(15) “Light On Yoga”

Iyengar made his declaration of intent clear in the first sentence of his acknowledged masterpiece, Light On Yoga:

The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj meaning to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply. It also means union or communion. It is the true union of our will with the will of God. …

As if to further claify this, his second paragraph was:

Yoga is one of the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy. It was collated, co-ordinated and systematized by Patañjali in his classical work, the Yoga Sutras, which consists of 195 terse aphorisms. In Indian thought, everything is permeated by the Supreme Universal Spirit (Paramatma or God) of which the individual human spirit (jivitma) is a part. The system of yoga is so called because it teaches the means by which the jivatma can be united to or be in communion with the Paramatma, and so secure liberation (moksa).

But when Iyengar tried to publish his work, he straight away ran into perhaps the biggest problem anyone faces in trying to present yoga and its core ideas to a Western audience: the Western predilection to (a) compartmentalize; and (b) see the world from a non-religious or non-spiritual perspective.

When two out of Iyengar’s six original London pupils, Angela Marris and Beatrice Harthan, were on holiday in Switzerland, he asked them to help him with his manuscript. They were happy to help, but could only find continental European typewriters, with the letters in a different arrangement from the standard English ones they were used to. Harthan therefore took the manuscript back to the UK with her to correct the numerous errors she had made. She went straight to a Buddhist Society Conference from the airport, and so still had the manuscript for Light on Yoga in her bag. She happened to sit next to Gerald Yorke, a friend of hers and a reader and editor with the London-based publishers, George Allen & Unwin. As they were conversing, Harthan mentioned that she had just returned from Switzerland where she had been studying with her yoga teacher. Yorke then said that he was searching for a new yoga book to replace Theos Barnard’s Hatha Yoga, published by Rider and Co, a rival company. She immediately took Iyengar's manuscript out of her bag and showed it to him. As he thumbed, with sheer delight, through Iyengar’s text and photographs, he said “I have been waiting many years for a book like this”.

Iyengar’s original manuscript for Light On Yoga had a very extensive introduction. In it he explained yoga’s philosophical and intellectual background. He also placed his own work, and his approach to yoga, firmly in that overall historical and spiritual context. But on reviewing the manuscript more closely, and particularly when looking at the photographs and their lucid explanations, Yorke told Iyengar that the unique part of the book lay in those photographs and the extensive accompanying descriptions of how to attain them. Those were certainly unique and had of course come directly from Iyengar’s own experience. When he had first started teaching, nearly thirty years before, he had had very much less confidence in his English. Added to that, his guru Krishnamacharya had never divulged any specific or systematic techniques for performing the postures. Iyengar had therefore found himself unable to explain to his students how the postures were to be done. Consulting Krishnamacharya on a regular basis was quite out of the question. In the first place, Krishnamacharya was now hundreds of miles away … but, and in the second place, the two had never had that kind of a relationship. That was why he had been quite happy to leave Krishnamacharya and come to Pune in the first place. Iyengar could also have tried to fulfill his duties as a teacher by reading whatever yoga books he could lay his hands on. He could then have memorized them and passed their contents on to his students. But the few books he could find were inadequate. They did not give sufficiently clear instructions. They were also contradictory. If, for example, one book suggested doing a headstand on one part of the head, he could be quite certain that the next book he would look at would suggest doing it on another part. It was in any case against Iyengar’s nature to pass second-hand information of this kind, not validated by his own experience, on to others. This left him with only one alternative: to instruct his students from direct personal experience. He therefore opted to practise with a renewed vigour and intention. The purpose of his new practices was simple: to gain as much first-hand information as he could, and as rapidly as he could. He could then pass that information on—with due clarity and conciseness—to those who came to study with him.

Iyengar’s decision on how best to proceed was underlined by a deep desire again grounded in his own experience. He had found, in yoga, a deeply therapeutic and healing practice. It had cured all his childhood diseases and turned him into a fit and healthy person. And that, more than anything else, was the gift he wanted to pass on to others. He wanted to help any and all sick or injured people who came to his classes. Yoga had healed him … and it surely had the power to heal them, also. He had only to unlock the key—the method. BKS Iyengar took his responsiblities as a yoga teacher very seriously, and he set about gaining the first-hand and direct experiential information he needed to fulfill them. The intensity and devotion of his practice could not have been exceeded by anyone no matter what their field, be it art, music, sport, or anything else. For the next seventy years, continuing even into his 90s, Iyengar practised several hours every day, investigating and learning about the postures, their workings, and their effects on the human anatomy and its psyche. No matter what ailments his students might come to him with, Iyengar devised specific programmes to benefit them. He was able, through his insights, to bring relief to thousands sporting a bewilderingly wide variety of issues and disabilities. It did not seem to matter whether those ailments were physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual. Iyengar has set down all that knowledge—that plan of approach, those insights, and achievements. And … in the beginning, in his very first draft manuscript of Light On Yoga, it was to those early original insights and that method that his publishers were drawn. Those were the things they wanted him to send forth into the world.

In his original introduction to Light On Yoga, Iyengar had quoted extensively from the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and various other such works. And on behalf of George Allen & Unwin, Gerald Yorke set about persuading him to remove all such traditional texts and commentary. Yorke made the point that those quotations and Iyengar’s accompanying analysis and argumentation detracted from the true virtue of the book. Dissertations on Indian thought could be read anywhere, including in academic texts. Iyengar’s description of these was, in the end, just another description. Many others of that kind were already available. They also made the book too much like an academic text. Iyengar might be able to justify his philosohphical approach to yoga and to asana, using such texts, but that was still only a description and justification, of “the Iyengar style”. Yorke felt that Iyengar’s Introduction, as it originally stood, did not have the power, the freshness and above all the originality that the rest of the intended book would then display. In Yorke’s opinion, the whole book would then suffer by comparison. He said: “Unless you manage to make something original from the Introduction, the book won’t have a second edition”. Iyengar could have objected but instead decided to take Yorke as, in his words, ‘my literary guru’. Guided by Yorke, Iyengar therefore rewrote the Introduction. But Yorke was still not satisfied and asked him to cut it and rewrite yet again. When he saw the second rewrite, Yorke was at last happy. The book then proceeded to publication. Yorke seems to have been correct. Light On Yoga has not been out of print since. It laid the seeds for Iyengar’s constantly growing and ever-lasting fame.