BKS Iyengar Interview - Paris, November 1997
“Can you teach beginners?”, Mr. Iyengar asks my teacher Clé Souren, who has more than twenty years active teaching experience. “It is difficult”, he answers. “You see, Mr. Iyengar says, “that is the reason why we took the question How to teach beginners as a point of departure for the convention.
November 1997, Paris. In a beautiful and well situated accomodation in the woods of Vincennes three hundred Iyengar Yoga Teachers were together to be taught by Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar about this question. Maarten-Rijk Toussaint got the opportunity to interview the now 79 years old teacher from India, in between the busy schedule of lessons and festivities (both the anniversary of Mr. Iyengar and the 108th birthday of Mr. Iyengar’s teacher T.K.V. Khrishnamacharya were being celebrated). With the theme of the convention in mind Maarten asked Mr. Iyengar to give his vision on How to teach beginners and the way Mr. Iyengar had learned teaching himself.
“So that was the basic question of the convention. For all the teachers to learn how to teach beginners, without allowing mistakes or overloading them with words that are confusing them. What is known as intellectual bombardments. That was the goal of this convention, that the teachers get the base of teaching beginners. Without jumping into higher levels, but to teach on the intellectual and physical level at which the beginners are.
Can we make them to consolidate in their positions so that we can attract them to practice a little more later on so that we can support them at a higher level. The teaching should begin from the students, not from me to say do this or that. But it is difficult to turn teachers into beginners again.”
To visualize his ideas for all the teachers present Mr. Iyengar had started the convention with a lesson for a group of more or less beginners. In this way he made crystal clear how he would like his teachers to teach. Mr. Iyengar started by arranging the group in a well-organized way after which he patiently explained with an engaging smile what he expected them to do. After that he asked a group of senior teachers to present the Asanas on a stage. That way the beginners got a clear view of the Asanas and the actions they had to perform. Tadasana and Trikonasana to start with.
With short and clear instructions (mostly on the movements of the arms and the legs) Mr. Iyengar managed to quickly bring line and rhythm to the group. In the same way more standing poses were performed: a presentation of the Asana by the senior teachers and sometimes also by Mr. Iyengar and after that the beginners should try their best. All the time Mr. Iyengar took his time to explain the crowd of watching teachers why he was doing things as he was and giving the instructions he gave. And, more important: why he was not saying a lot of other things. “That is too difficult for them now, I will give it to them when they come to me for six months”. Mr. Iyengar concluded the series of standing poses by doing all the poses one more time quickly after each other and after that Prasarita Padottanasana to let the students relax a little.”
It was remarkable that a minimum of instructions had a maximum effect on the poses of the beginners. Also you could notice that instructions that were particularly meant for one student unconsciously were being practiced by the others. As a result of which in a short period of time the level of the whole group improved. ”This is the base of the pose”, Mr. Iyengar repeatedly said, “More you don’t have to tell a beginner.” Also when the teachers were being taught themselves, Mr. Iyengar would restrict himself to teaching the very basic instructions in the asana’s. And not only in the asana’s, also during the Pranayama-lesson, Mr. Iyengar emphasized the necessity to start at the very first beginning: the correct alignment of the body. With a crystal-clear precision he made clear what was there to improve in the lying posture, Savasana. That much, that we could better focus on opening in that posture the body and more important the chest part to the maximum than to rush in difficult Pranayamas in difficult sitting postures as Padmasana. De persuasion and the refinement with which Mr. Iyengar was teaching, makes one curious about the way he learned how to teach himself.
Although he himself said not to have had a lot of instructions on yoga from his teacher, let alone in how to teach yoga, the base for his way of teaching was laid in the period Mr. Iyengar was with his teacher Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Although the period was relatively short (from his 14th until his 16th anniversary) the influence must have been considerable. Time after time he referred to the influence Krishnamacharya had on his practice. He also explicitly placed himself in the old lineage (that goes back to yogi’s in the Himalayas to his teacher Ramamohan Brahmacari) of which Shri Khrishnamacharya was member.
Look in the book that the son of Krishnamacharya recently published (* The Heart of Yoga). See the poses of my Guruji and see my poses in Yoga Dipika and than you will understand that identical practices were there. But from comparing those pictures you can also see the difference between our practices. Then you will also understand how I have developed the matter in comparison to him. What he does and what I do is identical, but the presentation of my poses improved.”
On the fundaments he received from Krishnamacharya, he built on. The progress Mr. Iyengar made he attributes to the many students that came to him through the years, problems (and injuries) that he encountered on his yoga path and especially by practice, a lot of practice.
