Mr Iyengar: In the presence of a living legend

A funny conversation in a shopping centre
Yesterday early evening I was in a shopping centre in the suburbs of Pune making the most of the free wifi. I sat on a comfy sofa having a chai listening to Rhianna sing about umbrellas again. A young Indian guy asked me if the seat opposite was free. He couldn’t have been more than 20 and soon introduced himself as Dave. This is the conversation we had:

Dave: Where are you from?
Me: London England (a well rehearsed response)
Dave: I have a friend studying at Kingston. You know it?
Me: Yes. [I keep head down, tapping on my iPad trying to stop yet another Indian guy talking to me]

A few minutes later…

Dave: Why are you sitting here in this shopping centre?
Me: There’s a yoga place around the corner that I wanted to visit – the Iyengar Institute.
Dave: Oh I think my mum used to go there.
Me: Your mum went there? She studied with Iyengar? Wow, that’s amazing.
Dave: Is it?
Me: Yeah. You have to have been studying Iyengar yoga for eight years just to get in there. BKS Iyengar, the man behind Iyengar yoga, he started it there. Just a five minute walk from here. I went there this afternoon and sat in on a class he was teaching. People from all over the world come to study with him… and your mum went there!
Dave: Oh ok. She has been doing yoga for years. So what clubs do you go to in London?
Me: I don’t really go clubbing much.
Dave: What?! You live in London and you don’t go clubbing? There’s some of the best clubs in the world there.

[I smiled and then carried on typing on my iPad.]

A few minutes later he tried again…

Dave: Where are you staying in Pune?
Me: Koregaon Park.
Dave: You’ve come all the way here from KP? That’s so far!
Me: It isn’t really. People travel a lot further to study with Iyengar.
Dave: Have you been to any parties or clubs in KP? All the best ones are over there.
Me: The only dancing I’ve been doing is in a maroon robe, in a place where people follow Ming the Merciless.*

* I would have loved to have said this out loud but the poor boy already thought I was a nutter. See my previous post if this doesn’t make any sense to you.

Isn’t it funny how people can be motivated by such different things. He’d visit my country to go clubbing, I’d visit his to do down-facing dog.

I witness Mr Iyengar in action
Let me tell you about my experience that afternoon with Mr BKS Iyengar or ‘Guruji’ to his students. For those yoga virgins out there, BKS Iyengar is one of the great grandaddies of yoga. He’s 93 and his impact on yoga cannot be underestimated. A lot of yoga taught throughout the world is influenced by Iyengar – with its focus on alignment and the use of props such as blocks, bolsters and straps – and Iyengar classes are very popular.

He set up the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune in 1975 and you must have been studying Iyengar yoga for eight years to be considered for a place.

I turned up and was greeted by a kind-faced middle-aged lady. She started telling me how I couldn’t take any classes but I stepped in to say that I was in Pune and I just wanted to look around if possible. “Of course! You have done a very good thing,” she beamed at me. “Let me just finish my tea and I will give you a tour.”

I sat gawping at trophies and awards in cabinets. The walls were full of photos of Guruji, certificates, newspaper and magazine articles and photos of groups of students in baggy t-shirts and small shorts that had elastic around the thighs.

“Ok, we go”, she said, placing her teacup onto its saucer for the final time. I followed her through a corridor past yet more pictures. We went up a curved flight of stairs and she told me to sit on them. The staircase was open and, once I sat down, I had a full view of the semi-circular practice hall.

The lady told me that a remedial class was taking place and that I could stay and watch for as long as I liked. There were probably 30 students in the space along with a staggering array of wooden blocks, stools, bolsters, cushions, metal bars and ropes hanging from the walls. Around the top of the semicircle were row upon row of black and white photos of a young Iyengar in asanas.

People busied themselves putting others into postures and there, at the front perched on the edge of a platform was the great man himself. The lady pointed out his daughter – a middle-aged lady who hobbled around in an orange sari, and his granddaughter – a well built girl in high-waisted lime green shorts, t-shirt, and a long black plait down her back. Both she and her mother were kept busy taking instructions from Guruji, putting a man with bandaged legs into various asanas.

I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was smaller than I imagined and did not look all of his 93 years. White hair trailed down to his shoulders and his eyebrows looked like clumps of cotton wool. He wore a white lungi and a white grandad shirt.

He coughed often and looked frail but you would never mess with him. It was lovely to see the bandaged man touch his feet as a sign of respect. Guruji batted him away.

I watched the class for about an hour. I have never seen so many props in an asana hall. The man was put into savasana with three rows of three bolsters placed down his bandaged legs plus weights – at Guruji’s strict instructions. Throughout the hall students were in different poses, working in twos. They were hanging upside down in ropes on the walls, lying on their backs with legs through chairs, dangling in various supported backbends… you name it, they were doing it.

It was great to see people doing some of the things that Michel did with us on our teacher training. He has studied at the Institute with Mr Iyengar.

Guruji then looked at the clock and got up to leave. His granddaughter was instantly at his side and led him out of the room. People were told they had time for one more asana. Soon after, I left and found myself chatting to Dave in the shopping centre.

I felt so blessed to have been in the same room as Guruji. Even at his age, he was so in control, knowing exactly how he wanted the props set up and the energy in the room was buzzing. It was such a special experience and one I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

And I’m sure he looked at me on at least one occasion…

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