(12) The maestro and the queen

In 1951 the famous violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin was sitting in his osteopath’s office waiting for his appointment when a small book on yoga caught his eye. He was already suffering from a variety of the muscle and skeletal aches and pains that have ruined the career of many a budding string player. Since he knew nothing about yoga Menuhin, a very curious man with immensely broad interests, opened the book. He was immediately fascinated by the contents and felt he would like to know more about this subject.

As well as being one of the greatest violinists of all time, Yehudi Menuhin was an enormously generous man with global and humanitarian interests. He was famous for his charity concerts in support of causes that interested him. In 1952 he was invited to India by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, to give such a series of concerts. He met Nehru for the first time after one of the scheduled concerts and mentioned the book he had read. Nehru smiled and immediately dared Menuhin to stand on his head. Much to everyone’s surprise Menuhin accomplished this successfully. Nehru then displayed his own headstand. This relatively light-hearted incident made the headlines all over India. Yoga teachers from every quarter tried to contact the violin wunderkind to offer him their guidance. Menuhin met and took lessons from a goodly number, but none of them particularly impressed him. But he did mention his interest to Dr. Rustam Vakil’s wife. She immediately referred him to the family guru, BKS Iyengar.

Word was sent to BKS Iyengar, and arrangements were made for them to meet. The only time Menuhin could find free for his first yoga session was 7 am in the morning. Somewhat reluctantly, Iyengar made the 7-hour journey for what was supposed to be a quick five-minute session befor Menuhin had to leave for another appointment. The five minute session stretched out into three and a half hours as Menuhin began to feel transformed and revitalised doing a few asanas under Iyengar’s instruction. And when Menuhin mentioned that he was almost constantly fatigued, was never really able to relax, and was unable to sleep, in less than one minute Iyengar apparently had him dozing and snoring gently away for the first time in days! The two men formed an extremely close friendship which lasted until Menuhin’s death 47 years later in 1999.

In 1954, Menuhin returned to Mumbai. He and Iyengar had corresponded regularly. Even by mail, Menuhin had received enough assistance and benefits for him to know that he wanted to commit himself as a regular student. He informed Iyengar as much. Menuhin became an earnest and diligent student, making his yoga practice a regular feature of his life. In 1982, for example, he was invited to conduct the celebrated Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at its 100th jubilee celebrations. He conducted the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony standing on his head while directing the orchestra with his feet. Under the programme of asanas that Iyengar prescribed for him Yehudi Menuhin’s muscular pains disappeared completely. Menuhin wrote that “yoga made its contribution to my quest to understand consciously the mechanics of violin playing”, and he also called Iyengar “my best violin teacher”.

Menuhin’s schedule was busy and it was not practical for him to return constantly to India to have yoga lessons. He therefore invited Iyengar to leave India with him as his private tutor. A benefit would be that Iyengar would also be able to pass on his teachings to others. Iyengar accepted this invitation, and travelled with Menuhin to Britain, France and Switzerland, giving his first demonstrations in all those places. Iyengar met and taught some of the most famous artists and musicians in the world such as the pianists Sir Clifford Curzon and Lilli Kraus, and the cellist Jacqueline du Pre.

One particularly significant person that Iyengar met during this period was the redoubtable lady Queen Elisabeth, the Queen Mother of Belgium. She and her husband King Albert I had together steered Belgium through the disasters of the First World War. Her husband’s heroic resistance leading the Belgian Army against superior German forces had given the French enough time to stage what became known as ‘the Miracle of the Marne’. Elisabeth had distinguished herself in the war by not only opening a field hospital, but by serving in it personally as a nurse, even though it was at that time unheard of for any member of any Royal Family to minister to wounded common soldiers. Unfortunately, King Albert died tragically in a mountain accident in February 1934, the same year that Iyengar met his Guru and began his life of yoga. Queen Elisabeth was therefore alone when a second and far more devastating invasion by the Germans occurred in the Second World War. This time she was relatively helpless to assist. She found solace in her art, her music, and her charitable works. But once her country was liberated, she swung into action, involving herself deeply in the restoration of her country. In 1958, she became the first member of the European royalty to be received at the Kremlin—something that resonated with Iyengar given that he himself gave demonstrations in front of Marshal Bulganin, an ex-Premier of Russia, and Nikita Kruschev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Russia. In 1961 the Queen Mother even visited China despite the fact that it was against the express wishes of her grandson King Baudouin. He said ‘Grandmother, you are going to bother quite a few people’. She replied by saying ‘… thanks to the Lord those people are fewer and fewer every day’.

BKS Iyengar was introduced to Queen Elisabeth in 1958 when she was already 85 years old. She wanted to learn to stand on her head and was not about to take ‘No’ for an answer saying: ‘if you can’t teach me to stand on my head, you can leave’. With some trepidation, and acutely aware what headlines there would be if the august queen did not survive the experience, Iyengar carefully positioned his feet and his body to allow for the maximum possibility of success and hoisted her up onto her head. Although this was remarkable enough, everyone around was rather more concerned with whether or not he could bring her down safely again. Queen Elisabeth was so taken with Iyengar that she gave him the first of the two gifts that ever afterwards remained precious to him. This first one was a bust of him. She had sculpted it with her own hands. He treasured it ever afterwards, and it would take pride of place in the institute he would later build.

In 1965 Iyengar was teaching in Gstaad, Switzerland, when he received a telephone call from Queen Elisabeth, then 92 years old. She had just suffered a stroke. She requested his presence. He flew to her immediately. Under his instruction she was able to regain a respectable amount of movement. She could again hold and use a fork. He received the second of ‘the two great gifts she gave to me’, as he would later put it, when it was time for him to depart. Iyengar’s erstwhile queen tearfully held up her right cheek, spoke directly to him and comanded: “Kiss me”. He bent forwards and did so; and when she offered the other cheek he kissed that one also. With the tears now rolling freely down her face the Queen bade farewell to her Indian guru for the last time. The great lady died shortly afterwards on November 23rd., 1965.