The Intelligence in the Fingertips

Film: » Breath of the Gods «

On the death of yoga teacher B. K. S. Iyengar

by Jan Schmidt-Garre, first published in Welt am Sonntag, 24.8.14
German version on

First of all, it can’t be true at all that B. K. S. Iyengar, the most important yoga teacher of the 20th century, died last Wednesday in a Poona hospital. If ever an Indian guru would reach the magic age of 108, it would be him – I knew that when he pressed my ankles into the mat with an iron grip four years ago, then already 91 years old. I was making a film about the emergence of modern yoga and felt it necessary to stage myself as a guinea pig. I had never managed to get into a headstand without help, and now I was kneeling in front of the most famous of all yoga teachers and wanted to learn. I immediately forgot about the camera, because Iyengar’s authority was much more intimidating. So he grabbed my wrists, declared that fear sat in the gap between my knuckles and the mat, and pressed them to the floor with titanic force. » Now get into the headstand, « he said. I did it – and was able to do it.

But it wasn’t always so easy. First he had turned me down, on wafer-thin airmail paper that flew into my mailbox as if from another time. I had gone there anyway and received an audience in the library. This was a fixed element of his daily routine, the public part of which began at half past nine in the morning. Then he entered the yoga hall of his school in Poona, an octagonal building decorated all around with reliefs of himself in acrobatic yoga poses. The fifty or so students from all over the world, including many Indians, were already practicing, each to his own, enjoying, without showing it, Iyengar’s aura that gradually filled the hall. He modestly sought a corner and began his two-hour program: few postures in which he stayed up to thirty minutes, a small kitchen alarm clock on the floor for control. He also used aids such as ropes and blocks – one of his many contributions to yoga, allowing less limber and even handicapped students to move into difficult poses. Then he retired for lunch and a nap, and at half past three he sat down at his desk in the library. There, too, change of atmosphere; faltering breath among students at the shelves, dimming of conversation.... At his small table he answered letters, dictated and corrected his more than twenty books, and received supplicants like German filmmakers. I managed to convince him of my project and we agreed to start filming on Guru Purnima, the holiday in July dedicated to spiritual teachers.

The first interview was a revelation. Iyengar was a wonderful speaker who, contrary to what might be expected with his fiery temperament, spoke very softly and winningly, powerful Indian English, with a delight in wordplay. He told of his childhood in the southern Indian state of Karnataka, where he was born in 1918, the early loss of his father, and the many illnesses he had as a teenager. At sixteen, the family of his sister, who had married the yoga master Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, took him in. Iyengar learned from him in a short time the most complicated yoga postures and freed himself from his illnesses. He revered his guru, but also suffered from his intellectual arrogance and the force of his slaps (with which he himself was later not to be sparing), and so he gratefully accepted the offer to go to Poona, where a yoga teacher from the Krishnamacharya school was wanted: » I was a tiger who had escaped the guru’s cage. «

In Poona in the early 1940s, the exciting phase of self-exploration began for Iyengar. While he had previously only copied the yoga postures from his guru externally, he now looked inside himself, traced the subtlest reactions of his body to the postures, modified his practice accordingly and thus achieved a profound knowledge of the human anatomy. From this he developed his system, which is used today in Iyengar schools all over the world: with meticulous work on the correct alignment of the body. For our film he demonstrated this with his granddaughter Abhijata. Quick as a flash and relentless, he identified the smallest inaccuracies in the postures, such as the wheel: » Roll up the skin. Heels up and ankles vertically over the heels. Now pull your ankles in and lift. Don’t lift from the wrist! «

His pride in being the great self-made man of yoga was, by the way, very unusual for a traditional Indian, especially for a member of the Brahmin caste of scholars. On my travels for the film, I usually only met people, such as Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, who insisted on instructing just like their teacher, who in turn would have faithfully passed on what he had learned from his teacher. This appeal to tradition is so much a part of Indian culture that there is even a term for it in Sanskrit: Parampara. Iyengar, on the other hand, self-consciously said that he had never read a yoga manual (but he had read the classical texts of yoga philosophy very thoroughly). Instead, he later wrote the most important book to date: Light on Yoga, to which Yehudi Menuhin wrote the foreword. Menuhin, then one of the most famous musicians in the world, had met Iyengar in 1952. He became his student, freed himself from his tensions with yoga and said that for him it was more important to practice yoga daily than to practice the violin. He introduced Iyengar in Europe and the USA and made him the most famous yoga teacher of his time. Even though other disciples of Krishnamacharya, such as Indra Devi or Pattabhi Jois, popularized other forms of yoga and thus established the dynamic yoga that is more popular today – it was Iyengar who created a broad awareness of this art in the West in the first place.

At the end of the interview, Iyengar told me how he had gradually learned to send his intelligence to the tip of his fingers. » How will you know God if you dont even know your big toe? To this day, the asanas (yoga postures) are my prayers: meditation in action. Because I can expand the finite to reach the infinite. « He told it so vividly that I wished I could merge with his body to have the experiences he spoke of. Here was a man who could trigger a physical effect through words alone, through the mind. That lingered in me, in the yoga practice of course, but also in swimming and even just in lying on the bed. And thats what yoga is: the incarnation of the spirit. And the spiritualization of the body.

Film: » Breath of the Gods «