Violinist Yehudi Menuhin made headlines for conducting the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with his feet, while standing on his head, at the centenary celebration of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1982.
Menuhin was 66, and he had yoga guru and longtime friend Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja (BKS) Iyengar to thank for his hardheadedness.
“No one is too old or too stiff, too fat or thin or tired for yoga,” said BKS, the man largely credited with mainstreaming yoga across borders and continents.
His tryst with yoga began at 16 and ended only when he passed away on Wednesday, aged 95.
The son of a poor schoolteacher, BKS spent much of his childhood in bed, battling frequent attacks of malaria, tuberculosis and typhoid. Then he found yoga. In two years, the sickly teenager had transformed into a yogi so skilled that his brother-in-law and guru, T Krishnamacharya, sent him to Pune to teach.
“Yoga saved my life. I took it up for my health, and then I took it up as a mission,” said BKS, who could do half-hour headstands (sirsasana) till late last year. Learning from his own life, he used yoga to heal and restore others.
Among the many stories you hear at his Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune is the one about him asking his daughter to bring him a brick from the garden to help support a student struggling to hold an asana or posture. She brought him a brick, which metamorphosed into the now familiar ‘yoga block’. BKS also gave the world the yoga chair, yoga blanket, yoga ropes and yoga straps.
By using props, he unintentionally devised his own style of restorative and strengthening yoga, which took his name and is now taught in more than 70 nations.
Props are a crutch towards perfection, believed BKS, who encouraged students to use them not only to improve stability, flexibility and strength but also to perfect alignment and hold postures for long stretches. This, he believed, gave yogis mental toughness, which he said yoga-evangelist Ramdev lacked.
The stillness, he believed, brought physical and emotional equilibrium. “By drawing our senses of perception inward, we are able to experience the control, silence, and quietness of the mind,” he said in his 2006 book, Light on Life.
Everyone who spent time with BKS has more than a few anecdotes to share. His yoga and these memories will keep him in this world for years to come.
He took yoga to the masses: Nivedita Joshi
(Nivedita Joshi was stricken by cervical spondylosis and bedridden for eight years until BKS Iyengar helped her get back on her feet. Today, she heads Yogakshema, the only accredited Iyengar Yoga centre in Delhi. Here, she remembers her early days with Guruji)
I got in touch with Guruji in 1996. My physiotherapist recommended that I join his studio in Pune. When Guruji saw me for the first time, he instantly told me what I was suffering from. I was surprised, because it had taken 12 years and numerous x-rays and only recently had I got an exact diagnosis from my doctors. And Guruji had not studied science or medicine. As a microbiologist, I found this fascinating. That is my earliest memory of Guruji.
When I met him, Guruji had said he was disappointed with the student who had been teaching me, because there had been no improvement in my condition after six months at the Pune studio. He said he would teach me himself.
I had heard that he was a difficult person. As I studied under him, I realised that he was an intense teacher, extremely passionate about yoga. And he had no ego. He was a truly dedicated practitioner.
The most inspiring facet of his life was how he took yoga to the masses. Unlike other yoga gurus around the world, he tried to find ways for everyone to practice yoga. He was the greatest giver I know. Even in his eighties, every time he devised a new asana, he would try it on himself before asking others to do it.
I had intended to stay at the Pune studio for a month, but destiny had other plans.
At some point, Guruji discovered that I was the daughter of [BJP leader] Murli Manohar Joshi. He was upset that I had not told him. He asked me why I hadn’t. I said, “You didn’t ask me; I didn’t tell you.” Eventually he calmed down and said I could leave the ashram only when he allowed me to. It took three years to get me past the high-risk stage of my condition.
I was an average student but a diligent follower. That created a kind of synchrony between the two of us. For instance, one day he pointed to my neck and asked me to move my skin up and my flesh down. He believed I could do it and I didn’t let him down.
Guruji often urged me to take up teaching, but I always felt I was not ready for it. I had no inclination to teach. That would leave him a bit disappointed. He would say that he had taught me so much, was I not ready to pass it on? This prodding continued for eight years.
One day, he asked me to assist him during a class that he was conducting for a batch of foreigners. I said I was not yet ready to assist. So he said I could just observe him in class; I agreed. When I saw him teaching that day, it was a different feeling and I emerged elated. I told him that the feeling was something I had never experienced before.
“So now will you teach?” he asked, and I said, “Yes.”
He said he would support me till his last breath. He was so true to his words.
(As told to Danish Raza)