“B.K.S. Iyengar’s Ingenious Use of Props” an Interview with Manouso Manos

Bee: When reading the articles from around the world about Mr. Iyengar after he passed, we were struck by how often the props and the relationship to safety were mentioned. I’d love for you to expound on that.

Manouso: You cannot pretend for a moment that he invented the props. He never even said that he did. But I think he perfected them, or at least took them to the next level. The learning will go on. Starting with the principles that he gave us, those props can be moved in ways that the next generation can see and then the next generation. But it really came out of him. He was always very clear because people used to call him the ‘prop yogi’. And he would laugh and say, okay, teach a raw beginner how to do full arm balance without a prop, knowing full well that the wall or that even the teacher’s hand is a prop. Whether you took his Guru’s work with the ropes, or dangling like puppets, that yoga kurunta they talked about, then we know that he kept mining and looking and he was remarkably inventive. The original backbender, the dwipada viparita dandasana bench as they call it in Pune, was actually originally a barrel! He told me that he found a barrel and that he used to stretch people over it. The reason why some of us old timers call the blocks bricks…..they were bricks! If you go in the old road between Mumbai and Pune, there are brickmakers. So it was not expensive for him to get his hands on bricks and utilize them for the use of yoga. Eventually, they started to bring blocks in and the next thing you know, we have this whole new generation. I was always surprised because I was in India almost 40 years in a row. Every time I would go back, there would be a new prop. I’d look around and ask, what is this, what is that, where did that prop come from? The answer is that it came from his own head! He had a furniture builder come in or a good craftsman. He’d say, ‘build this for me, make it exactly like this’. He knew his own body dimensions, and he knew his own feelings and the way the poses should go and to try to bring that sensation into some other individual. Then he would introduce the props for them. A remarkably creative man. I mean, almost beyond belief. And to continue with that creativity into later in his life is unheard of. Most people have their burst when they’re really quite young, teens and early twenties. But can you imagine still having that mindfulness and that inventiveness in his 90’s, which is what he was doing right until the end?

Dwipada Viparita dandasana benches, Pune, India

Bee: As well as his awareness of our modern life and how that changes the mind and the body.

Manouso: He had no questions about that. He was really quite clear with people that the way to get into the modern life and still tolerate it and get done what you need to do would be through yoga. His book, Light on Life, was written a little differently than all the others, and I’m well aware of that. He tried to talk about the complexities of what it’s like to live in a modern day society, even if it feels like we’re going backwards in modern day society. What’s it like to make a decision as to whether you’re going to eat a piece of pizza or have ice cream? Can you imagine that there’s a yoga book that talks about that? That’s exactly what that book did. It doesn’t sound like it’s much of a yoga decision, but the fact is that it is. There’s an awareness of life that he was trying to bring forward, trying to allow people to start to see that the answers were in your practices. The answers were actually left over from the old. You’ve got to start to bring them up to make them make sense in your life. The answer is exactly the opposite. You’ve got these stresses. There’s an answer given to you by the ancients. It’s time for you to look.

Bee: It’s like what Guruji said to his granddaughter Abijita during the last week of his life….

Manouso: “I have shown you all these things. Now realize them for yourself.” Now it’s time for you. I gave you what there is. Now you have to figure out, make it your wisdom and not my knowledge and allow yourself to find your way into that depth. Those words are for all of us. He put her through a lot in the last few years. And he really tried to train her, and he trained her well. But his words, I take to my own heart, all of us should.

Bee: A lot of our readers don’t know a lot about Abijita and we hope in the coming issues to introduce her to them. Those of us who’ve seen her, and talked with her, understand there’s a lovely spirit coming to us.

Manouso: She grew up elbow to elbow with her grandfather. He took a great deal of time, and really tried to train her, educate her into the next generation. Thank goodness that he did.

Bee: What about the concern about people with limitations, whether it’s an injury or age or whatever, and how Mr. Iyengar helped them experience the full benefit of the pose?

