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Interview with BKS Iyengar

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  • "I took yoga in order to improve my health, because I suffer from tuberculosis"
  • "The body has to be balanced to the level of the mind"
  • "I turned them, and ... they respect, not only yoga, but even Indians now"
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PUNE, India (CNN) -- A 1938 yoga instruction video, the first of its kind. If yoga is a worldwide cultural phenomenon today, it is thanks to one man -- the grandmaster of yoga, BKS Iyengar. From a previously complex discipline only passed down from master to student, Iyengar -- or Guru ji, as he is respectfully called -- took yoga to the masses.


Yoga master BKS Iyengar, or Guru ji

Guru ji started practicing yoga to cure his own illness, tuberculosis. But a fortuitous meeting with violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1952 opened his doors to the West. He simplified complex yoga asanas, or poses, and performed thousands of demonstrations for the benefit of his new audience, transforming a mystical secret practice into a science, therapy and art accessible to everyone. The focus is on precision and proper alignment of the body.

Now 88 years old, Guru ji presides from his institute in Pune, India, where he still supervises classes. Students come from all over the world to learn what has been branded "Iyengar yoga," a term he himself does not like to use, but a trademark with a huge following. Yoga and the commercial world surrounding it is now a multibillion-dollar industry, courses come in various styles and names, but the pioneer of it all, Guru Iyengar, prefers to keep it simple. We meet at his prestigious institute in Pune.


AR: Guruji, welcome to Talk Asia. Now, yoga has completely taken the world by storm, and you've been credited with essentially being a huge part of that transition. Did you ever expect to make such an impact globally?

BKS: Well, when I went to England, Switzerland, in 1954, never I thought that yoga would catch the world so fast. Though I went to the West in 1954, but I could capture the public only in 1961. So it took me seven years to build up that interest, by giving hundreds and hundreds of demonstrations to attract people towards the subject. But after 1961, I started treating some of the students who have been ailing for a very long period, and that boosted fast, so I think that the credit goes on the healing section of yoga, which took the West by storm.

AR: But it's an ancient Indian practice, why do you think that so many people in the West have taken it on and are now using it as a way of their life?

BKS: First, it was only for the pleasures and the joys of the world. They all want sexual pleasures, sensual pleasures, happiness, joy. So I gave certain postures which triggers such things. And then later I told them, so you want this or do you want something more? And this was the turning point where people started getting interest on the spiritual aspect of life. It took a long time, but the transformation afterwards was very, very fast.

AR: You were named by Time magazine as one of the world's most influential people. Did you ever see something like that coming?

BKS: No, I never thought of, that's what I'm saying, I never even dreamt that I would become a world figure. I took yoga in order to improve my health, because I suffer from tuberculosis, so my aim was to get rid of the tuberculosis. But circumstances forced me, and people started asking me teach yoga. So I took to yoga as a mission later.

AR: As far as Iyengar yoga is concerned, how does that help people?

BKS: You know, I saw lots of people practicing yoga where there is absolutely no foundation or firmness in the presentations, and I thought that this type of yoga is not going to help anyone, because it's going to die, because it's like a dust, gathering dust. So I made up my mind, that in order to attract people, I said that each and every fiber of my body, while presenting the asanas, without contortion, without distortion, without attraction, that each and every part of our fibers, sinus, muscles should run parallel to each of them in the core areas. So I started practicing to bring alignment on the joints, on the wrists, on the fingers, on the muscles, on the right and the left, the back and the front... Then it gave me an idea that asanas have to be presented in a measured form.

AR: Asanas being the physical movements.

BKS: Something struck me that this is not enough, so I had to bring my mind and my intelligence to spread as I stretch, to contract as my muscles contract. And that created a new dimension of presentation, and that new dimension of presentation attracted people more and more. They realized that the body has to be balanced to the level of the mind, and it should be in par with the intelligence of the highest wisdom.

AR: In recent years though, we have seen the emergence of other types of yoga: yoga for babies, yoga for mothers, disco yoga, kickboxing yoga, all of this. And there does seem to be a huge commercial aspect to it. Does that disturb you in any sense? Do you think we're getting away from the point?

