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The Evolution of Practice - Or How Our Truth Changes

Pixie Lillas, founder of the Balmain Iyengar Yoga Studio, recollects her early experiences of studying and practising Yoga with BKS Iyengar.
BKS Iyengar Yoga Convention copyright The Guardian

BKS Iyengar teaches 1000 students at EuroYoga in London in 1993 © The Guardian

‘There is no greater gift we could receive than that of being alive to ourselves and our surroundings, of finding a willingness to see and to learn and to be transformed. It is something for which we, Guruji’s students, owe him our deepest gratitude and love.’

At my first meeting with Guruji at the Institute in Pune in 1977 I was young in yoga and in years and I was going to the Institute without any real idea of what time spent learning from Mr Iyengar would involve. I thought perhaps that in any case it would be more “yogic” to go with as few preconceptions as possible, believing myself to be free-minded and without set concepts. As soon as I arrived I began to see that this was just one of the many fixed beliefs I held.

I suppose the only real expectation I openly allowed myself was that I would have a demanding physical experience. In this I was not wrong. What I was naively not anticipating was the intellectual, emotional and even psychological challenges that this thing called Iyengar Yoga was to present me with, and the way in which the classes would upend my perception of how things were and what I believed myself to be.

I fancied myself as passionate, strong and open to learn; Guruji found me proud and a bit stubborn. I wanted certainty, the facts, what exactly was required in each posture; Guruji said that “the truth changes” and presented us with a multifaceted approach to the postures which required engagement and what he called yoga “intelligence”. This was not something you could learn by rote or in books, I discovered, but was an understanding that came only through experience and observation in practice.

BKS Iyengar in Natarajasana

BKS Iyengar in Natarajasana

These were new ideas and they had me completely baffled. They now form a large part of the foundation of an approach which I continue to love, admire and wrestle with to this day. Over the period of these last almost 40 years, throughout all the transformative milestones of my life, and the challenges of a body changed by those many events, and just by time itself, I have continued to look to Guruji and his continued practice for inspiration and guidance.

His daughter, Geeta once said in a talk she gave during Guru Purnima that Guruji and his practice were two inseparable things. When he had money and fame he practised, and when he had no money, no food, no acclaim, he practised. When he was young he practised and when he grew old he practised. Practice it seems was not just the key, but was both a tool for life and life itself. In my own experience of perplexing or difficult times, or of a physical problem, or two, I have learned from Guruji’s example to just practise, and something always changes, even if simply to give rise to some small shift in perception. Even if what I do makes something worse, that in itself is further understanding. How can we learn what to do with a problem if we avoid it, or just think about it? Taking considered action allows us to gain some tangible feedback, which brings about a different understanding of what we are dealing with. Right from the level of raw beginners Guruji said that, as teachers, we must “get them moving”, give even new students an experience in their own bodies of what yoga can be. Talking about it, giving a lecture about it, brings a very different result. The mind, Guruji said, can be a treacherous friend. It may give us illusions of what we think we need, want or understand.

The body on the other hand is tangible, concrete, and can show us without any room for doubt whether we are doing what we thought. It clarifies our perception of ourselves. In simple terms, is the arm straight or crooked; there can be no confusion there, if we just look. The body is full of messages, full of hints, if we can just learn to listen more attentively, or even a little. Guruji said that the body tells us many things, all the time, but we don’t pay attention. I used to be a little amused to hear him tell us about something his body said to him—things like “Kind Sir, can you not see that the knee is bent?”, or “why are you seeing only on the right side, should not the left also be straightened”… Over time, I came to see that his body was forever telling him things, causing what appeared to be a constant dialogue and stream of information to come to his awareness. The beauty of it is, according to Guruji’s teachings, that this is true for all of us, the main difference being that we generally do not take heed. We tend to ignore the basic precepts of action and reaction, cause and effect, pose and repose which can lead us closer to “meditation in action”, and yet the key to intelligent practice seems to lie exactly somewhere there.

BKS Iyengar in Bhujapidasana

BKS Iyengar in Bhujapidasana

What to do then if we listen but hear only a garbled message, one that seems to leave us with more confusion and doubt? Here again Guruji has given us guidance. He once said something like, if we feel doubt, let it be there and just continue to practise; let it sit side by side with us, and see which one wins out.

