In 1972 I had my first yoga class with Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar. He was a relatively unknown yoga teacher back then. The classes were small and personal. To say I was rescued by his touch would be a massive understatement…
With a backdrop seeped in a rigorous, lifesaving, commitment to yoga, Mr Iyengar, as we called him all those years ago, had the capacity to turn each class into an incredible journey. His childlike enthusiasm, along with the undeniable standing of a great warrior chief made the lessons deeply compelling. Walking among us with his sharp eye and a one on one approach, students would invariably find themselves coming home. From opening every ounce of the body, until it was tingling with life, to settling the whole being in an ocean of calm, we could do nothing but wake up to Iyengar’s absolute presence and his tremendous passion for teaching. Such were his masterful skills even the most sceptical were left wondering. Certainly, I’ve been a devotee of this ancient art ever since.
It was hard not to strive to please Iyengar, willing and hoping the arms and legs would twist and bend to their rightful place, only to be shot down for trying too hard. If you we’re double jointed, perfection on the parallel bars, or a contortionist, you were out of luck. The great man often castigated the practitioner who seemed to be moving through the asana with ease. In the same breath, he would shower praise on a student who happened to be thick set, for being more in tune than their bendy neighbour.
I have seen many physical benefits, brought on by the scientific properties proven in yoga and yes, eventually, came to touch my toes, bend backward in a fine arc and even managed the lotus position. Yet one of the most profound insights, no doubt intensified by the onset of old age, is to realise that intricate lesson rolled out by Iyengar all those years ago — the body provides an essential key to the heart of being human and a healthy perceptive to our cap of thinking. Trusting and letting go of this cap, opens the gateway to a wider, deeper, biological and cosmological knowledge.
No matter how we arrive at the door, the challenge in yoga is to merge the many dimensions of our existence, which are naturally in play with the present; to realise and respect the enriching pulse at the core of our being. This isn’t a simplified exercise. What is happening in yoga is more important than whether we can bend backwards, or reach our toes. Whether one is, or is not flexible is not yoga — if we are constantly competing with other people, or measuring ourselves against ourselves, to see how far we can stretch in a posture/asana, then this is more akin to a competitive sport than it is to a spiritual science.
There can be no doubt that the engineering in yoga works and an ongoing practice will see us reach that much further into the vastness, further than we ever thought possible. Like any great work of love yoga continually evolves, opens a pathway to new and uncharted seas and if we’re diligent, as the body changes, in practice we find wisdom. Oftentimes, the lesson will be found a long time after the event.
Over the years it has become increasingly clear that if I reached that flexible goal, I was not necessarily at one with any great sea of consciousness. If anything I still found myself falling for those old child-torn lies, creeping up from the lower depths, trying to negate my every move. The mind can be a powerfully ally, scoring those elusive goals, even winning accolades in a sharp market place, but it’s often ruled from a dark throne.
This observation into the fickle nature of ego hasn’t meant I master indifference, or fight to cover a bitter taste. On the contrary, I strive to go that much deeper into the terrain of yoga, branching stronger roots.
Yoga isn’t by any means an easy ride, or a soft call. It requires practice and practice. A bow can only release the right note from a musical instrument if the strings are just so, neither too tight nor too loose. So too in yoga, the physical, neurological, limits are the sound of the song — the barometer from which we hear the right note — in tune with our posture, an asana, our life.
By manipulating, kneading, redefining the body, in that certain yogic way, the nervous system relays corresponding signals to the brain, an interchange that sees the merging of two, seemingly separate states. Observing, without judgment, how the inhalation and exhalation affects the brain, the corresponding motion of thought, how the mind fluctuates, on every breath, with each beat of the heart. Depending on which asana we draw on and in which order, the physiological and psychological coming together sees the cessation of the chattering mind — loosens that which restricts and puts the power of thought into stark perspective. This true beginning and foundation of yoga makes siting at ease in the all-singing, all-encompassing, unfathomable unknown, a distinct and powerful reality.
The baggage of low self-esteem may try and drag me away from the well, and those demons often seem accentuated when stepping up to the mat. Yet I have learnt, from art and science of yoga, and continue to learn, that releasing the heart from the shackles of thought brings light, where there might otherwise be a mind-set conditioned in closing down. If nothing else, yoga has become the foundation from which my sanity is built; it certainly informs much, if not all of my daily life. And I have one extraordinary teacher to thank for that rich blessing.