filled with a thrilling sense of anticipation. Already the classes in Pune had been replete with immense challenge and masterful innuendo. As I looked out over the vast rolling French countryside, I wondered what new experiences London would bring me under the tutelage of this master pedagogue. What, in the world, I asked myself, would be next?
It was not the first journey I had made to that great city with its great clock. I had traveled there extensively when I was a child. Then, hand in hand with my parents, I wandered from one museum to the other, one garden to the other, one tower to the other. This was different: this visit had a purpose which had nothing to do with the city itself, but with a presence inside the city - a presence so powerful that it was about to change once and forever the entire way Yoga was being taught in the western world.
Returning thus to London as an adult, I will never forget the thrill of walking to my first class, past the old English brownstones with their red geraniums and their black wrought iron gates, through the parks with their beautiful gardens and their ponds, and past the historic monuments which were part and parcel of this elegant city. The gardens were in full bloom with their daffodils and their forsythias, their tulips and their flowering shrubs. People were everywhere: on benches, strolling hand in hand, reading newspapers, day dreaming. The air was full of hope. I felt as though I had nothing else to do but to go from one extraordinary Yoga class to the other. In fact I felt as though I were floating.
If I recall correctly, my first class was located somewhere in the center of the city a little beyond Sloane Square. When I entered the room, one of many which had been loaned out by The Inner London Educational Authority for the purposes of the intensive, I was struck by the sparseness of the space and its almost rustic simplicity. A few long dark brown tables had been set up, as well as some folding chairs, lots of empty walls and a few mats which seemed to belong to the Authority.
Students were milling around, chatting here and there. Everyone was laughing and introducing themselves. The atmosphere was full of excitement and congeniality. Suddenly Mr. Iyengar walked into the room. A great hush descended over the group like the sudden setting of the sun. After having us stand in tadasana for a few minutes, he then asked us to sit on top of the tables and to stay there until he told us otherwise. There must have been thirty students or so, with ten people perched on the three long tables.
New to the experience, and trying to anticipate his next move, I quickly draped my back over the thin edge and stretched my arms over my head. Without a notice's warning, he came over to me, pulled me up and said, "Stop showing off!!!". Then, looking at me very sternly, his bare feet staunchly planted on the ground, asked me to wait. A few minutes later he said, "O.K., you can go down now," after everyone else had carefully stretched their backs over the edge.
At last I knew I had returned. Not to Pune, but to the perspicacious eagle eye of my teacher. Floating, I was being asked to attend. Daydreaming, I was being asked to be in the moment. Feeling overly rambunctious, I was being asked to be patient, egoless, and exacting. I had forgotten that 'immense challenge and masterful innuendo' also involved surrender.
This would not be the only lesson I would learn during those early years in Europe with Mr. Iyengar. There would be countless more. I began to envy the pupils who had been studying with him already for some time now, pupils who would later become well known teachers in their own right: Maxine Tobias, Diana Clifton, Sylva Mehta, Mary Stewart, Angela Marris, Beatrice Hartman, Angela Farmer, Dona Holleman and many many more. They had already learned the discipline of hard work and consistent practice because Mr. Iyengar had been coming to them for several years by now on a regular basis.
"We were inspired for the entire year," Maxine would reminisce to me much later, thinking back on those early days. "That's how marvelous the classes were. And you wanted to work really hard because you knew you had to be up to scratch when he returned!"
"We were all pretty much beginners," Maxine continued. "We used to have to do headstands for 15 minutes without any props and without coming down. You couldn't even fall down and if you did, you were in big trouble. There was no molly coddling then."
As the classes got larger, this early group became part of the A group. Soon there were the B's and the C's. I think I was part of the B and C group, but I really don't remember. Perhaps I was in the C group because I was new. The B's and C's worked more on standing poses, the A's more on backbends.
"Backbends, backbends, backbends backbends, that's what we were all doing in the classes with him," Maxine would tell me laughingly "We were all getting high on backbends!!!! They were so powerful, I can remember that after one of the sessions, I didn't even have to use my eye glasses for several hours."
"He was like a man on fire," she continued. "We did so many backbends that after class we were all giggling all of the time. His sessions were so intense, and probably all the more so because we didn't know really what we were doing. It was such an amazing time."
Whatever the English pupils were and had been doing with Mr. Iyengar, they all seemed to love him immensely and with great reverence. Though they protested from time to time, secretly they knew he would have his way. Whatever pedagogical gifts he would use - his wit, his intelligence, his fire, his laser eyes, he was always able to get them to come around. And hardly a class went by which was not spiked with humor.
