December 29, 2011

How B.K.S. Iyengar Kicked My Asana.

By Daniel Simpson

This summer I had the privilege to be taught by B.K.S. Iyengar. At almost 93, his fire still burned. Visiting China as an ambassador for yoga, he stood for hours at a stretch drilling 1,300 students.

While the emphasis was technically on postures, they were the vehicle for an integrated masterclass, combining practical explanations of philosophy. In three days, he conveyed his mastery of the subject, and said we’d need a decade to understand what we’d learned. He might as well have told us several lifetimes.

The experience has re-energized my practice, by connecting his method’s trademark physicality with what I’d wondered if it lacked. He summed up this approach with an offhand comment: “Using the power of the body with a skillful brain is nothing but surrender to God.”

May his example serve to inspire practitioners everywhere. That was the aim of his trip, which mostly addressed the yoga scene in China, but also partly his successors. The teachers who accompanied him were flayed, mercilessly and with lighthearted style: a fusion of barking with humor and wisdom, and the odd slap.

It hit the spot. I described the effect on me in a profile feature (published in Yoga Magazine, and downloadable here):

At first, I was struck by his size, or the lack of it, apart from a barrel chest. Flanked by his two most senior American teachers, both relative beanpoles, he looked like Yoda sporting a knee-length golden kurta. His silver winged eyebrows and mane lent him the air of a mad professor crossed with a God. Though he calls himself an artist and philosopher, Iyengar prefers to see teaching as a science.

Yoga, he said, is “an investigative instrument”, doing “research work from the skin to the self.” Although it merges “the individual self of the head with the universal self of the divine heart”, it’s subtle work, not blissing out with candles. “I teach spiritual yoga, not sensual yoga,” he told us. But minds can get distracted by the senses, and by what we think we know.

“You are all speaking of information technology,” Iyengar crackled through a headset. Most of the assembled throng were under 40, and brandishing smartphones. “I am giving you technological information. This is far superior.”

He started by holding up a leaf. Either side of its spine, it looked uneven. “Your body misguides you,” he warned. We imagine our postures are balanced when they’re not, as the teachers in his entourage revealed when asked to demonstrate onstage. Iyengar showed their legs weren’t quite aligned. “To bring these two together, that is yoga,” he explained. “You will know that alignment is there when mind does not wander.”

One by one, he took pupils and postures apart. “Learn to be humble,” he told Patricia Walden, who’s worked with him since 1976. “You are misleading them.” She wasn’t alone. “How pitiable it is they cannot show,” he sighed, having called another protégé “a beginner”. Then he thrust his arms bolt upright, as if transposed from grainy photos in Light on Yoga.

Another story (published in Yoga International, and available here) explored the visit’s context:

“Yoga went to China via America,” explains Faeq Biria, one of B. K. S. Iyengar’s leading disciples, who’s been visiting Beijing to train teachers since 2008. “They see it from an American point of view. At the beginning, they’re attracted by the byproducts: to be handsome, to be pretty, to digest well, sleep well, have a nice body, be intelligent, unstressed. It’s hard work to take them toward the deeper aspects.”

A burgeoning industry tempts them with distractions, hawking figure-hugging sportswear on models with Westernized features. Most styles of yoga are available, although the emphasis is squarely on physical practice. It’s often an aspirational activity: the price of a class in Shanghai can be higher than in Los Angeles.

But there’s more to Chinese yoga than meets the eye. As Biria observes, there are internal connections to indigenous arts, from Taoist tai chi to traditional Chinese medicine. “The moment you connect to the energetics of yoga, they catch it so fast,” he says. “Their eyes shine and they grasp it, because it’s in their culture.”

For now, most young Chinese neglect this heritage. It’s out of sync with their urge to consume new products. But that materialism is only skin-deep. Beneath the surface of its rapid transmutation, the country is troubled. While a few get improbably rich, a billion others struggle with inflation, unemployment, and migration. These widening inequalities breed resentment and despair, which drive increasing numbers to suicide.

“There’s an urgent need here,” says Chen Si, a journalist working to promote more classical yoga teaching. He organized a conference this summer that brought Iyengar and a dozen of his protégés to Guangzhou, China, face-to-face with 1,300 students. Billed as the China-India Yoga Summit, the event was endorsed by officials in New Delhi and Beijing, whose relations have been strained since the 1950s, when India opposed China’s seizure of Tibet and gave refuge to the 14th Dalai Lama. Border wars promptly ensued.

Trade has diminished their hostility, culminating in a visit to India last December by Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, who paid tribute to Gandhi, quoted the Upanishads, and waxed lyrical on how Buddhism shaped China. To top it off, he announced that his daughter practiced asana.

Unlike the Dalai Lama or Falun Gong, a spiritual discipline banned in China, yoga is being embraced by the state. Chinese authorities talk it up as a force for “harmony,” echoing their counterparts in India. “There is a growing social conflict due to our relentless pursuit of material objects,” an Indian diplomat told the summit. “Yoga can be a useful instrument for promoting social harmony. After all, only individuals at peace and in harmony with themselves can build a peaceful and harmonious society.”

