by Bobby Clennell
I have practiced Iyengar yoga for 41 years, although my practice was sporadic in the early days. My husband Lindsey and I made our first journey to Pune in 1976 to study with B.K.S. Iyengar 39 years ago. I have made that journey, mostly with Lindsey around 23 times.
When I first started doing yoga I was completely unaware of any other methods. A friend recommended I try a yoga class and bang, I was hooked from the word go. All I knew was, when I practiced, it made me feel good and I became better able as a young, working mother, to deal with the demands of life.
Two years after first walking into the church hall where the class was conducted, we made the journey to Pune to study with B.K.S. Iyengar. It never occurred to me to look for another teacher. Even with my limited experience, I instinctively knew I should stay close to this teacher and his family.
Guruji’s teaching style was uniquely his own. Fiery, demanding, precise, and with spot-on delivery – whatever he was saying, you got it. But his apparently stern exterior belied his compassionate center. He knew that if he appeared ‘soft’, progress would be slow and “the pupil tends to take it easy.” He understood the physical body in the way a professional anatomist would (Iyengar teachers are expected to have a similar understanding), and alignment is all.
Guruji had a phenomenal ability to “see” people. When he taught he was tremendously expressive and poetic, and this is perhaps what I will miss the most. But it was his super sharp intellect, his yogi’s heart and his unwavering sense of service to others that made him a Master.
Before I met B.K.S. Iyengar, I imagined that a Guru would be a bit like Santa Clause. Softly spoken, he would gaze lovingly into my eyes and pat me on the head gently. Then miraculously, all my troubles would melt away. On my second trip to Pune I walked through the gates of The Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI), Pune, and Guruji happened to be standing there on the pathway. He clipped me round the ear with the palm of his hand and said “Ah good! I see you have put on weight”. Just one year earlier, it was a way too thin and fearful young woman who had walked through those gates. Now, with my newfound confidence born from my newfound yoga practice, I was physically stronger and emotionally more stable.
Thanks to Yehudi Menuhin, who was one of the first Westerners to study the method, Iyengar yoga took root first in the UK. It was the approved yoga method, taught in school halls across London. In fact, Lindsey taught some of these “evening classes” in his spare time. The Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) welcomed B.K.S. Iyengar’s yoga provided there was no hocus pocus, mumbo jumbo (or Indian philosophy). So Guruji’s yoga in those days was influenced in part by ILEA regulations. Unlike other “methods,” which talked about Chakras and the like, Iyengar yoga was grounded in the physical. It was practical, down to earth, and systematic, and somewhat of an antidote to the hippy culture that was beginning to wind down when I came upon yoga in the mid 70s.
B.K.S. Iyengar, illustration by Bobby Clennell
In 1988, during Guruji’s 70th birthday intensive, yoga therapeutics became a little clearer for those of us who were in Pune that year. Guruji’s son, Prashant, had prepared and pinned to the wall a series of photographs entitled, “Props And Ailments.” The medical classes at RIMYI now held five times a week are full of people suffering from various disorders. They are also a fertile training ground for the senior teachers. We are taught “on our feet” by the Iyengar family to take patients through specially prescribed (and propped) sequences. Those “Props and Ailments” photos were crude in comparison to what Guruji knew, but they really helped us teachers to get a handle on the subject.
B.K.S. Iyengar explained the major benefit of props as being neurological control. “Neurology” he said “is the hub of the life force.” You can use props in a way that doesn’t over exert or jangle the nerves. On the contrary, working with a prop can strengthen and calm the nerves. A table or trestle or even a wall can support and hold the body securely so that the energy needed to explore a particular extension or opening can be freed up. In this way, props can support and stabilize the outer body without restricting the freedom of movement of the organic body.
As we begin to wake up to the limitations of allopathic medicine, only time will tell how significant his work is and how valuable it will be for humanity.
B.K.S. Iyengar also introduced props to make yoga attractive and more accessible. He was known to be a hard taskmaster, often too hard for the public at large. The tireless determination needed to practice Iyengar yoga was too much for all but the strongest and most dedicated student.
Prop use continues to evolve to the present day. (Don’t ever go to Pune, expecting the teaching to remain exactly the same as it was the last time you were there).