One day Mr. Iyengar was working with one of his long time English pupils who must have been in her mid sixties, early seventies. He was helping her use a folding chair in shoulder stand. I cannot recall if there were blankets under her shoulders, but if there were, they were probably very thin. As Mr. Iyengar was struggling quite hard to get the pupil into the right position, she yelled out to him, protesting:
"Mr. Iyengar, Mr. Iyengar, you're killing me, your killing me!"
Leaning over, he retorted, not without a little irony:
"That's all right! That's all right! Do the pose first and then die! That way you'll go to heaven!!!
During those spare and lean days (spare and lean because the class rooms were far from stocked with what students are used to seeing now whether they go to Pune or to other Iyengar Yoga studios around the country), everyone made do with what was. No, these were not the days of Pune ponies, backbenders, heart benches, Viparita Karani boxes, ropes, blankets, mats, blocks and belts. Far from it! Maxine and I were trying to recall if there were even any blankets! But this sparseness is exactly what shaped the genius of Mr. Iyengar as we know him today. For many of us, when he was teaching in those seventies abroad, he was younger than we are now. But, he was not young in his imagination and ingenuity, his inventiveness and his creativity. Anything in the room was a prop for him, even if there were only the floors and the walls.
It is because of this that the wall became such a powerful teacher for Mr. Iyengar and his pupils during that period. In a series of articles entitled The Wall My Guru, published in the '70's by a well known Yoga magazine in London, he would write about the hundreds of ways to use to the wall to get the correct alignment in the pelvis, the arms, the shoulders, the back and the feet. We also, of course, didn't have mats and so the lines on the floor, especially if they were wooden floors, became the measuring stick by which we knew whether or not our feet were properly aligned in the standing poses.
And because we didn't have the stickiness of the mats to provide traction at the time, we had to work the muscles, the bones and the ligaments in our feet more than ever. We had to hold ourselves up through our spine and our pelvis. Of course, this is the way of the method even to this day, but not being able to rely on mats which would keep our feet from sliding away from each other, made the moves much more difficult and helped build our muscles very quickly. For this reason, Mr. Iyengar often used the back heel against the wall to help with the traction.
Mr. Iyengar had already been coming to Europe for some time now. After all he had even taught the Queen of Belgium and the renowned violinist, Yehudi Menuhin. For several years Menuhin would give concerts in Gstaad, Switzerland, the beautiful ski resort tucked away in the mountainous Alps, and Mr. Iyengar would go there and give him private classes. There is no better person to express to what degree Iyengar taught Menuhin how the body itself, like the violin, is a beautiful instrument in its own right which one could play. Below is the eloquent eulogy to that power written by Menuhin himself in the preface to "Light on Yoga":
"The practice of Yoga induces a primary sense of measure and proportion. Reduced to our own body, our first instrument, we learn to play it, drawing from it maximum resonance and harmony. With unflagging patience, we refine and animate every cell as we return daily to the attack, unlocking and liberating capacities otherwise condemned to frustration and death."
In addition to Menuhin, Gstaad and its neighboring town, Sanaan, would also be host to another great luminary as well - the renowned Indian thinker and philosopher, J.D. Krishnamurti.
It was in the summer of 1973 amidst those beautiful slopes and charming villages that I would see Mr. Iyengar and be a part of such great culture and great minds. I truly felt as though I had been blessed ten times over.
I can't remember whether I had gotten stronger by then or whether Mr. Iyengar's teachings had gotten harder, or that I had simply graduated to another level, but my first recollection of that summer in Switzerland was taking a class which seemed surprisingly difficult, much more difficult than the classes I had attended in London.
About forty students attended the first class which was held inside a beautiful large room in a school in Sanaan. The room had windows on every side and I remember that everything felt white. The floor felt white, the walls felt white, the Yoga clothes felt white. Perhaps Mr. Iyengar was dressed all in white too. Outside, white snow capped mountains rose high above the lush rolling green hills. The pine trees were tall and thin with dark green needles set against the dark bark of their trunks. They seemed to rise into the blue skies with an elegance and grace I had never seen before anywhere in my life. To this day I am not sure whether it was the Yoga which made them seem more elegant than ever or whether my body had transformed so much that everything around me appeared elegant and graceful. Whatever it was, the change was subtle but real.