By inviting an Indian master to teach, Chen aimed to empower the Chinese to practice yoga more deeply, and thereby foster social change. While these are sensitive issues in a one-party state, he feels fairly secure. “China has a tradition of embracing foreign cultures and making them its own,” he says. “That’s why it’s been so vibrant.”

My motivations were more simple. What follows is a reflection on the summit, written for its newsletter.

A Master Class for Beginners

Memories of June 2011 

I’ve been practicing Iyengar yoga since 2004, never dreaming I’d meet the man who taught my teachers. Although he told us in Light on Life that he’d “never retire”, Mr Iyengar had already stopped giving public classes. I thought the nearest I’d get to experiencing one was YouTube, until a lucky encounter one Friday in America.

Visiting San Francisco for work in April, I dropped into the Abode of Iyengar Yoga, run by Manouso Manos. Waiting outside for a class, someone said he’d heard that Mr Iyengar would be teaching this summer, in China. “If you’ve come all the way from London to the Abode,” he quipped, “maybe you’re the kind of guy who’ll make it.”

For a couple of weeks, at least, I thought he was joking. Then I found myself scouring the Internet for details. The airfare seemed prohibitive to start with. Freelance writers don’t make lots of money, and taking time off means earning even less. Having spent a year writing a book, which hasn’t been sold yet [UPDATE: it will be published in 2012], I felt I couldn’t justify the expense. And this seemed a terrible reason not to go.

As Faeq Biria put it to me later, in a wonderful chat that we otherwise wouldn’t have shared: “sometimes in life, you know you have to be bold.”

Everything still felt uncertain, even once my place was confirmed. Teachers back in London weren’t encouraging. “It looks quite a big event,” one mused. “I hope Guruji will make it.” Another wished me luck, but wasn’t tempted. “Mass yoga doesn’t appeal to me,” she sniffed. By the time my plane took off, I had few expectations.

Having passed through Guangzhou 15 years ago, I found it barely recognizable. So much had changed, and so quickly. From Eminem rapping in taxis to ubiquitous smartphones, on the surface urban China looked more global. It reminded me that everything’s in flux, and the deeper one goes the more this grows apparent.

At times, there were glimpses of chaos at the summit, despite the best improvisations of the organizers. Our youthful hosts smiled valiantly, as waitresses served up endless cauldrons of meat. Despite some disgruntled spluttering, we made do. There was rice and greens. And the next three nights, our food was vegetarian.

In the daytime, the feedback was screeching: it took multiple changes of microphone to find one that worked, and an echo made several voices barely audible. None of this deterred Mr Iyengar. At 92, his focus was intense. Every one of his classes overran, and only once did he show his frustration with the P.A., his torso spinning, hands on hips, as he fixed an offending speaker with a glare.

The senior teachers in his entourage got off less lightly. “They are all close to me,” he lamented, while they demonstrated postures on the platform. “They all learn. How pitiable it is they cannot show.” Such comments were sometimes phrased to reach the rest of us, particularly young Chinese, most of whom in attendance were under 40.

“This is the mentality of the computer mind,” he tutted through his headset, observing someone’s failure to spot misalignment. “Soon your brain will be like a stone. This brain has absolutely no understanding at all. No sense of balance, no sense of ideas. One elbow is far away, one close. This is how we do and we continue, not knowing.”

If his message had an underlying mission, it was to teach us how to know ourselves in practice. Combining philosophy with heartfelt depth of insight, his classes were aimed at beginners, and yet were profound.

Elements, sheaths and gunas were all demystified, by explaining them in the context of postures, and working progressively. When asked if this made his method physical, Mr Iyengar’s response was instructive in itself. “All the various aspects of yoga are hidden even in tadasana,” he told a reporter, “provided you know how to do it.”

As he reminds us in The Tree of Yoga, newly published in Chinese: “Gandhi did not practise all the aspects of yoga. He only followed two of its principles – non-violence and truth, yet through these two aspects of yoga, he mastered his own nature and gained independence for India. If a part of yama could make Mahatma Gandhi so great, so pure, so honest and so divine, should it not be possible to take another limb of yoga – asana – and through it reach the highest goal of spiritual development?”

After all, to quote his conclusion in Guangzhou, “using the power of the body with a skillful brain is nothing but surrender to God.”

His gift has been to make this more accessible, to the largest nation of practitioners on Earth. For now, the engagement of many is superficial. As in the West, they’re mainly attracted by the side effects: the prospects of looking attractive and feeling calm. And so we were urged to go deeper, to find the “beautiful unalloyed bliss” that lies within.

“It is natural to make yourself work to keep your beauty,” our teacher conceded. But in future we should “practice yoga to experience the inner beauty and inner light, and not for the external beauty only.” In three days, he recalled before departing, “I gave you all the knowledge of yoga, which may take maybe 10 years for you to digest.”

And to think I almost missed it out of fear. Thankfully my leap of faith paid off. I’ve had several features commissioned on the summit, and together they’ll cover the cost of going to China. But what I really gained is priceless: devotion to practice, and the teacher who inspires it.

In the midst of his walkabout oration on the second afternoon, Guruji wandered past my mat. His presence helped absorb me in a twist. Surfacing later, I heard Manouso Manos. “Do you see what I mean now?” he shouted at one of his students. “About him being the best yoga teacher in the world? You can’t explain that, you have to experience it.”

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