In this Walk the Talk with The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV 24×7, yoga guru and Padma Vibhushan B K S Iyengar speaks about popularising yoga in the West, how he helped violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin regain his creative energy and why he thinks BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi “may do something good”
Congratulations on your Padma Vibhushan. Although every right-thinking person believes it should have been a Bharat Ratna a long time ago.
I am happy the Indian government has recognised the art of yoga.
But it has been a struggle to get yoga recognised as an art all over the world.
Well, I have been practising for 80 years. It is finally recognition for all the hard work.
Sir, you are 96 years young. I don’t think I should request God to let me live till 96, but whatever age I live, if I could be as fit as you, I would be very happy.
I always tell people: live happily and die majestically.
What do you mean by ‘die majestically’?
It means a happy death.
Don’t spend the last 10 years worrying about death?
That is correct. No sorrow, no anxiety, no distress. Let me leave this Earth with hope.
Anxiety is now the biggest lifestyle disease of our times — not diabetes, cholesterol or blood pressure.
Yes, it is because of the stress factor. There are three remedies — work, word and wisdom. ‘Work’ means to keep oneself fit, ‘word’ is to be sincere and honest in your words and ‘wisdom’ is to surrender to God.
You don’t promote the idea of renunciation, do you?
In life, we have a lot of responsibilities. It is not meant for renunciation. We live in this society and it is our bounden duty to give back to our society. Renunciation comes to me when I am 96.
But you are not renouncing even now. You are very driven even now.
Renunciation means giving up the enjoyment of worldly happiness. But I am full of inner happiness.
I believe you sleep only three hours a day, but you don’t yawn. I wake up yawning and I spend the rest of the day yawning.
I don’t yawn. I cannot sleep even if someone is snoring. I am alert even in my sleep. If I don’t get sleep, I know how to relax. I know many asanas or positions that biologically help me relax my brain without strain. That’s as good as sleeping.
You have been training people since 1936. What are the big changes you see in what people ask you to do? Do they ask for impossible things?
Earlier, I had to popularise yoga, so when people came to me, I went with the current. I realised that people wanted self-satisfaction and I gave it to them through the practice of yoga. I taught them how to be satisfied even while leading a worldly life.
You did not forbid them from anything?
No, I did not. For example, when I was teaching in Switzerland, people often asked me how I managed to work non-stop for 10-12 hours. Vegetables were not available then. So, bread, butter, coffee and milk were my main food.
For a vegetarian… yes.
Yes. So they would ask, how is it that a ‘grass-eater’ has so much strength? I would tell them that it is yoga that gives me this strength, not food.
So what exactly does yoga do? It is not magic.
Yoga generates a lot of energy in the body. Correct positions generate energy. If the asanas are done correctly, according to the body constitution, without putting any impediment in the flow of energy, it gives tremendous recovery.
So what does it do for you? Is it physiology, spirituality or a physical process?
It is cosmic energy that flows in your body. You can call it by any term.
But what creates it?
It is a mix of physiological, physical and spiritual processes. Chemical changes take place while practising yoga. Through yoga, your blood quality changes, mental quality changes, your sub-conscious mind becomes conscious and your conscious mind becomes sub-conscious. These chemical changes ensure energy is not wasted… My body is in pieces, but my mind is in peace. But many have their body in one piece, but their mind is in pieces.
Guruji, you had a tough beginning in life. You were sick and it was very long ago, when medical care was so poor.
Yes, it was a parasitic life. Sometimes I used to wonder if it was worth living. My mind was in a dual state. Fortunately, my guru, my sister’s husband Krishnamacharya who was considered the master of yoga in south India, told me what to do. When he taught me the first posture, I couldn’t touch my knees with my fingers.
Because you had tuberculosis, typhoid, chronic influenza and you were also a case of malnutrition?
Yes. So he told me what to do as my body was stiff. It so happened that there was an international YMCA conference in Mysore in 1935. He said he would teach me a few asanas for me to perform at the conference. So for 10 days, he taught me complex asanas. That was the turning point of my life. He taught me such complex positions and said that if I didn’t do them, I would get no food. With determination and pain, I learnt the asanas and that’s how the transformation took place.