Like the mountains outside our windows, still and powerful, Mr. Iyengar would have us stand in Tadasana for a long time working with our feet in so many different ways, our bare feet which would serve as a powerful base for all the standing poses. Perhaps, I wondered, the pine trees were able to stand strong and straight because they were so firmly rooted in the broad and steady base of the mountains, like our spine could stand strong and straight because our feet were so firmly rooted on the floor. Later, I found a beautiful line in Richard Wilhelm's translation of the I Ching under the hexagram "Po" which so beautifully describes what it felt like to fully learn Tadasana, or Mountain Pose in this way:
"The mountain rests on the earth. When it is steep and narrow, lacking a broad base, it must topple over. Its position is strong only when it rises out of the earth broad and great, not proud and steep."
The rest of the class seemed to focus on standing poses. But these were not standing pose classes which were interrupted to observe an incorrect or correct action in some student's body. Not in those days. Rather, these standing poses, like those mountains, seemed to go on forever. I don't even recall if we ever brought our arms down to our sides in between each pose! No, it felt like we were the great Vikings of Iyengar Yoga, carrying our arms out to our sides like sails of a ship, open and windward. Far be it for us to let our captain down!
Whatever it was, this period of my study with Mr. Iyengar was certainly building my will power, my capacity for endurance and my tenacity. As Menuhin - again in his preface - so beautifully remarks:
"Tenacity is gained by stretching in various Yoga postures for minutes at a time... continuity and a sense of universal come with the knowledge of the inevitable alternation of tension and relaxation in the eternal rhythms of each inhalation and exhalation...."
This was also the period in which Mr. Iyengar helped me understand the power of the new. Taking off on one of his earliest maxims, "Today's maximum is tomorrow's minimum," now he was beseeching us to go "From the known to the unknown," integrating into the physical body in such a masterful way the philosophical observations of Krishnamurti who also asked us to go from "the known to the unknown." I am not sure during that period whether Krishnamurti was borrowing from Mr. Iyengar, or Mr. Iyengar was borrowing from Krishnamurti, but the message was always the same: do not stay in what is familiar, search, investigate, stretch, trust and dare.
But it wasn't until Mr. Iyengar came to the Grand Boulevards of Paris (I believe it was the late spring of 1974), that it all began to come together. Paris, of course, was glorious in those days, with its outdoor cafes, it's kiosks, its crepes and its grilled chestnuts. May '68 had already been stored in the annals of recent French history and the city was back on its feet. Fashion houses, galleries, bookstores, beautifully dressed women with silk scarves were everywhere and the weather was to die for.
Mr. Iyengar had been working closely with a student of his, Noelle Perez Christianens who later compiled a well known book of his sayings entitled Sparks of Divinity, published in Paris in 1976. I had the good fortune that year of working with Noelle and helping to edit the book before it was given to the publishers. As such I was able to come in contact on a daily basis with all the insightful and brilliant sayings Mr. Iyengar handed down to us even in those early days.
Iyengar Yoga was not as fully developed in Paris as it had been in London or Amsterdam for that matter. There were spatterings here and there, but there was not a centralized location where all the classes took place. It was slowly coming into full bloom by the time Mr. Iyengar arrived.
First there was Le Centre European du Yoga which I was helping run and we had been teaching what we knew of Mr. Iyengar's work up until then. The Center was directed by Jean Bernard Rishi who had also taken several classes with Mr. Iyengar in Bombay in '69 and on and off when he came to Europe as well.
There was also another woman in Lyon whose name was Madame Schatz who was carrying the banner of Mr. Iyengar's work along with Noelle Perez. So by the time he came to Paris, the classes were still fairly small. Some of them were in lovely rooms which had been rented for that purpose in the 7th arrondisement, I believe, near Rue Vanneau [if my memory serves me] and some of the classes were even held in the apartments of some of Mr. Iyengar's students.
One particular class took place, I remember, in the living room of a beautiful apartment off the Champs Elysees, located in one of Paris' more glamorous arrondissements. There couldn't have been more than ten or fifteen of us in those classes so we received a great deal of direct attention. We were doing forward bends on a very plush carpet of the sun room belonging to the proprietor of the apartment. For some reason I found myself way in the corner on the far left hand side near the window. The sun was flooding into the room and in particular on me where I was working diligently in paschimottansana. We then were going to lie down to do some pranayama.
Right before we did, Mr. Iyengar quietly came up to me and asked me to remove myself from the light which was streaming in saying that the heat would not be good for the practice of pranayama. He said it in a gentle and protective way but at the same time made it clear that Yoga should not be practiced under conditions which involved extremes of any kind. I managed to find a place way in the back of the room where I was in the quiet of the shade to do pranayama with the group.
The classes which were held in the 7th arrondissement were much larger. People had come from not only all over France, but there were pupils from London, Amsterdam and Switzerland as well. Mr. Iyengar was at his best and at his funniest. For the first class he decided to give us a work-out which involved standing poses and vinyasas. Readers who may have come to the Iyengar method after 1985, may be surprised to note that every now and then Mr. Iyengar did have us practice vinyasas in a fairly vigorous way.
