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July 1999
Rediscovering the Reason For Yoga

By Claudette Silver


I have been studying yoga for about five years, and like many people in the West, I began doing it for relaxation. I have just finished my first year of the teacher training program at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco. When I started, I had no idea that it would grab hold of me so tightly, right in the gut, and that I would travel all the way to India to celebrate the birthday of a man I have never met.

He is B.K.S. Iyengar, and he was born 80 years ago in Karnataka in South India. As a child, he suffered from malaria and typhoid and a multitude of other illnesses and came to yoga for healing. At the time, as luck would have it, Iyengar’s sister was to be married to a well-respected man named Sri Krishnamachar who also happened to be a masterful yogi. At first, Krishnamachar would not teach his young brother-in-law yoga, but Iyengar was persistent. Finally Sri Krishnamachar agreed. That, as they say, was the beginning of what has amounted to over 65 years of diligent, persistent, and relentless study of yoga. Iyengar has written a multitude of books on the subject, has trained thousands of teachers in his “style” of yoga, and has become a living icon in the field of yoga.

What makes Iyengar’s system of yoga distinctive from others is the detailed, precise way in which the poses are executed. Iyengar yoga is often criticized as being a “physical” as opposed to “spiritual” practice. However, in his classic text Light on Yoga, Iyengar describes his belief about yoga in the following way: “Asana (the yoga pose) brings steadiness, health, and lightness of limb. A steady...posture produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of the mind. The yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit....A soul without a body is like a bird deprived of its power to fly.” I found this to be true even before I knew that the “Iyengar”of Iyengar Yoga was a real, live person.

Birthday Celebration

So, when I received the notice in the mail that Mr. Iyengar’s eightieth birthday was to be celebrated in Pune, India, with participants from all over the world, I had to go. I had to see for myself firsthand what this man was all about.

Well, see I did, and truthfully, I got more than I bargained for. I had heard stories about the “toughness” and “rigidity” in his teaching, I had heard tales of him holding headstand for hours on end. But to actually experience Iyengar in real-time was overwhelming to put it mildly. What did I see? A few images come to mind. At one point during one of our marathon yoga sessions, I watched him strike both women on either side of me. One woman rotated her foot before he said she could, and so he bellied himself right in her face, screaming, “Why don’t you listen to me?” With that, he whacked her left foot back into line. His other victim, who was two feet to my left, happened to have her arms pointing in a direction he didn’t like. I have no idea what he said, for I was too busy avoiding the flames spitting from his mouth. “Didn’t I tell you...,” he yelled, as he struck her raised arms so hard she faltered and nearly fell.

I consider myself to be quite lucky. I have never in my life been struck, hit, or even slapped. I never imagined that I would travel to India to study with the master himself and face that fear. What will I do if he hits me, I thought. And what does this have to do with “mental equilibrium?”

When Iyengar is questioned about his behavior, his response almost seems logical. Almost. Iyengar has stated that what he is doing when he “smacks” your arm is to “awaken” it, to move your consciousness to that part of the body. In one of his more famous aphorisms he says, “Never perform asanas mechanically, for the body stagnates.” Thus, he argues, his little “tap” is aimed at removing the mechanics from your posture and help deter the stagnation of your consciousness.

That was one of the longest two weeks in my life, dealing every day with the struggle of what I was doing there, and the constant question of why I practice yoga. At one point, as we all stood with our arms stretched overhead, stiff like lightening rods, I had this vision of trying to explain this cult-like scenario to my mother: All seven hundred of us standing at attention with our arms in the air like launchers. I put my hands down. I couldn’t explain it.

After I returned home, it took me a while to approach yoga without hearing Iyengar’s booming voice over my shoulder. And when all my fellow yoga students eagerly asked about my trip, all I could muster was that it made me question my study of yoga. It is hard for me to criticize a man who has brought so much knowledge and wisdom to the field of yoga, particularly when I am such a novice! But it is also hard for me not to criticize a man who uses abusive and intimidating tactics to reach his goal.

Finding the Explanation

I arrived to class a few minutes late, which, considering how I have been feeling about yoga these days, wasn’t bad. Clearly, as I saw what the other students were doing, this was a class all about backbends. At least, I thought, this is a treat!

We stood firm on our feet and adjusted a strap around our left ankle, then laced it between our toes. The pose is called natarajasana or “Lord of the Dance” after Lord Krishna. Up and over the shoulder my arm went holding the strap, as I arched my right leg back like a bow. At first it was very difficult for me to gauge just how high my leg was reaching, and I was a little scared to move my hands down the strap for fear I would just break.

My teacher came up behind me and held the foot of my extended leg in her hand. Gently she nudged my foot toward my hand. I wasn’t holding the belt anymore, I was holding my toe! “Can you hold your foot with both hands,” she whispered. Of course I couldn’t find anything in my vocabulary to answer her. Instead, I bent my elbow and grabbed hold of my foot. I did it! My foot was touching my head....which was touching my left hand....which was touching my right hand! I can’t explain the wonder and awe of going to a place, a space, where you have never been before. That second or two where time didn’t exist for me is a feeling I hope everyone has at some point in their lives and, right then, I answered my own question about why I love to practice yoga.

Claudette Silver
is an artist and writer who lives with her two feline loves, Pinky and Delilah, in San Francisco.


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