I have certainly had many periods of doubt and uncertainty not just about the techniques of the postures but even more about whether my approach was useful, helpful, was I going in the right direction or making things worse for myself? How was I to know, how to find out which direction to move in? According to Guruji nothing can change if we don’t act, pull out our mat and, through trial and error, learn something. Of course we sometimes risk seizing our newfound wisdom with a vengeance and making of it the next dogma to follow. I often feel I have discovered the absolute solution to some pain or have found something essential in a backbend only to learn that it is just one aspect, one small part of the deeper understanding required. Nothing is absolute, written in stone to be just copied day after day. This would be to deny the very premise of yoga itself, to hinder any self-awareness and obstruct any self-knowledge of even the most basic kind.

It would seem then, after all these years that “the truth” does change, that it is not a constant that we can grab hold of and parrot from then on. Maybe there are certain realities that are solid and immutable, but we as humans are not, so it is perhaps more that our perception of things changes along with our continuing experiences in yoga. This can be disconcerting, but in many ways can also be a comfort. There is always something we are missing, another approach, blank or dull areas to be discovered and to illuminate us a little further.

BKS Iyengar in Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana

BKS Iyengar in Eka Pada Viparita Dandasana

There is one particularly vital thing I have learned from Guruji, amongst the many hundreds of lessons received, and it is something that seems to have seeped into my existence almost subliminally over the years. He never stopped learning; he never stopped practising and experiencing in one form or another. This passion and search for excellence made him more than just a master in yoga, but also a teacher on many levels. Yehudi Menuhin once called him “my best violin teacher”. In classes he would almost force us to be alert and alive in his presence, which allowed for new perceptions to arise even as we practised, outwardly, the same old poses. I have often had a sense of soaring, of reaching something beyond my own capacity as he gave the perfect instruction at exactly the perfect time. He would take us step by step through postures and through a sequence in a way which brought us to a point where we could receive new understandings, observe them objectively and then reflect on our next action. He gave us the method by which we could learn to practise, just as at times he had been known to “give” us a pose. In 1977 he “gave” about 40 of us Kapotasana, physically taking us all into the full pose, one by one with many astonished grunts and gasps as we found our head on our heels for the first time. He then explained that we now had the experience of the posture and therefore now had the tools to learn it, as we knew what we were looking for.

Classes with Guruji always entailed a sort of surrender. He would often encourage us to give over during the class and to leave any questioning for later so that we could fully experience what he was teaching. During his 80th Birthday celebrations, held in the Ambrosia centre outside Pune, after many repetitions of Virabhadrasana II for at least, without exaggeration, 5 or 6 minutes per side, we thought that surely by the next day we would be unable to even raise our arms in Urdhva Hastasana. But no, on the contrary, we were fresh and ready to start again. When some months later I tried to do the same poses following the video from those classes, I was unable to return to the joyfulness or even find the will to hold my arms up for that length of time. He has explained that we don’t get sore in his classes because we surrender ourselves for that time, another useful reminder of the connection between mind and body. It is something in our attitude that either hardens us or leaves us free. I have heard talk of a mythical 13 minute Parsvakonasana in Panchgani that was sustained in the same incredible way by most of the students present.

Portrait of BKS Iyengar

Portrait of BKS Iyengar

Geeta has pointed out that it is so simple for us as students of Iyengar Yoga, we only have to “do it”. Guruji did the discovering, the sequencing, the piecing together of techniques to help us avoid some of what he called his earlier mistakes, helping us on our path of learning. He presented us with a structure, an art, and our job is just to commit to it. If we “do it”, if we practise with openness and intelligence, changes occur. When some modification takes place in our body, we gain a new experience of ourselves and this in turn alters our perception of who we are, of what we can do and of the world we live in. We recreate the Kapotasana, we have something to work with, a new starting place.

Some would say that this is tantamount to an act of faith. Perhaps at times it comes down to something like that, if that is what we would call a practice we come to believe in, something we trust will make us the best person we can be. I feel yoga, both its practice and its teaching, brings out the qualities that are most positive in me, and at times it helps me be closer to what I aspire to be. In years gone by we used to call it finding a “path with a heart”. Guruji said once that if something helpful crosses your path, seize it and learn from it with joy.

There is no greater gift we could receive than that of being alive to ourselves and our surroundings, of finding a willingness to see and to learn and to be transformed. It is something for which we, Guruji’s students, owe him our deepest gratitude and love.

Whether we are in his presence in class or far away in our own homes and yoga centres, he is always there with us in his teachings, in his example, in the brilliance and sincerity of his yoga. He is, and will always continue to be, side by side with us on our mat.

BKS Iyengar 14 December 1918 – 20 August 2014.