Before he began, he came over to me and asked me to translate the class for all of the French pupils. Always trying to find a way out of too much physical exertion, I was delighted and immediately obliged. I asked him where he wanted me to sit so the class could hear me best.
He looked at me in utter surprise: "Sit? Did you say sit? No! You must 'do'. You must 'do' the poses as you translate! You must follow the class with the others!" and with a broad sweep of his arm, gestured to where he wanted me to line up with the rest of the group.
I looked up nodded my head, and quickly followed his directives. I knew I had energy in those early years, but that much energy? I asked myself silently. Nonetheless, I immediately accepted the challenge and while the Sanskrit names of the poses were universal and so did not require translation, the remarks he said between the calling out of the poses did. Struggling to keep up with the vinyasas, I would translate these remarks into French, catching my breath somewhere between the adho mukai svanasanas and urdhva mukai svanasanas, praying I was getting it all right. It wasn't always easy to 'think' and 'do' at the same time!
At one point, a little exasperated with us - were we all dragging our feet? - he called us over and told us how Yoga was so powerful that it would change the quality of our skin. He told us that our skin would become "smooth as velvet" if we kept practicing regularly. Then, stretching out his arm and pushing the sleeve of his shirt above his elbow so we could see his forearm, said: "You see, you see? Touch my skin. It's like velvet," running the hand of his other arm up and down the rolled up sleeved forearm. Everyone quietly chuckled at his tongue in cheek remark.
At one point he admonished us, half jokingly:
"You people, you people, you are so proud! I'm proud too, but at least I have something to be proud about," and then burst out laughing with the rest of us.
The next class was a class in pranayama. I shall never forget that one because it was then that he made a very clear distinction between the practice of asana and the practice of pranayama. He told us that "asanas were easy to do, while pranayama was very very difficult," and that that's why we didn't practice it so much. He said that this was a big mistake. He then told us that the focus which was necessary in the practice of pranayama was so great and would take years to learn, that most of us would chose never to do it if we didn't have to.
He then gave us an image to work with which was very simple and very easy to remember. He told us that:
"Just as a Mother is watching a child play but does not interfere in its activities, so the mind, being like the Mother, watches the breath, the child, without interfering in its activities."
I believe a great teacher is someone who is able to reveal to the student ways to think about things, remember things, practice things in such a way that the student will never forget. These techniques are neither complex nor obscure. Rather, they are extremely simple. Mr. Iyengar's teachings from day one were rich with images which were simple, to the point, of the world and unforgettable. They flew out of his mind like doves out of a magician's hat. They struck a cord immediately in our imagination and allowed us to marry the technical point with the image in one felled swoop, so much so that there was no time to separate one from the other.
I also believe that during those early days in the seventies of working with Mr. Iyengar abroad , this rapid fire merging of image and detail , detail and image was one of the greatest hallmarks of his teaching and impressed upon me its mark forever. The integration of precise, minute and very refined details, say of "stretching the outer edge of the foot without shortening the toes" in prasarita padottanasana with a precise, practical and very apropos image, say of "maintaining the 'dome' shape of the foot," as in utthita trikonasana, was a beautiful example of how form and function wove together into an elegant tapestry of the body. This quality not only made him a master teacher, but a master artisan as well in the true sense of the word. I am reminded of that exquisite essay by Octavio Paz, "Seeing and Using: Art and Craftsmanship" where, in speaking about handmade objects as works of arts, writes:
"A glass pitcher, a wicker basket, a huipil of coarse cotton cloth, a wooden bowl - handsome objects not in spite of but because of their usefulness. Their beauty is an added quality, like the scent and color of flowers. Their beauty is inseparable from their function: they are handsome because they are useful. Handicrafts belong to a world existing before the separation of the useful and the beautiful."
When I contemplate the extent to which this masterful artisan/teacher/Guru was able to blend the beautiful and the useful from the moment his classes began to the moment they were over, consistently, steadily, and elegantly , I can only be left in awe at the breadth of his visual, kinesthetic, physiological, proprioceptive and spiritual understanding of the human body.
My memories of Mr. Iyengar abroad, 1972-1976 left that indelible mark of awe on my imagination once and forever. Each time I saw him after that it was always a reminder of what I had first learned in those early days - that Yoga is both useful and beautiful and that the art of teaching Yoga makes use of both simultaneously, like a weaver whose hands cross from one side of the web of the loom to the other until they become one and the same hand.