(11) The blessings of marriage

Iyengar’s obsession with practice did not go unobserved by his neighbours. Some of them thought him frankly insane. He could be observed prowling the streets looking, for example, for heavy cobblestones. When he found them he would then sit calmly down in the street, draw his heels in close to his perineum, spead his knees wide out to either side, place the stones upon his knees, and then sit there steadily for hours at a time ostensibly improving his baddhakonasana (the wide-angle or cobbler’s pose, one of the classic yoga positions). Or … a road-building crew would pack up for the night or for the weekend and leave a previously innocuous object such as a steam roller parked there until its return. Before anyone knew what had happened, BKS Iyengar would arrive and have worked out some way to drape himself over it in an effort—ultimately successful—to improve his practice and understanding of urdhva dhanurasana (the raised bow or “wheel” pose, another of the classic yoga asanas).

The neighbours might have been concerned, but they had in fact been given a front row seat from which they could observe the genesis of another of the distinguishing hallmarks of the developing Iyengar yoga. The master was trying to find a method to deal with yet another of the challenges that faced him as a teacher. The people now coming to him for classes were far less fit and accomplished than were the people who had generally enrolled to study at Krishnamacharya’s Yogashala. Krishnamacharya’s students at that time tended to be young people. They were usually boys of roughly school-going age and therefore largely without the array of problems and difficulties facing the much older students now confronting Iyengar. Iyengar’s concern was finding ways to enable those who were that little bit stiffer and older to master the postures he wanted to teach them. It was thus Iyengar who devised methods to use simple everyday objects—things that could be found in any home—such as walls, ropes, chairs, belts, blocks and blankets, as aids and props. His intent was to enable people of every shape, size, and level of ability to place themselves in the most beneficial positions so that they could derive the maximum benefits that yoga had to offer in any and all poses they attempted. So effective was this approach that a healthy market now exists for ‘yoga props’ and for accoutrements of every description. And when standard everyday objects would not suffice, Iyengar proceeded to invent his own. A healthy commercial market also exists for ‘backbenders’, ‘heart chakra openers’, ‘yoga walls’, ‘halasana benches’, and other such devices, all originally invented by him and built to his precise design specifications by local craftsmen … who were generally mystified as to what exactly they were building.

Iyengar was deeply concerned with helping the sick people who frequently came to his classes. He did not want to turn anyone away. He had used yoga to heal himself, and he was completely convinced that if he would but put his mind to it, he would be able to devise healing methods and practices to benefit his students. To Iyengar, therefore, asana became a healing practice. Yoga was therapy. He set about devising specific programmes of practice to benefit students. Due to the rigour and intensity of his own practice, his observation, and his complete familiarity with the workings of the human body, he was ultimately able to bring relief to thousands of people sporting a bewilderingly wide array of health issues and disabilities be their problems physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual. Although other yoga systems and teachers began to advertise themselves as also having therapeutic benefits, Iyengar’s expertise remains untouched. Anyone seriously wanting assistance in yoga therapeutics, or else wanting to undertake research in the efficacy of yoga, either goes straight to BKS Iyengar or to someone trained by him and in his methods.

But since these achievements of BKS Iyengar were still some way in the future, the neighbours’ concerns needed to be addressed. Word about their doubts and worries concerning his overall mental state reached his brothers who then felt it best to take action. Their solution was to advise him to get married. They were convinced that this would force him to ‘settle down’ and adopt a more normal pattern of life. But Iyengar was resistant. His classes were growing, albeit slowly. In any case, what other trade could he ply? He did not want anything to interfere with his long practices. They were the foundation of his entire technique. Moreover, he did not feel that he was yet earning enough to support a family. He was barely able to support himself. But both Iyengar’s Guru and his brothers were insistent that he get married. Since Iyengar was unwilling, they took the initiative and cast around for a suitable match. They eventually found a delightful 16-year old girl, Srimati Ramamani. They then went back to Iyengar to promote her as a prospect. The most they could get from him was a grudging agreement—out of respect for his Guru—to at least meet her. And upon meeting her he was most taken with her, as she also was with him. They both willingly consented to the arrangement. He and Ramamani were duly married in 1943.

When she married her Sundararaja, Ramamani knew nothing about yoga. That notwithstanding, she soon became the unwavering source of all his strength, of his commitment, and of the progress that he continued to make in his career as a teacher. She supported his practice, providing him with everything he needed in the way of space, time, and energy. She became his finest critic and his most knowledgeable advisor. She provided him with feedback in his many investigations. But Ramamani also bore him five daughters and one son which she took care of happily, making sure that her husband had all the time he needed to continue with his investigations into the mysteries of life through asana, and so that he could then pass on what he had uncovered to others through his teachings. Indeed, it was Ramamani, and not her husband, who introduced their children to yoga.

That Iyengar had made another good move in marrying Ramamani, and that she was the ideal partner to him, is confirmed by a story he often recounts. He dates his ‘sudden interest in yoga’, as he later put it, to 1946—when he had been married for three years, and had already been practicing with ever-increasing intensity for over twelve! Iyengar apparently dreamed that he saw the family deity, Lord Venkateshwara, also commonly known as Balaji, who blessed him with one hand and gave him a few grains of rice with the other. Balaji also spoke to him and told him that yoga and its practising and teaching were to be his vocation, and that from that moment on he was to have no further worries about his welfare. Iyengar awoke to find, to his surprise, that Ramamani had also had a dream that very same night. In her dream, Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, had placed a coin in her hand saying that it was the return of some money borrowed from Iyengar long before. They were both amazed. And the very next day some of Iyengar’s pupils contacted him wanting to arrange a fuller programme of lessons. According to Iyengar, up until that day he had done yoga not for any pleasure it might have brought him, but simply as a way of earning a living. But from that point on, his attitude shifted and he began to do yoga for its own sake and for no other reason.

In spite of their concordant dreams, life for the Iyengar couple did not improve immediately. Nevertheless, it was also true that from that point on their stars remained constantly in the ascendant. Iyengar began to gain influential pupils. He was soon teaching many members of Indian royalty, along with many of the country’s most prominent business, sports and entertainment personalities. He also gave hundreds upon hundreds of demonstrations before dignitaries of all kinds such as Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India. Thus within a few years of the auspicious dream, Iyengar was teaching people as famous as the philosopher and sage Jiddhu Krishnamurti, and Jayaprakash Narayan who was involved in the fight for India’s independence. He become one of India’s star attractions and was regularly called upon to give demonstrations to visiting dignitaries and heads of state so they could admire, along with the Taj Mahal, some of the other wonders that India had to offer. He gave demonstrations in front of Pope Paul VI, and Mohmad Hatta, the President of Indonesia. Dr. G. S. Pathak, the Vice President of India, was but one of the famous people who became an Iyengar student. Another famous student who was to become particularly significant to the development of Iyengar’s career was Dr. Rustom Jal Vakil, India’s internationally renowned coronary and hypertension specialist. Vakil is widely regarded as ‘the father of modern cardiology’ and was awarded the highly prestigious Albert Lasker award in 1957 for his ‘brilliant and systematic studies on rauwolfia [used as a traditional Indian/ayurvedic herbal remedy] in hypertension and his effective bridging of the gap between Indian experience and that of Western medicine’. BKS Iyengar was soon busy snapping up students of no mean distinction. Many of them were garnered through the reputation built up by his initially unrewarding classes in Mumbai.