An Interview with Geeta Iyengar
I HAVE HAD A NATURAL INCLINATION toward yoga since my early childhood.From the age of three or four, whenever I saw my father practicing, I would try to imitate him.
I suffered from nephritis (kidney inflammation) during my early childhood, and I had to be hospitalized. After three weeks, I was discharged from the hospital with a long list of medications that I had to take. This was during a difficult period for my father, Yogacharya Sri B. K. S.lyengar, and he could not afford to buy the medicines. Instead, he recommended that I practice asanas to improve my health.
Every time I went to see the doctor for a checkup, he would say that I was steadily improving and that I should continue taking the prescribed medicines. Of course he had no idea that my improvement had nothing to do with any medicines; it was purely the practice of yoga that was improving my health.
About a year later, my father took me to see his own guru, Sri T. Krishnamacharya,in Mysore. We waited two days to get an appointment to see him, and when we did, he suggested that I should practice the same asanas that I was already practicing.
I was too young to understand that there was a relationship between yogic practices and health, but I could feel my health improving.Even though I was sick, I would still do my practice because I felt it nourished me and made me feel healthier. “Yoga was like an elixir of life to me. I didn’t even enjoy going out socially because all I wanted to do was to practice yoga and to rise above everything in life.
My inclination toward yoga was so strong that my cousins remember me saying at an early age that I wanted to become a sannyasin (a member of an order at the highest stage of the Hindu ashram system). I had the yogic tendency.
One day when I was seven years old, my father told me that he had to give a yoga demonstration, and he wanted me to go along with him. I went, but when I stood on the stage,I felt frightened, although I never let itshow on my face.I just imitated whatever postures my father did. Some people wondered how I could do any asanas that he did. I was still weak from my illness, but I was very determined at the same time.
My father never taught me anything directly; instead, he would convey his intent to me through a look or an action,and I began to communicate with Guruji through his eyes. If a new movement or extension occurred to him while we were practicing, he would look at me to see whether I had caught it.
He would never point out my postures to tell me if I was doing something wrong; instead he would demonstrate to me in his own practice how a posture should be done correctly.Although I was his daughter, I never received any special treatment in his general classes. He used to treat me as he would treat others. Sometimes he would move me to the front of the class to demonstrate the asanas but only because it made it easier for him to convey what he meant to the other students.Through those demonstrations I learned to be more observant and to always listen very carefully to everything that Guruji explained or instructed.
I first started teaching when I was around 13 years old. I used to prepare my younger sisters, as well as other girls from my school, for interschool yoga asana competitions. My teacher was a pupil of Guruji, and she would ask me to bring in Guruji’s photo albums because she wasn’t sure how to practice some of the difficult postures. That was before the publication of Guruji’s book “Light on Yoga”.
After completing my schooling, I went to college, which was around the time that Guruji began to travel overseas to teach yoga. While he was away, some of his students asked me to help them with their practice, so at the age of 16,1 was a recognized yoga teacher, and I have been teaching yoga ever since.
Over the years, I have seen so many people improving their health through practicing yoga. I have seen the relief on their faces as they rose above their negativity with the practice of asanas.
In an asana, the mind has to reach inside the body to find a quiet space until a point comes where perfect balance is felt. If the mind is wandering while practicing, then one is not fully present, and there can be no union. Involvement, interpenetration,and insight are the required qualities for the practitioner.
My mother passed away when I was still quite young, which was a tough period for me emotionally. For a long while, none of the family could even accept that she was gone. As the eldest child, I had to assume my mother’s duty to look after the household.
I had to do all of the daily chores and then find time for my own practice as well as for continuing to travel to schools and colleges to teach yoga. It was difficult for me to maintain a balance in my life, but I discovered that I could do anything that I set my mind to. I changed my routine so that students came to my house for lessons instead of me using valuable time traveling to them.
Yoga has given me courage and confidence to work through difficulties in my life. Guruji is a man who married and had children, but in his inner mind and in his nature he is a complete yogi. He gave of himself to his family, but at the same time he maintained a certain distance, creating a balance for himself. He has always been clear and firm about the subtle line that distinguishes attachment from non-attachment.He gave us the freedom to do whatever we wanted and to decide for ourselves what was right and wrong.
Guruji suffered greatly through poverty,struggling for every rupee that he made from teaching yoga. Our family finances were frequently in a bad state,and I recall reading in his diaries how he would often cycle for many miles to teach a student just so that he could afford to buy one meal that day.
When Guruji first came to Pune, he experienced a lot of local resentment because wherever he went,crowds would be drawn to him through his performance of the asanas and because of his fame from traveling overseas. Many people were attracted to him because they could see with their own eyes the benefits that his students received from yoga. However,some people became jealous of his charisma and popular influence and tried to stop him from conducting his classes; but he had a strong willpower, and he never gave up despite their best efforts.
Guruji faced all of his opponents courageously and without quarreling.He accepted the behavior as a part of human nature, and he used to say that if he remained honest with himself, then he was not bothered by what anyone else said. He had a great faith in his guru’s teachings and in his own sadhana (practice).
I would say that Guruji was the first yogi to place yoga firmly in the view of the people in India—he re-introduced the art of yoga to the common man in the street.
I believe that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is the foundation for the entire art and science of yoga. His writing consists of only 196 sutras, which is remarkable for such a vast subject; yet each sutra has so
much depth contained within. Patanjali described the eight limbs of yoga beautifully when he compared them to the petals of a flower—saying that if even one of those petals was missing, then the flower loses some of its beauty. It is only after a student has been shown a method by a guru and is totally involved on a yogic path that the real meaning of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra will reveal itself.
Even the Hatha Yoga Pradipika says that change has to come from within because each change has to be interrelated and each transformation has to be digested fully before one moves on. Guruji followed this particular instruction and guided me in this line.
Guruji’s own guru, Krishnamacharya, showed the path and the method toGuruji, but Guruji, as a student, travelled on the yogic path faithfully by totally involving himself. Therefore, the real meaning of each sutra, with its depth,revealed itself to Guruji. He sees each sutra with its theoretical meaning along with the feel of his own experience. He has found the tying thread between Patanjali and himself.
My own definition of yoga is that it is a restraint of mental modifications, which is the result of restraints brought about by controlling the sense of perception, the movement of the muscles and nerves, the oscillations of the intelligence, andthe interference of the “I” consciousness to a place where no individual “I” exists.
Samadhi (union) is the goal of yoga, according to the theoretical explanation of the shastras, but I think that the real goal is somewhere deeper, where the pure being exists. The aim of yoga, as I see it, is ultimately to reach the inner sanctum of eternal truth, which is a long process of
Small aims produce small gains that can lead a person to the final goal. Through a faithful practice of yoga, a person will develop compassion, patience, sensitivity, contentment, vigor, faith, and non-attachment, all of which can be viewed as achievements along the path to discovering the inner being.
Geeta S. lyengar is the eldest daughter of
Yogacharya B. K. S. lyengar, and
lives at the Ramamani lyengar Memorial
Yoga Institute (RIMYI) in Pune, India.
Excerpted from Yoga:
A Journey Within by Derek Biermann