“That is how I became a good teacher, I accepted all injuries and just trying to get out of it. And when I would not have got out of it, you would not even have been taught by me. That is what I have been working for. And that progression had also to do with the people that came to you as students?
“Yes, my students were more my teacher’s than my teacher was my teacher.”
I came into contact with lots of people, and I learned what their weaknesses where. Whether it was structural whether they had temporary injuries or if they had problems that were arising from their way of living.
That way I had to work, to find out, in which way to go if I teach yoga they get the benefit of yoga. And that was why I had to work for all those people in different ways.”
And the development of your teaching is also because of your practice?
“My practice has not stopped. Unless I practice and interpenetrate how can I teach, how can I understand all problems of the way my students are walking, talking or seeing. I have to make those gimmicks on myself to understand why those problems come into them and what are their antidotes. I practiced a lot, I used to practice ten hours a day. My practice was very strong from childhood. Because I was not knowing anything, I had to practice so long.” Even today I practice four hours a day. And for my age of eighty, four hours is not a joke.”
Did the way you practiced for yourself change?
“At that time, because yoga was unknown, I had to give a lot of public demonstrations, although no doubt my mind owned the quality of sight. So I had to practice everything like an artist, that I had to be on the tip to show immediately. Because of that I had to practice everything every day, so that at the time the demonstration would be called, I would be ready. I even forced myself to get demonstrations, so I had to practice.
Today I practice more in order to the Yoga Sutras were it says that a man should be comfortable if he stays in a pose for twenty or thirty minutes, that I try now. So I do three or four postures in two hours, that is the change in my practice.”
And in that way you increase the depth of your asanas?
“Naturally, if I stay longer in the pose, the depth increases. Previously I was not staying, but I was examining all the anatomical movements and physiological actions. Now I work more on the psychic and the intellectual level because they are teaching me more and more.
“As I said this morning during the classes I rediscovered the undiscovered yoga. I have internally penetrated and externally penetrated, I internally penetrated from the skin towards the Self, and from the Self towards the skin. That is why my method can give a lot of information that others can not give. That is a characteristic, the quality and the beauty of my practise.”
It is known that Mr. Iyengar is not very fond of the name Iyengar Yoga. Also during the convention he emphasized this.
It has got nothing to do with Iyengar Yoga. My yoga is as old as civilization. There is no special subject that is called Iyengar Yoga, it is what people call the yoga that is practised by me.
To call it Iyengar Yoga is wrong. What my Guruji gave me is what I teach today, Krishnamacharya yoga would be a better name. Although I refined and distilled the asanas and have been teaching according to that I did as a service to my Guruji.
In the Tree of Yoga Mr. Iyengar described in detail which qualities a teacher should have:
The teacher should be clear, clever, confident, challenging, caring, cautious, constructive, courageous, comprehending, creative, completely devoted and dedicated to knowing the subject, considerate, conscientious, critical, committed, cheerful, chaste and calm.
A lot of qualities. What does he emphasizes when he teaches his teachers to teach?
“I try to avoid all the mistakes I have made. To explain the asanas to the smallest detail, that is you could say the light I want to spread. To give all the knowledge that is necessary to teach crystal clear. Each pose has it’s own religiosity, that is the religion of each asana, that is the truth of each asana. Presenting the actual truth as it should be. And that is what I am guiding. That is what I want my students to teach.”
And do you think we are ready for that?
“Whether you are ready or not I give it, because otherwise what will happen to this art? I am trying to make the people that are not ripe, ripe. In older days they were not giving teachings in yoga at all and that was when lots of things got lost. So if you see an apple on a tree and you want to get the apple by trowing a stone, by one stone the apple may not fall. But by hundreds of stones you may get it.
So whether ripe or unripe I am giving it, so out of that may be one day one ripe teacher will get out of it who knows.” Why keep my students in darkness?”
My final question. When I come back, I can imagine that people from the teacher training course want to hear what you told on the convention, how you were teaching. Is there something you want to say to them through me?
“Consistency, persistency, perseverance, tolerance, accepting the impediments and the difficulties you come in the way and accepting that all, with a constant and consistent practice, than if you continue all impediments and difficulties will appear as a wave.”
And the end is worthwhile?
“The end is worthwhile for a benevolent happy living and benevolent happy death.”
Thank you very much sir.
(*)The Heart of Yoga, developing a personal practice, T.K.V. Desikachar, Inner Traditions International, Rochester Vermont, 1995 ISBN 0-89281-533-7.
(*) Yoga Dipika, (Dutch translation of Light on Yoga) Karnak - Amsterdam
Transcription and Interview: by Maarten-Rijk Toussaint