Listed by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Yogacharya is a living legend who has taught Yoga in a unique way to all his students. Through his practical search and regular practice, he finds meaning in the Yoga sutras of Patanjali and has helped all to experience this wisdom. With nearly 400 Yoga Institutes around the world, and Iyengar Yoga
Associations in America, England, France, Germany, Italy, Australia and New Zealand. His style of teaching Yoga is called “Iyengar Yoga” which is now being taught, by certified teachers across the world.
Interview with BKS.Iyengar by Kamakshi
With all the noise outside, how is it possible to find peace on the inside?
BKS.Iyengar – It all depends upon the inner growth of an individual. It all depends upon the eyes and ears; these are the windows where the growth of the evolution of human beings is to see the world. So the same eyes and ears which are meant to appreciate the beauty of the external world are also meant to appreciate the inner beauty of the world, to listen to the sound of the body and its various motions, movements, actions. So that’s how the ears are developed. And once ears are developed, because of the sound factor, naturally the eyes are also drawn in. So the brain is cut off from the external world. Because where the eyes and ears move, the brain follows. It is pure cultivation.
So it just takes time?
BKS.Iyengar – According to modern science, they can culture the cell from the outside, not from inside. But I found out in my subject; that one can culture the inner cells, the subjective cells, not in a laboratory, but in their own bodies. That is known as cultivation, culturing the ears, the eyes, the muscles of the body, the breathing, the fibers of the body, and joints of the body. So many things are involved. Man is finite and infinite. Both finite and infinite are within him. We only know about the finite. We don’t know the infinite, in the finite. So we have to trace the infinite in the finite. But you cannot move into the depth of the body, because the depth is immeasurable. So one can learn, that’s my method, to penetrate and to unite the outer body to the inner body; inner body to inner mind; inner mind to consciousness, intelligence to consciousness. That is how my practice reaches from the peripheral body to the core. And that is why I have experienced the core because I can take my senses of perception deep inside. That is why the outer sound does not affect me at all.
Living in Yoga for nearly all of your life, what is Yoga for you in this moment?
BKS.Iyengar – My dear friend, for a person who has sunk in this subject, when there is no duality between my practice and myself, how can I say what it has done to me? If it was an object and I as a subject would have practiced, then I would have said that I am practicing yoga for this, for that. Well, in the beginning, I did. There was a difference. There was a distance between myself and the practice. I was suffering from tuberculosis, from malaria, from influenza. Destiny took away my health. So I took to Yoga, today I am a bhakta in the asanas. How can you ask a bhakta…
What is bhakti?
BKS.Iyengar – (Laughs…) Yes. My life is like that. I am a devotee of what I practice. So naturally the asana and myself have become one. The asana is me, I am in the asana. That’s all I can say.
You must have had a lot of determination and will when you were not well and…..
BKS.Iyengar – Yes, It is there. I don’t deny that. It demanded tremendous discipline, tremendous will power, I am not speaking of Yoga of today. But in the early days, even in India, Yoga was treated like a dustbin. And to lift that subject to this level is not a joke. So I had to work, to find out, how to get my health back. When I got it back, I thought let me see what the art can teach me, so I reversed my mental clock the other way to observe what comes from the practice. Today what people call feedback system, I think I was born to learn this, to read my practice of what it gives, and what it is not giving. So that gave me a lot of knowledge. For me, Yoga is the union of my body with my mind, and my mind with the soul. Remember the definition. Though it is said that union of the individual with the universal is Yoga. I say how to unite the outer body to the inner body, outer mind to the inner mind, how it should reach the intelligence, and how to observe while practicing. So like the banks of the river, I use my outer body as one bank and the interior as another bank, and I had to measure the length and stretch of the body along with the length of the intelligence, whether the intelligence also has the same stretch. This didn’t come from other teachers, it came from within, study your intelligence, study your mind, where the mind is! If the mind existed when I was working on the chest, why is it not existing on my knee, so how to bring the mind on the knee as well as the chest, as well as in the aura. So like that I went on connecting the various parts of the body, and came to the conclusion that all asanas can be done with one aim of connecting from the skin to the self, and the self to the skin as a single river.
