Yesterday was the 90th Birthday of Yoga Master B.K.S. Iyengar. We helped celebrate his birthday in fine style with members of the Yoga community in Perth by dedicated practice sessions, lunch and other activities.
Now there are mixed views on Mr Iyenar’s approach to yoga, some people finding it highly competitive and intense. Others however, myself included, see it as a God-send. Iyengar Yoga has been the only form of Hatha yoga I can access. The sequences and props devised by Mr Iyengar means that I, inflexible as I am, can actually do the yoga and can actually benefit from it. Before Mr Iyengar came into my life (even when practicing other forms of Hatha Yoga) back pain was a constant companion. Now I am pain free :). For this alone I cheerfully wished him a big and grateful “Happy Birthday!”
There are also criticisms of Iyengar Yoga from those who, very rightly, see yoga as a spiritual art far, far removed from the stretching exercise routine it has become in most western eyes. This view is compounded by the lack of regulation of Yoga teachers in Australia, meaning a six week gym trained “teacher” is seen to be equivalent to a three year trained certified Iyengar teacher. Ho hum.
Now obviously most Iyengar classes focus almost exclusively Hatha Yoga with some Pranayama, not touching directly upon the other yogas. However, anyone who has read anything by Mr Iyengar would know he is a master of these yogas also and they are taught in the higher reaches of his tradition. His Light on Life is an incredibly beautiful exposition of the Yogic path, conveying profound truths through simplicity and beauty, the way only a Master of an art can.
As far as I can understand the initial emphasis on the physical in Iyengar yoga is to allow us to realise the inherent divinity of the body, our incarnation, before progressing to other spiritual work since we need this realisation before any progress is to be made upon the path. And this realisation needs to be actualised and felt, not as a statement of intention, eco-ethics or pagan belief/worship.
There is a distinct difference between the realisations of bodily divinity through earth based (pagan) practices, outside in the bush (or in a circle on the lounge room floor) and that obtained by breathing through discomfort while focused on moving body and energy to a deeper level in a difficult asana. Each sanctifies a different aspect of our relationship to the universe through our incarnated state, our body, and though I feel both are needed, the deeper more profound experiences have come to me in asana.
Whatever our views on Iyengar yoga, I think it is clear that without Mr Iyengar’s missionary work yoga in the western world would be very different. Nearly all forms of yoga in the west are descended or influenced from his work, or that of fellow students of his Master Sri Krishnamacharya.
I have had some discussion with elderly folk concerning the state of yoga pre WWII in England and the US. There were no certified training schools as such, no traditions and a plethora of corrupt and shonky teachers making it up as they went along from the few books that were published on the subject. A good marker of the parlous state of the yoga during this period is that Aleister Crowley was considered a master of yoga by many, even those who decried his morals or magic. With the advent of Mr Iyengar’s teaching in the western world, all this began to change for the better.
As a child Mr Iyengar was not expected to live beyond his mid twenties due to poor health. His Master Krishnamarcharya changed all that by teaching him yoga. And so, now at ninety he is still practicing yoga twice a day, headstands for 45 minutes, teaching and guiding and inspiring millions. And I can sit for hours at the computer, sloth around on the couch and still not feel pain if I do my practice. Thank you, Mr Iyengar.