Your mind and body changed and since then there was no looking back.
I thought when I could do so much, why should I not learn more?
Your big success was in selling yoga. I don’t want to use ‘selling’ in a judgmental manner, but you made it user-friendly in India and across the world. Besides other things, how did you get your breakthrough because you did not have a formal training in English education?
I have taught in Switzerland. I have taught politicians such as Jayaprakash Narayan and G S Pathak, the former governor of Karnataka. Also, Yehudi Menuhin. It so happened that he could not play his violin and had heard that yoga would help. So he came to India as a guest of Nehru. He met a lot of yoga teachers. I was also called…Menuhin called me to the Governor’s House at six in the morning. When I went, he was sleeping. I became intolerant. I said, ‘What is the point of wasting time?’.
So you were tough on him?
I told the Governor that I should go. He said you can’t go, he is a VIP guest. So I waited. Then I went in to see if there were any servants. I saw a man sleeping and woke him up. He asked me what I was doing in his room. I told him I was waiting for Menuhin. He said he was Menuhin. I was shocked. He said he would get ready and meet me in five minutes. I asked him to show shirshasana. He refused, saying he was shy. I told him that in the morning paper, I had seen him doing shirshasana with Jawaharlal Nehru. I then showed him my demonstration. He was impressed. This went on for two hours. After the demonstration, I asked him to show me his shirshasana and said I would correct him if he made a mistake. When he started demonstrating, he started breathing heavily. I told him this heavy breathing will increase your blood pressure, this is not the way to do shirshasana. He said, “But Nehru said it was fine.” I shot back, “Nehru is not your yoga teacher, I am!”
Nehru is anything but a yoga teacher.
He then asked me if I could teach him and I said only if he surrendered to me. I corrected his posture and rested his head and he knew how to balance. He said, ‘I am feeling so relaxed in my brain’. I told him, this is yoga. He said, ‘Mr Iyengar, a lot of people spoke about yoga. You are the only one who did yoga and did not speak about it’. I taught him for three to four days. He later performed at a concert at the Regal Theatre. He played the violin so well that people were in awe. He said the secret behind his performance was yoga. He got his violin back.
But why did he lose his ability to play?
That was because he was playing at 15-20 concerts in a day. That collapsed him.
So, he had lost his creative energy?
Yes, and I generated life in him. While practising the violin, he said he could not bend his knuckles. I introduced asanas to get mobility back in his knuckles.
He helped your brand become global.
Where was it tougher to popularise yoga — globally or in India?
I faced problems in India and abroad. At times, I used to have only one meal a day. On many occasions, I used to survive only on tap water. Even in Western countries, where I taught, I was not paid. Mr Menuhin paid me $100 a month to maintain my family. That was my income in western countries… I went to USA in 1956 and got a very poor response. In England and France, it was easy to teach yoga because they knew about India. But when I went back to the US in 1973, I could not believe the change that had taken place. Around 100 students attended my discourse at the YMCA hall. I trained them to become at least elementary teachers.
How challenging was India?
It was challenging. Now it is much easier.
You made yoga global before YouTube, before BBM, before 24×7 television, before WhatsApp…
I had to win people over by presenting what they could see for themselves. So I went about giving non-stop demonstrations for two-and-a-half hours, with lecturers explaining each pose. I stayed in those poses and talked. I think I am the only Indian yogi to have given more than 10,000 demonstrations worldwide. That made yoga popular.
Guruji, I am trained to be a reporter. So I notice from your finger that you have voted.
Yes, I have.
I won’t ask whom you have voted for. You have always said yoga and politics should not be combined. Do you worry about the fact that certain popular yoga teachers are now becoming very active in politics?
We have certain responsibilities towards society, just as society has certain responsibilities towards individuals. So whether one is a yogi or not, his job is to protect the nation he or she belongs to. As a yogi, my job is to guide people.
Sir, now yoga teachers are becoming rockstars. Because of TV, they teach 50,000 people at one event.