Manouso: Well, none of us is confused about the fact that we’re all in a state of decay. We’re aging. The ravages of that age will take their toll on us. You understand that you fight for your own health and that you do not let the injury, or the aggravation, or the accident prevent you from trying to lead the fullest life that you possibly can. We don’t pretend for a moment that we can cure everything. But we do suggest to people that we have tools that might allow them to start to do some of the things that might first seem to be quite limiting. Now that the man has passed, he still stands as a beacon for some of us, as an inspiration for some of us, to see if we can start to do something with our lives rather than feeling like we are a victim of it. We’re all victimized by society, we’re victimized by our own life, we’re victimized by our genes. But can you do the best you can with what you’ve been given? Can you find your way in this life into some state where you start to feel like you’re not always being oppressed, but in fact, you’re reaching in to try to take charge again of something that most of us don’t think we have any control of at all? That was one of his messages for decades.

Bee: There is balance in a pose, yet when we have limitations and injuries, it’s hard to achieve balance and it seems like the props help us.

Manouso: Yes, I agree with that. I don’t mean to correct you, but I want you to start to notice: There’s a tendency for people to think that the props only make the pose easier. In fact, many times, the props will drive the pose to the area you are avoiding. To awaken it, to strengthen it, to elasticize it. To find whatever it may be, to allow yourself to pierce inward. And that was his brilliance about the props. From the outside looking in, it makes the pose look easier. If you watch the way he was using some of his own props, you would see that’s exactly what he was doing. He was not allowing himself to take the support of the prop so he didn’t have to work. He was asking the prop to get him to do more work, or to demand more work out of him. He would do this with many of us when he would set up those props. This is one of the reasons why he had that magic curative property of putting people in poses. He would take the pose until you couldn’t hide from the area where it was needed and awaken that area and drive it toward that state, hopefully a state of freedom, which is what we’re looking for.

Bee: Can you be specific about the uses of some of the props?

Manouso: Something as simple as using the horse, the Pune pony, whatever you may want to call it. That thing works wonders for certain kinds of back issues, or for people who have lost the ability to stand upright, where they can now use their hands and legs at the same time… to try their way into some of these poses. With a severe neck injury—no one’s confused, when you first get a severe neck injury, you have no business standing on your head. Then, with rope sirsasana, let the weight of my head act like a heavy weight, and allow that to give me some room again, and then maybe I can find my way back to sirsasana. The use of the chair for sarvangasana: Some ways we use it makes the pose easier. Some ways we use it, that chair actually feels like it demands more out of my neck and shoulders and allows my neck rather than jamming my neck all the time. Setubandha sarvangasana is an unbelievable pose. But how many of us can hold the pose on our arms as he shows in Light on Yoga so that it can: change the hormones in the body; awaken the kidneys and the liver into a state of awareness? Most of us don’t have that kind of strength. If I put myself in setubandha sarvangasana over the brick, or setubandha sarvangasana on the bench….then, all of a sudden, I can tolerate it and really remain there. I can take it like a full dose of medicine and try to help and bring that awareness to my body.

BKS Iyengar practicing on Dwi Pada Viparitadandasana bench, Pune, India, 2007

Bee: Another part of Iyengar yoga is holding poses…and how it works on different levels.

Manouso: Yes, use of the timepiece, correct. He made mention too, that his timepiece came later. That in fact, in his early days, he wasn’t interested in just for time, he was interested in the poses. This came out because of a history out of a background of demonstrating poses. Believe me, I stared at him doing half hour headstands and was in awe. Knowing that that was the case, he was bringing up the demonstrated art to bring yoga to the populace. He was trying to get the populace interested in a subject that he was convinced and I was convinced, was dying. To bring it into the modern era, in some ways kicking and screaming and changing it to make it available to the common man, in every part of the world, was really his life’s work.

Bee: And then he takes the subject to China in his 90’s.

Manouso: Yes, in his 90’s. Takes it to a billion people, just as he had taken it to millions before that. He was traveling as a diplomat both from his country and for his subject.

Bee: Mr. Iyengar working as a diplomat for world peace.