Did you find that your intuition developed?
BKS.Iyengar – It has come to me now. Intuitive knowledge came to me after 40-50 years of practice, not before.
You are known for your precision…
BKS.Iyengar – That I learned myself. What happened was when I was young… When I learned yoga, I was forced to teach. Yoga was not my choice, Yoga was a chance. A chance I had to take. My brother- in-law, Krishnamacharya, who is well known modern yogi and who is also responsible for Yoga to be established in the world, knowing well that from my birth I was suffering from ill health, never advised me to take to Yoga. Only at the age 16, he said why don’t you do some asanas to gain health. It took him 16 years to tell me this! So I started learning Yoga in 1934, and since 1936 I am teaching. So I was determined in myself to work and find the means of presenting each asana attractively, at that time there were very few books on Yoga. Then I thought, let me work on alignment, aligning the body, the mind, the fibers, the joints, the muscles. So I worked on the external level only, to align the visible body. Then from alignment, I went to the mind, how the mind can be aligned with the movement. Then I went a step further, why not all of the intelligence to be of the same equal length to the stretch of the body. Then when the intelligence started functioning; consciousness was moving everywhere. So that’s how I developed intuition.
So it’s a natural process if you really devote yourself to Yoga?
BKS.Iyengar – I started from my body.
It’s a scientific method…
BKS.Iyengar – It’s a revelation which came to me later. No doubt it’s a science, but revelation came to me how I should practice. That came from within. Try, try, try.. ..Try this way, try that way, I was discontented with all my practice. Nothing was coming to the surface, establishing, I had to repeat the same over and over again. If I felt here, why I did not feel anywhere else, how can I say I got this pose! Then I had to redo it, if I felt here why I am not feeling here? With the body distance, when I was practicing, I can say the distance was between Bombay to New York. (chuckles) So to bring that close, it led me to alignment; it let me to align each and every part. That led me to enlightenment, so actually alignment led me to enlightenment. The body is a treacherous friend. It is a friend if the mind knows how to use it. If the mind does not know, the body drags the mind, then it remains treacherous. So one has to be very careful. That’s how I learned, let my body be a friend to my body, and let my mind be a friend to my body.
What is disease and how to avoid it in life?
BKS.Iyengar – Disease means discomfort. Ease means comfort. So any infinitesimal disturbance in the body affects the mind. That is why we are called psychosomatic animals. But we have to know that there are somatic diseases, psychiatric diseases, and psychosomatic disease. Which comes on account of our way of living, or it may be destiny. What is destiny is today’s DNA test. Nothing new, modern terminology is DNA test. But people who are uneducated like us say it is destiny. We have to see what destiny has enforced on us.
The entire Patanjali book does not mention anywhere about disease, that Yoga is meant to get rid of discomfort to get rid of disease. It’s very interesting, and you will not hear about this from other people. Patanjali has only said what are the obstacles which come in the way of your sadhana. He does not define what they are, therefore, he guides people that we are made up of five bhootas (elements) – prithvi, tej, aptu, vayu and akash. (Earth, fire, water, air and ether) So five bhootas correspond to five koshas (sheaths) in the body and the first two elements, earth and water are gross elements. Similarly anatomical and physiological bodies are the gross structures in the human body. Then comes the element of fire, we call it tejas tattva, it is nothing but the power of your mind, the mind is in the center, the other two light elements, subtle elements, air and ether are on the other side. Yoga is meant to balance, with mind at the center as the needle of the scale of justice, so these two heavy elements are balanced equally with these two light elements. That is the meaning of ease, till then there is disease, because there is a difference between the gross elements and the subtle elements, so it is the mind which has to be trained to see how these two can be balanced. Psychotic diseases – depression, dejection, sorrows, all this comes not from soma, but from the psyche. This differentiation also has not been given by anybody else.
Somatic diseases come from the elements; psychotic diseases come from the weakness of the mind. Psychosomatic diseases come when the mind as well as the bhootas gets mingled together.