BKS: No, it does disturb me. It does disturb me, because yoga is a science. Yoga is a science which makes one to associate the body to the mind, and the mind to the intelligence, and intelligence to the consciousness and consciousness to the self. When such a noble subject, today, it has become a commercial presentation, it's painful to me. But many people have taken the advantage, learning something and calling different names and attracting people. I don't think that yoga is going to survive.


AR: Guru ji, this center was built and named after your late wife. Tell us a little bit about this establishment and why you decided to hold it forever in honor of her?

BKS: You know, when I got married, she was not knowing anything about yoga, one. Secondly, when I was practicing, I could not share my knowledge as a comparative study with anyone, so naturally I was practicing with so much attention -- 10 hours a day, I used to practice -- but still, I have no mirror to even look all my position is about. So there was struggle going on between me. So then I thought that I should some more of that, present myself. So I thought, when I accepted to marry, I said I'll use my wife as a mirror for me to learn the process. So it so happened that my wife completely gave everything for my practice. She never called me one day, let us go to cinema together, she never said, let us go to market together, then I said, no, no, if you want to you can practice, I will go. So that affection she had for me to learn this subject made me to name this institute after her.

AR: And I suppose it was with her assistance that you are able to sort of pull poses like that. Absolutely remarkable, tell us a little bit about these sculptures.

BKS: For example if you look at these postures, I do even now. Now you can see the energy is completely distributed evenly everywhere. You know, many people, if you do these scorpion pose, we call it swikasana, you'll see their hands are collapsing, their buttocks are collapsing in order to rest the head, now here. It's in ascending order, from the finger, you can see my energy is moving up, and even though my feet are placed on my head, you see the leg muscles going up but not down. So this way I steadied each and every part.

AR: How do you do that? You just squeeze everything?

BKS: Not at all, it's full of expansion and extension. You can see the armpit also, whole leg stretched, so there is no collapse, so my energy flows.

AR: Just remarkable. How many students do you have here?

BKS: Here? There're about 700 to 800 students.

AR: I was noticing that there were quite a lot of Indian faces, but also non-Indian faces amongst the class. What sort of people come here?

BKS: Mostly local people come here, but in the month of July, August, September, October, December, January, foreigners come. Because 90 percent of the people who come here are all teachers, more teachers than students. Because they want to learn, so that when they go back they can act more strategically for their teachings.

AR: Obviously they know very well who you are, it must be a tremendous honor for them to be here. Tell me, when you were making your international presence known, was there one instance that sort of stood out to you and said: Oh my god, that's how much reach I have, that is how much influence I have?

BKS: Pride did not go into my head, that is certain. But the moment my students were coming, are you, the affection increased to a certain extent, I treat them as my own children.

AR: It was in 1952, when you had a chance meeting with the acclaimed violinist Yehudi Menuhin, that you really came to international attention. How did that all come about?

BKS: Well, I was not knowing who he was. When he came to India everybody said, Mr. Iyengar, do you know him? I said no, I don't know who he is, then they said he is the number one violinist in the world and you have to see him, and I went and I saw him. It so happened and in The Times of India, there was a write-up that he did shisasan along with Nehru. Then I knew he knew about yoga. And then he asked me what yoga is. So I told him, instead of asking, instead of my explaining to you what yoga is, would you like to see what I do? He said yes, I would be very happy. Then it took me about 45 minutes, I presented my whole course. Then I told him, would you like to show me shisasan? He said yes. So the moment I adjusted him and took him, he said I've never felt this sense of joy, elation.

AR: So when you first went over to Europe, how were you received by people there?

BKS: The British had ruled over India for hundreds of years so to be honest. It was very, very difficult for an Indian to move to England with his head up. And they all treated me that I am a slave, though I'd gone at the invitation to teach yoga, but still, I was a slave to them. So that was also a thing which I said, now, how to work for these slave-drivers to become my slave-drivers?

AR: But then how did you convince people that yoga was the way to go?

