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For Yoga Guru, Reaching Perfection Is a Stretch

For Yoga Guru, Reaching Perfection Is a Stretch

Author: Amy Waldman
Publication: The New York Times
Date: December 14, 2002

On Dec. 14, B. K. S. Iyengar will celebrate his 84th birthday the same way he celebrates every day. He will bend and pull his body into a series of asanas, or postures, that most men one-fourth his age could not match.

"Practice is my feast," he said of yoga.

On a recent morning, a stopwatch at his side, he bent his back over a stool, his fingertips and toes touching the floor. He did a headstand for six minutes, swiveling his legs right, then left. He balanced upside down on his forearms, his feet against the wall. He did another headstand, curving both legs back in a graceful arc.

His yoga practice was a wonder, a testament to a life of will and discipline. When he finished, his shoulder-length hair awry, he seemed physically depleted and said he was dehydrated. But his expression was that of a gleeful child who could not quite believe what he had just done.

Around him in the institute he founded in 1973, mostly Western acolytes were, in theory, doing their own practice. But in truth, they were mainly watching the man they call guruji, whose feet they bowed to touch as he walked by.

The reason was simple. Perhaps no one has done more than Mr. Iyengar to bring yoga to the West. Long before Christy Turlington was gracing magazine covers, decades before power yoga was a multimillion-dollar business, Mr. Iyengar was teaching Americans, among others, the virtues of asanas and breath control.

He has trained hundreds of teachers who have spread his way of practicing, an approach sometimes using props like blankets, ropes and chairs, and requiring a deep concentration on technique that can mean holding poses for many minutes at a time.

He is also one of the most penetrating writers on yoga, its physical practice and its more than 2,200-year-old philosophy, alive today. His book, "Light on Yoga," with instructions on more than 200 asanas, is sold in 17 languages more than 35 years after he first published it.

"Iyengar means yoga," he said proudly. "Yoga means Iyengar. They are synonymous terms."

His bridge to the West came decades ago in the form of the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who heard about the yogi on a trip to Bombay in 1952 and summoned him for a five-minute interview, at 7 a.m.

Mr. Iyengar reluctantly made what was then a seven-hour journey to Bombay. The five-minute interview became a three-and-a-half-hour session that bloomed into a lifelong friendship. Mr. Menuhin credited Mr. Iyengar with transforming his playing and took him to Switzerland, where other musicians sought his tutelage as well.

Today Mr. Iyengar's hair is gray, his face shrunken, his body both softer and stiffer than when he was at his muscled, fantastically limber prime. "I must guard myself," he said.

But the goal is the same: to illuminate and discover, through physical movements, new corners of the body and the mind.

Yoga is an art, he says, with the body as the instrument, as well as a science. It is his religion, and he lives strictly by its tenets, including eating purely as a vegetarian.

The young Iyengar would hardly have been voted most likely to become a world-famous yogi. He was born poor in Karnataka during the global influenza epidemic, which afflicted his mother. His childhood was plagued by illness after illness: malaria, typhoid, influenza, tuberculosis.

His education finished at 16 or 17 when he failed his matriculation exam in English by three points. What did it matter? Doctors predicted he would not live past 20 anyway.

Yoga, he observed wryly, "has given me a bonus of 65 years."

He began practicing at 16, under the tutelage of his brother-in-law, T. Krishnamacharya, a strict taskmaster who trained a generation of teachers in the last century. The training was tough. Mr. Iyengar had spent so much time in bed that his body had no elasticity. It took six years to get his health back.

Partly from fear of becoming a "parasite" again, partly from curiosity to see where yoga would lead him, he devoted himself to practice. He found, he said, "emotional stability, intellectual clarity, spiritual delight."

If the internal rewards were rich, the external ones came slowly. He was so poor that he sometimes sustained himself on little but rice and water, walking from village to village to demonstrate his feats of flexibility and strength for a few coins.

"I had tenacity," he said. "That is a fact."

He trained his wife, Ramamani, brought to him via an arranged marriage, to be his teacher so that he could master the poses. "My only friend was my wife, my only sharer, my partner, my guide, my philosopher," he said.

Just when he had finally acquired a building to teach from, she died abruptly in 1973. In 30 years he has never remarried. In her honor he created the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute, which still teaches the unique approach to yoga he devised in those years of frailty and solitary practice.

When he first brought his teaching to the West, neither Europe nor America exactly rolled out the red carpet. On his first trip to New York, in 1956, he was told to let the white people leave the airport first. No one was interested in yoga.

He kept teaching. By the time he returned to America, in 1973, he found hundreds of students waiting. Now across America, Europe and four other continents there are Iyengar institutes, teachers and associations.

In his wake, in the West has come a yoga industry that is more crassly commercial and purely physical than the holistic practice he has taught and advocated. Ask him about yoga's current faddishness and Mr. Iyengar's impish warmth gives way to a touch of cantankerousness.

"I think many of my students have followed the advice I gave years ago, to give more than you take," he said, bristling in particular at one yogi-come- lately who felt compelled to open studios near his. "The commercialism may wash off sometime later."

Today he lives behind his light-filled institute, which is decorated with sculptures of him in different asanas, in a house that various children - he has six, two of whom run the institute - and relatives rotate through.

He is regularly honored in India, but other than that it is a simple life. "How can I forget my early days?" he said. Something of that youthful fear of slipping back to dependence, passivity, helplessness seems to have stuck. It is there in his explanation of why even in his advanced years he will not stop, but also why he is so careful not to injure himself.

"I can't say, 'I'm old, so I don't want to do it,' " he said. "The escapism of other people, I don't want."

At 11:11 a.m. he lay on his back, his knees bent so his calves were beneath his thighs, arms out to either side, weights holding him down. He was quieting his nervous system.

At 11:23 he spoke quietly, and his disciples removed the weights. He remained still for a few more moments, a pinkie twitching slightly.

What was he thinking for those 12 immobile minutes?

"Nothing," he said. "It was completely quiet." But then he clarified his meaning: "I can remain thoughtfully thoughtless. It is not an empty mind."

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