(14) Light in Inner London

When his great patron Queen Elisabeth of Belgium died, Iyengar had already been teaching yoga for nearly 30 years. His life was his teaching; and his teaching was his life. The two were infused with an intensity and a clarity of practice that were second to none. They had also become a conscious expression of two great traditions to which he constantly referred. They were in many ways personified in and by his wife, Ramamani. He often expressed his motivations by saying that he lived his life in the light of the two great deities which had infused his life. One was his family deity, Lord Venkateshwara or Balaji who had told him he was to devote his life to yoga, and blessed him with his dream of a few grains of rice. The other was Sage Patañjali, legendary author of yoga’s great text the Yoga Sutras, and its systematizer and codifier.

Iyengar had been born into a Vaishnavite and Vedantic tradition. He thus believed that an Ultimate Reality existed. It dwelt inside everything. Everything was composed of it. It could be sought. It ought to be sought. Iyengar’s own Vedantic tradition stemmed from Ramanuja. As with most Vedantic schools, it was monistic. Ramanuja’s praise and devotion tradition sought an active communion with the Most Gracious All-Loving Divine which is in all things and composes all things. This contrasted with Patañjali’s codification of yoga which is dualistic. Where the Vedantic-Ramanujan tradition sees the world as composed of one substance which is inherently divine, Patañjali’s yoga universe is divided into the separate realms of matter and Spirit. The two are utterly distinct. But as a follower of Ramanuja’s brand of Visisthadvaita or ‘qualified non-difference’, Iyengar believed that the Supreme was expressed in a much more personalized form than was the case with most other schools of Vedanta. His view was therefore that each individual contained an in-dwelling spirit. That reality was to be sought for and expressed. That ceaseless search for the liberation of that inner being led to his specific synthesis—the very particular approach he developed to yoga in general, and to the asanas in particular. The perfect divine was to be sought in the endless possibilities for perfection in body through asana.

Iyengar’s whole approach to yoga stemmed from his background. He had first come to the practice in great sickness. It had then healed him. In doing so, it had brought him to a new understanding of the reality lying behind existence. His practices had led him to that vision and understanding. In 70 Glorious Years of Yogacharya B. K. S. Iyengar, edited and published by the Light on Yoga Research Trust, he expressed this view by saying “ … the body is a temple. The ‘atma’needs a clean place to live”. Through his practice and experience he had found the method to provide that clean place. That discovery became the primary focus of his teachings. It was his duty not only to convey his personal experience that growth was indeed possible through yoga, but also to show how to come by that growth. He therefore had two essential goals in teaching. There was no getting away from the fact that each individual, through due practice and diligence, had to develop himself or herself emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. But he as a teacher could show how this could be done. His duty was to describe spiritual growth as a goal in a clear and systemtic way so all could not only see it, but would be motivated to strive for it. But he also had to make the method to attain that goal equally clear and systematic. That search for clarity on both points was the heart of his teaching.

Thirty years might have passed since Iyengar first went to Pune, at his guru Krishnamacharya’s insistence, to begin teaching, but the path he was to follow had become increasingly clear. In 1954, he visited the United Kingdom for the first time as a guest of Yehudi Menuhin. He had only two students: Menuhin himself, and the Polish pianist Witold Malcużyński. There was not enough interest even for a lecture or demonstration. Nevertheless, London was to become the source of his lasting fame and renown. He started humbly enough. He gave a few private lessons to some of Menuhin’s musician friends. Year by year the numbers grew, and he gained enough of a repuation to allow him to give a lecture-demonstration to 200 people in 1960. This was promptly followed by a few more private classes. In June 1961 he gave his first ‘official’class, but still in a private home. In the mornings, he taught a few musicians. In the afternoon, he taught six non-musicians. This latter group—who many regard as the first “Iyengar yogis”—was so inspired they agreed to meet regularly so they could keep practising what he had taught them. They told all their friends, who then told their friends. When he returned in 1962, BBC Television broadcast “Yehudi Menuhin and his Guru” in which Menuhin was interviewed by David Attenborough. This considerably raised his profile. On the strength of it he was able to give his first properly public classes in North London. And … such had become the demand for his teachings that he authorized six of his students to begin teaching in his name so they could pass on to others what he had taught them.

The next year, Iyengar was back in London for six weeks to teach his new students. He returned annually thereafter. Word was beginning to spread. And then right at the end of 1965—the same year Queen Elisabeth of Belgium died—George Allen and Unwin at last published his stunning book, on which he had laboured many years, the classic Light on Yoga.