Patanjali says divide everything, know each and every part. When you know each and every part, then you know how to balance the five elements evenly, and that is ease. And that is health according to modern technology. This is what Yoga teaches, how to develop. So health is nothing but awareness. Keeping fit is not health, awareness is health. So that’s why I say health is not just physical fitness, but total attentive sensitivity in each and every cell of your body. And that is health. Your energy should be flowing in each and every cell. Like running water. It is an energy which is flowing, forward, not backward. If it flows forward it is health, if it flows backward, it is death. (chuckles) That is how practice of Yoga is taught to balance pancha bhootas, five elements; pancha koshas, five sheaths, so that man can live in a balanced state throughout life from birth to death. That is what Yoga has taught me. I practiced on account of disease, because I had disease. Now I am easy in every way.
While teaching Yoga, do you use intuition to guide people individually or is there a system?
BKS.Iyengar – I told you before that intuition did not come to me soon. I had the knack of observing more than teaching. When I was a young boy, I was not knowing much about yoga, I was not knowing much about the philosophy of the subject, so when I was called to teach at the age of 17 to Pune, you should know, I had not gone to school because of my ill health, I was a failed matriculate, and I had come from a poor family, so naturally I had to think what to do in life. So I said what little I know on Yoga, let me give a demonstration. So that’s how my life began. (chuckles) So when I came here, I was to teach the college students, when I had not even finished the school! And you know how college students are! So, I learned to see their weaknesses in their presentation, and make them do the pose according to their weaknesses. Observation made me a good teacher, not intuition. I learned by seeing the weaknesses of the human body. I used to imitate those weaknesses. That was the homework which I used to do; because I had no other knowledge. From that I went on learning, and learning and even today if I see from a distance, I can spot any weakness.
You have said that Yoga is a long and arduous path to realization. Could the process be quickened?
BKS.Iyengar – My friend, it’s a very impertinent question. Today yoga has become like a cheap thing in the market…. Dancers, how much they have to struggle to learn. Musicians, how much they have to work to get the quality, the sensitivity of presentation of resonance. Do you mean to say in Yoga there is no resonance? We use the body as an instrument, the fibers inside are the strings. So we have to tune those strings to the sound…. the element of ether which is nothing but sound. So we have to get the fine tuning of each fiber. Can you make that in a day or two? Ordinary intelligence only scratches the surface, so you have to sharpen your intelligence to go deep inside the body; this is where I devoted my time, that’s why I said I am a devotee. I respected my body; I got the knowledge from the body. I tapped the body for me to develop this knowledge. I did not behave like others that the body has no value. I used the body as a friend, it has got factual knowledge. The mind is just moving here and there, it has no foundation. Body intelligence has foundation. That’s what I learned, how the factual intelligence, analytical intelligence are balanced when we are learning the asana. So I had to balance these two, that’s why it’s a long process.
Ustad Allah Rakha, the tabla maestro, used to say to some students, “You think this is tabla? This is Yoga!” Would you say that the traditional Indian systems of dance and music…..
BKS.Iyengar – The base for all Indian arts was Yoga. The start is Yogika, Mallika, Dhanushya, Natya, Sangitika, Vyavharika. These are the six arts, with sub-arts from that. So the base is Yogika. Music is the universal oneness of sound. Yoga is also the universal oneness of the individual with the self. That is why it is Yoga. Yoga is everywhere.
I have heard, when people learn classical dance and music, to make the whole body balanced, you have to go through that same sort of agony and labour as in yoga……
BKS.Iyengar – Yes, as I said, the last element is Earth. Its character is expansion-contraction. Earth gives space, you have to move in Space, we have to create the subtlest element being, Akasha, that is the element of Ether, and that is Annamaya Kosha. The inside space is one with the outside space. So each asana has to be done with Chittakasha. Chitta means consciousness or Self. And Akasha means space. Oneness of the inner space with the outer space; and the outer space with the inner space is the definition of asana.
That means when you disappear, the inner and outer are one. The asana is so perfect, that you are not there.
BKS.Iyengar – Yes. That is the contact. That‘s why with Vigyanmaya Kosha, through touch you understand, whether your outer body is in contact with mahattatva. And consciousness is in contact with akasha. So union of these two, chittakasha and mahattakasha is the union of Yoga. That’s why when they speak of tabla, the sound, its whether they can catch the subtlest of the subtle sound. And sound is the characterstic of ether.