MM: Because that border between India and China is tense. Both sides admit to that, and are in some ways trying to bring that tension down. But nobody wants to see a one billion army against a one billion army. There’s no one on the face of the earth who wants to see that, right?

Bee: You said that he didn’t hold poses because of his demonstrations, but he also was a young man. Aren’t we lucky that he lived so long to examine each decade?

Manouso: I don’t want to change the subject, but I give such credit to Geeta to trace having a yoga practice, in every stage of a woman’s life, despite her not having been pregnant….but her sensitivity was so great to allow her to follow and teach pregnant women. And watching him going from a boy to a young man, into a middle aged man, into a householder, into a widower and then having that many years of stretch of understanding of how the human body works. Thank goodness he lived so long. And he was on new ground. Old yogis were told to stop doing asanas at the age of 60. He said that he tried it and that it almost killed him. Those were his words, not mine. He told me: “This is not for me. I reject that. I have to pick my practice up again’. If you look at the photos of him in his 70’s and 80’s, what an inspiration. His backbends, his forward bends, his arm balances even, at those ages, were beyond belief. The comparison I have, and I don’t have a good one, is like walking on ice. If you and I see a lake that is covered over in ice, and then if I walk out on the ice and if you walk behind me, you’re a little safer because the ice tolerated me. His body tolerated it and then he could keep moving. When I see that a man of that age could still stand on his head, could still do full arm balance, could still do push up backbends, then I say, ‘You know what, there’s no ill effect for me. I watched the guy, I know he’s alive. Now I have to proceed with caution, knowing full well that someone has tested that ground’.

Bee: I was privileged to stand next to him during the Light on Life tour as a photographer. I’d like to bring that awareness of him as a man to the community because it changes things to see him and to realize he did this. Now he’s miles ahead of me, but he’s still a human being. You know, I could probably do a little more than I think. And for you, being so close with him, it must have been a constant inspiration.

Manouso: You know that he’s my mentor, he’s my teacher, he’s my guru. But we also have to protect, because people who look in from the outside, consider us maybe to be a cult. But the fact is that I do not consider him to be anything except the greatest man I ever met. And that kind of inspiration, how do I wrap my head around that information? Can I become a better human being because I witnessed a really good human being? Can I look at that man–he comes from a common upbringing. His brothers and sisters may have been really good people, but they did not have that world shaking thing that went on with that individual. Can I start to find that in myself, not because I was stuck being born into a family of immigrants or because we didn’t have any money? You dust yourself off, let me see if I can go further. That inspiration comes directly from him as well.

Viparita Karani on Dwipada Viparita Dandasana bench with legs on the “horse”

Bee: People may not know what a true revolutionary he was.

Manouso: He will never be given the credit that he truly deserves for changing the earth. He was the one who again, changed and morphed it enough so that it wasn’t just palatable but exciting for the 20th and 21st century…to have somebody doing that. I never heard this story until after he had passed: Someone told me that they had asked him what would happen to yoga after he was gone and he said it would go on. Then they asked, well, what happens after it falls? He said, then someone will be born, and they will revolutionize it. He had no question about who he was. Whether you believe in reincarnation is inconsequential. His birth in particular changed a subject and brought it into the modern era. There might be another person in 100 or 200 years, that it’s necessary to dust it off, change it back, or change it forward, and to help people for the next couple of generations after that.

Bee: The changes he made, were the things that allowed the purity of it continue.

Manouso: I consider him to be a 500 year yogi. In other words, you get one of those people who’s such a whirlwind that they take the subject and bring it back to reality again.

Manouso Manos is one of the most capable and experienced of the Senior Iyengar Yoga Teachers. He holds one of only two Advanced Senior certificates granted worldwide by B.K.S/Iyengar. He began his studies with Sri B.K.S. Iyengar in 1976, and served as chairperson for the First International Iyengar Yoga Convention in 1984. After numerous trips to Pune, India and nearly 4 decades of personal practice, his understanding of and insights into Iyengar Yoga are conveyed with authenticity and precision.