It is a tamasha. How can 50,000 people see and learn?
So you are saying this is pop yoga? You disapprove of it?
Do you approve of yoga teachers — in this case I can mention Baba Ramdev — becoming political stars? He is now actively campaigning. Is this the right thing to do?
God has assigned a job to every individual. If he has assigned to me the task of doing yoga, I cannot get out of it. Similarly, if I had to be a clerk, I had to be one. But this way of jumping in to become popular and entering the political life — some have done it — but that requires a lot of renunciation. A yogi or a saint must have renunciation to enter politics, because he must not accept both attachment and detachment.
He must be free from both. It needs a certain maturity. The main aim of joining politics must be only to help society.
Do you worry about this phenomenon?
Naturally, I feel a little pain.
Guruji, at the same time, look at the country now. We have a population of 65 crore below the age of 30. So there is a lot of impatience, a lot of anger on the streets. Everybody wants a change now or maybe like yesterday. How do you deal with that?
As I said, it is through work, word and wisdom — karma, gyana and bhakti. If I am a journalist, I must work neutrally. I should not think about my growth. I should think more about the growth of others. This is what yoga has taught me.
Would you have a word of advice for Baba Ramdev who calls you the Bhishma Pitamah of yoga?
What can I say? They are all adults. I have taught a lot of politicians in India and abroad…
But you stayed away from politics, never made a political comment or endorsed a candidate.
Never. But I know of a lot of politicians.
Have you taught Narendra Modi?
No, I haven’t.
Do you have a view on him?
I have not met or seen him. What I gather is that his perception and practice go together. Probably he may do something good. The way in which he speaks shows India needs a man of this character. Because old nags cannot do anything. I think youngsters should be given a chance.
You had many interesting personalities as your fans. I believe even Khushwant Singh was your fan?
Yes, he came to my ashram once upon a time.
And wrote about it. How did you find him?
He was a very jolly person. His mind was quite different from mine. But I love such persons. He wrote: ‘Yoga goes gaga’.He once asked me, ‘How do you get these charming women to do yoga?’ He was fond of women. I said, ‘My friend, it is yoga that makes them come to me.’
The Chinese government has issued a stamp in your name, with your photo. Do you see a possibility someday that yoga could get so internationalised that we Indians will not be able to keep pace with it?
I find it really hard. Yoga is from India and we must be on top. It is in our blood. We are sons of sages and we are neglecting our forefathers. If we don’t build on what they have given us, I think we will be nowhere. Around the world, India is considered a spiritual country. Even the Dalai Lama says India is his spiritual country. Indians will have to take up the responsibility of re-building India into a spiritual haven.
What, according to you, is the biggest threat to yoga?
Commercialism. There are black sheep in every walk of life. Similarly in yoga, people are exploiting…
People are now promising miracle cures for cancer and even for homosexuality, as if it is a disease.
When they go on practising, chemical changes take place and the organic body changes. When the organic body is in a healthy state, the mind is fine. Then the mind can move in vast directions.
Guruji, you are also one of the most innovative yoga teachers. You are also a tough yoga teacher. Tell us a little about the props you have. I am intrigued, the ropes and pulleys…
In the early days, yogis used to practise on trees. But where was the proof? I would go and explore the branches of trees. Once, I saw two banyan trees that were connected by the roots. It was like a swing. I did shirshasana there. I went home, copied from nature and fixed props to do shirshasana.
So you can find props to do yoga. It does not bar innovation.
Yes. For example, I have taught a lot of people with amputated legs to do yoga in standing position using their artificial legs.
Do you have any other frontiers to climb?
Yoga is the only frontier. Nothing more. I have perfectly understood whatever is known, but I am still practising to find out the unknown.
And the curiosity is still there. So curiosity is what keeps you young.
That is what is making me practise.
The moment you stop being curious, you become an old man, which you are not right now. Guruji, stay young forever. I think a lot more people are waiting to be touched by your knowledge, kindness and intellect. Thank you very much.
Thank you and God bless you.
Transcribed by Vishal Menon