With Yoga and Ayurveda becoming so popular in the world, and through that people are getting introduced to India, Eastern religions and meditation. In the 21st century what else does India have to offer?
BKS.Iyengar – If you ask me, there are plenty of things to offer. India offered the Zero. Today Yoga is there, music has been appreciated by people. And later even the sanskriti of our Indian culture, the heritage, the behavioral pattern of way of living, will be the next one that the 21st century will catch on to. I will tell you how. If you go to any of my institutions in the western countries, you cannot go in with your shoes on. Why? We don’t want the germs that may come with the shoes. So is that not a new thing for them? Once I told them, be in contact with Mother Earth, why are you doing Yoga with socks. Why are you creating a difference with Mother Earth, on which our lives are dependent? This is how they learn. These are the things which are going to come. One thing is definite that Yoga has caught people more in the West, rather than music or dance. You can find thousands of people practicing yoga, but you won’t find even hundreds saying they are a musician. Because they have understood. Yoga is a subjective art. It gives health, it gives happiness, it gives contentment. It gives joy, to live the life for that. And the worthiness of life. All these things are taught in Yoga, but without theory.
I also feel it relaxes the nervous system which for the modern man is extremely useful…
BKS.Iyengar – Correct. Yoga is definitely… You know how I would answer that question? People when they are stressed they go to Mahabaleshwar. They go to Manali, right? They say they have gone for relaxation. What is the meaning of that relaxation? Change of atmosphere. So here you do the asana, the atmosphere of your mind changes immediately. Why go there? You can change your atmosphere in two minutes. (Chuckles) I’m speaking about mental weather. (Chuckles) Mental weather changes in yoga very fast. I spoke to you about the elements. Earth element is the foundation. Energy has to be distributed, by the element of ether, production is done by the element of Earth. In between are three elements of air, water and fire. So the neurological system, respiratory system, circulatory system, belongs to these elements which Ayurveda calls vata, pitta and sleshama. If there is a deviation in vata, pitta or sleshama, they are called diseases. Patanjali is the only person who says if it is mixed with gunas, (guna is a state of mind–an attitude) it is psychosomatic disease, that is rajas, tamas and sattva. If gunas does not work, it is somatic disease. If gunas work, it is psychosomatic disease. That’s the science of Yoga. How to balance all these things. So that’s how the Yogis gave this thought for us to build up from the outer body, the temple, so that you can go to the sanctum santorum, inside, which is the core of the being.
BKS.Iyengar – In the early days I used to teach using my body. I was going house to house teaching, then when the institution came, I thought how to get each individual to practise in a group. I started experimenting, people with paralysis and strokes were coming. Suppose it happens to me… Then on my 60th birthday, I had two scooter accidents simultaneously. One hit from one side, and one from the other. Yoga is equanimity, so my pain was also equal to me. I could not even lift my hand. It took me 15-20 years to get my spine back staight. So that is the tenacity that the art gave me, that I should not become a victim. I lost all movements, I was a raw beginner, then again I built up, I said I will not cut my hair, people should not recognize me, that I am Iyengar, such a desperate state had come. I said I will only go back to my original haircut if I get the entire control back, and it took me 25 years to get it back. At that time I tried props because I could not take the load on my hands, I could not take the load on my spine. Then I started creating. I said suppose I lose my hand, what have I to do? Suppose I lose my leg, what have I to do? So like that I built up props, and then I started practicing. Now I don’t use them. I prepared props in such a way, that no person can do wrong posture. Even today, the most difficult pose, kapyan pose, I can teach even the beginners on the props, because they can do with confidence. So confidence and will power is built up by these props.