In December 1993 in Panchgani, Yogacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar conducted a ten-day workshop as part of his 75th birthday celebrations. One hundred teachers from around the world attended this special event. This intensive marked a turning point in Guruji’s teaching. The demands he now made on our powers of observation reflected his own ever-evolving practice. While previously much of his teaching was based on the tangible – muscles, joints, and bones – Guruji took us beyond the outer, physical layers of the body to what he called the hidden body or the subtle body. As one of Guruji’s Indian students Sam Moltivala (now deceased) remarked in one of the classes, “everything seems to be new.”
We were guided by Guruji to incorporate the subtler aspects of our being into our practice and into our teaching. We were introduced to the elements of nature: earth, water, fire, air and ether, which then served as a guide to deeper layers of consciousness. Asana, far from being only a physical pursuit, became a stepping-stone on the path, so clearly defined by Patanjali, to experience the universal divine within us. BKS Iyengar’s yoga was (and still is) based on his developed understanding of the body, but now it was securely rooted in the subtle body as mapped out by the Vedic seers of ancient times. Guruji taught us that yoga requires intellectual reflection and skillful actions to unite the physical body with the intelligence.
It was during my second trip that we found ourselves taking part in a class of about 9 students. Looking back on these times, I realized how lucky we were! It was in one of those small classes I learned the balancings, or bird poses (Bhakasana, Parsva Bhakasana etc.). There was something special about BKS Iyengar’s teaching. When Guruji lead a class, you never forgot what he taught you. He had a way of making you go further, achieving things you never would have done on your own. At age 71, I can still do the “balancings” and it has, I am sure, something to do with the imprint of that long ago class that is sparked every time I do them.
Bobby Clennell in Peacock Pose.
On another occasion I was lucky enough to experience some one-on-one teaching from Guruji. One morning during the practice session, after having dropped back to a bench from Pincha Myorasana (Peacock Pose, also known as Elbow Balance) I was attempting to flip back to standing. I didn’t realize that he was behind me hanging upside down on the ropes. Suddenly, a disembodied voice that seemed to come from the bowels of the earth said “If I had been practicing yoga the way you have been practicing yoga all these years, where do you think I would be today”? Shocked and embarrassed that he had been watching me, I replied that if he had been practicing the way I had been practicing all these years, where would we all be today? That did it! Laughing and still hanging upside down, he began issuing instructions. Get the smaller bench! Place it against that pillar! Fold the mat just so! Then he got down from his perch and my private lesson began in earnest. The experience contained within it so much more than the physical points of asana. And he was having so much fun! As for me, I was on the edge of the moment, in equal parts terrified and exhilarated, being stretched mentally and physically beyond my usual unconscious boundaries.
Guruji moved us out of our comfort zones in class. But one-on-one with him was intense; there was no escape from the voice inside your head telling you that you couldn’t do it.
In recent times I returned every year, just to be around him.
Right now, we are in transition. A great master has passed. Suspended in time between the past and the future, we think about his legacy. It is hard to believe that B.K.S. Iyengar is no longer with us. Knowing that he was still at the helm of Iyengar Yoga worldwide in Pune, practicing every day alongside of his students, answering every letter personally, making himself available to all, so humble, yet such a giant of a man, connected us to the source of the method, gave us a sense of security, and provided a grounding force.
B.K.S. Iyengar was truly an incredible human being. His influence extended well beyond the teachers and students of Yoga throughout the world who were able to study with him either directly or indirectly. There was before B.K.S. Iyengar, and there was (and is) after B.K.S. Iyengar and there is no comparison between the two.
Truly he gave much more than he took from this world. His creation of a progressive and smart teacher training program, upon which he had such strong uncompromising grip, will ensure the continuation of Iyengar Yoga for years to come. His son Prashant and daughter Geeta have been teaching for many years. In fact there are several generations of teachers and students who, never having ever been taught by Mr. Iyengar, flock to Pune to be taught by their Guru’s, Prashant and Geeta.
As for the future? I recently attended a convention in Northern England taught by Mr. Iyengar’s granddaughter, Abhyjata Iyengar. It was the first of five she was teaching throughout Europe. Her devotion to her grandfather was obvious. Her teaching was clear with the strong Iyengar delivery, which runs in the blood. Most mornings in the practice sessions at RIMYI, Guruji would practice and somehow at the same time, teach the most receptive person in the room – his granddaughter, Abhyjata.
To the degree that we practice, Guruji will continue to live on – in all of our hearts, in the cells of our bodies, in the lift of our knee caps, in the strength of our legs and nervous systems, in the stability of our emotions, and in our collective balance and equilibrium. I feel so grateful to have known him and so grateful for his fierce conviction, his purity and his wisdom.
Now it’s up to us.