BKS: Because my mind was only stuck to yoga. I wanted to make yoga very popular. So that was a very difficult task. At that time to propagate your goal was not easy. Today of course, human beings are taught evenly everywhere, but at that time, it was not there. For example, I was not alone in England. You know, Hotel Deviar I will stay, because I was a guest of Mehnuhin. Mehnuhin booked a place with Hotel Deviar in Kensington Road. Hotel Deviar people said because we can't lose my customer Menuhin, we are to keep you. You are black, you cannot have food or breakfast in the breakfast hall. And also, same happen to me in 1956 when I went to America. I was not allowed to go unless the whites passed in New York airport. So only blacks were allowed to go at the end, not first. But because I was a fast walker, I could go fast but they told me no, please go out, you cannot enter, you cannot go fast, you are the last. Because I was the only colored man there, in that plane, coming from India.

AR: And did it never occur to you, did you not say to yourself, ok, if that's the way you think, you don't get the benefit of my training -- I'm going back to India and you'll suffer?

BKS: Well, I could have fought, but I said I'll come to yoga, my mind was to propagate yoga, let me win. So I accepted the embarrassment, and today, I'm the king of America, in the field of yoga. So that is the change you know, transformation, which has taken place in the minds of those people. The turning it, I created that turning in them, I turned them, and by the grace of God, they respect, not only yoga, but even Indians now.


AR: We're back on Talk Asia with yoga master BKS Iyengar. Guru ji, what is the philosophy behind your brand of yoga?

BKS: Don't call my brand of yoga, again I tell you, please. I improved the subject quality-wise, that's all. I brought precision in the presentations, so it is as old as civilization. So naturally it is the traditional yoga in which I say I must've dressed the subject a little for the people to get attracted to it.

AR: Is that why there are all these props around like ropes and blocks and things?

BKS: No, these props are meant, because lots of people were suffering from various ailments and they were not getting the benefit by allopathic treatment, and many of them cannot do yoga independently, which was a strain. So I traced these props, these instruments, so they can do them with comfort and get the benefit of yoga.

AR: I think one of the difficult things to understand is how exactly the asanas, the physical positions, help you realize your inner self?

BKS: You know, my friend, you are mistaken. You know, it's not a physical position. Body is an external self. Mind is an internal self. The real self is invisible. As the water is stored in a vessel, so this self is stored in a vessel, the body. So unless... Until the body is cleansed, purified, sanctified, how can you enter the gates of the soul? The body is like a fort, it's called purusha. Pura means a fort, so you have to enter the seven gates one after the other, from the skin, to the flesh, from the flesh to the mind, mind to intelligence, intelligence to the consciousness, consciousness to highness, highness to the conscience, conscience to the self. So there are so many gates in this fort. So unless you open the front gate, how can you enter the second gate or the third gate? That's the value of yoga. Yoga makes us to open the first gate so that the air may enter in, the cosmic force may enter in, and through that cosmic force, the other gates are entered, so that the external so-called body is one united with the internal self, the capital line which you don't change at all.

AR: Have you ever thought about where you would be if you didn't have yoga in your life?

BKS: Probably, I would have died long ago. I would not have lived.

AR: Why do you think that?

BKS: Because I was suffering from tuberculosis. Even the insurance company, doctors knew that I would not, I would not survive long. Then I was 25 years old. Now I'm reaching 90, so yoga has given me a bonus life of 75 years, how happy I am! (laughs)

AR: Two of your six children work here in this center. How do you hope that they will advance what you've begun?

BKS: Yoga can be practiced by all, but it is for the yoga to grace whether the person is fit or not. But one thing is that my children are definitely in yoga. They are soaked in yoga. All my children have that quality of affection to yoga.

AR: Guru ji, such a pleasure to meet you today, thank you very much.


BKS: Thank you, thank you.

AR: And that does it for this edition of Talk Asia, thanks for being with us. I'm Anjali Rao, my guest has been BKS Iyengar, yoga master and of course, founder of Iyengar yoga. I'll see you again soon, bye-bye. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About YogaIndiaThe Times of India

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