So you are personally responsible for spreading Yoga around the world in a big way…
BKS.Iyengar – All this credit of becoming popular, I give to my friend Yehudi Menuhin, the world famous violinist, he had some problems, he could not even hold the violin, it was so painful. By chance he saw a book on Yoga at the airport in New Zealand. While he was reading, he said this is what I want to learn. Then it so happened that Jawaharlal Nehru invited him to play some free concerts in India for Famine Relief Fund. So he came and played. At that time, he wanted to meet as many yogis as he could to take lessons. When I met him in 1954, I was given two minutes to meet him. I refused to go. I said who will go all the way, that time it was a five hour journey. Ten hour journey, five to go and five back, and to meet him for two minutes. I said nonsense! I will not go. Then Mehli Mehta, Zubin Metha’s father, and all his friends insisted, Mr. Iyengar, you have to come. It’s in your hands. So, it happened that he invited me. I went there, he was in Raj Bhavan. I said, ”You have asked me here to know about Yoga, you want to know practiucally what Yoga is or you want to know theoretically?” He laughed, and he said, “I want to know practically”. Then I gave a demonstration which took me 45 minutes, and he was very much impressed. So two minutes into 45 minutes… Then I told him “Sir, you’ve seen me. But I read in the morning papers that you did a head balance in front of Nehru. So why don’t you show me?” The moment he did it, he was gasping for breath. Then what I did was, I said, “Please come down, I will correct your head balance and see how you feel then” When I readjusted the head balance, he said, “I have not enjoyed this type of quietness though I was practiisng Sirsasana”, I told him,” just now you’ve got up from bed, but still you are not relaxed, I will take you into Savasana, I will manipulate your nerves”, so I took my hands like this, we call it Shanmukhimudra. I brought his ears and his eyes close to each other with finger manipulation. They went inside, and he went to sleep, for 50 minutes, I could not remove my fingers, they were stuck to his eyes, like gum, and 50 minutes is not a joke. So naturally, if I move, he wakes up. I wanted him to wake up naturally, not artificially. Even the Governor said, lots of people are waiting, you are wasting time. Please, leave him. Several times they came, disturbing me. Even Homi Bhabha was there on that day. Then his eyes opened, I got up, and said, “Thank you very much. Lots of people are waiting for you, I am going.” He said, “I have not even said one word to you, how can you go?” Then he called me, “Can you come and teach me?” So I agreed, I taught him for four days in Bombay. His concert was in Regal Theater, in 1954, it was a success. Then he went to Madras, Delhi, and Calcutta – failure. Nowhere did he play well. On his return there was another concert in Bombay. He called me, please come. So I went, again the concert was a grand success. Then he said your teaching has something to do with it, can you please come to Switzerland and teach me. So all the credit goes to him, a wizard in the field of music, and a highly intellectual man, he introduced me to the cream of the world. But I told him, “Sir, I have not come here to teach the cream of the world, I want to go to the poor people”, so I started conducting classes for poor people, and that’s how Yoga became popular in the world. So I give credit to him.
BKS.Iyengar – 1938 (Silent)
I liked what you said somewhere, that every asana has its own religiosity. Could you talk about that?
BKS.Iyengar – Each asana has its own beauty. Each asana has something to give for the living cells. You know, the bees go in search of a flower to take the flavour of the flower to form the honey. So similarly, you should know, you have to taste the honey of each asana, totally, completely. Then only will they know the nectar of the asana, Asana does not come to you, you have to go to the asana. So it does not come in two days or three days, sometimes some flowers have no flavour at all. The bees try here and there…So similarly, the way you do the asana, if you do like that, the nectar does not come, so people leave Yoga. But me, I cannot leave, something new is coming.
Yoga being the perfect science of health are there any simple methods for quick relief from common problems like…
BKS.Iyengar – Quick relief will definitely come, but you have to eradicate from the source, so that it does not recur again. That’s why continuity is needed. Yoga also treats symptoms in the beginning. But one has to go deep in order to eradicate the root. I was in America a few years ago and my lungs were examined. I told you I was suffering from tuberculosis. And I took to Yoga. At that time I was 75 old years. The doctors said that even an Olympic champion will not have this type of lungs,. They said your lungs are so tender, like a baby’s. That means I have maintained my body still at that state. Though I’m 88, as you can see my body is still young. That’s why I’m happy. I’m not dependent at all. And that’s my job. So if people ask me, have you led a spiritual life? I say I don’t care if I led a spiritual life or not. I am leading a happy, contented life. What more could I want?
Portraits of BKS.Iyengar by Kamakshi