A Foot on the Table ~ By Vanessa Harrison

"Place the foot up here" commanded Guruji. It was an afternoon in April. Pune was hot. Guruji was in his cool, dim, underground library. He was dressed in white and was sitting on a sheepskin rug thrown over a folding chair placed behind his desk. He looked intimidating, but friendly. His famously terrifying shaggy eyebrows were in repose. On the desk were a pile of papers, a vase of orange roses, a lamp which illuminated his face, a small fan turning slowly - and now, a foot. Guruji inspected the foot. "Bring me a rope". Mark Tully (for it was his foot) looked apprehensive. Guruji smiled encouragingly. A rope was brought and Guruji began to demonstrate on the foot the ways in which Mark could correct his tread. Mark looked doubtful. He had, after all, had the problem with his ankles for many years. He had heard about Guruji's genius for curing ailments using remedial yoga poses, but even so.

We were there to make a radio programme about Guruji for BBC Radio 4. We'd arrived the day before and had decided to find the institute before our first meeting with Guruji and to have a look at it - discreetly, from outside the gate. We'd expected to see a large, imposing building set in big grounds. Guruji is, after all, internationally renowned. Shock number one was the small, attractive building right next to the road. We'd walked past it without realising what it was. A low, black, iron gate on which were two small golden figures performing yoga poses. No large grounds. Just a few trees, shrubs and flowers lining the short paved driveway. And a shrine to Guruji's wife to the right of the gate. Shock number two was a board placed in the middle of the drive. "Admission to all classes closed" it said, Next batch will commence from 1st June. We looked at each other in horror. No classes! No actuality for our programme. No interviewees to talk about Guruji. How could I possibly have made such a terrible error? "Never mind" said Mark vaguely and bravely. Things nearly always work out in the end in India.

Mark, BBC India correspondent for more than 25 years, was familiar with the grand ways of other renowned gurus. The modesty of this institute impressed him. He liked its small scale, its friendly, homely atmosphere, and its extraordinarily efficient secretary, Pandu, who worked incessantly through the heat, only relinquishing his mobile phone to take classes when necessary. For yes, there were some classes after all. For local pupils. And that first day, the day of the foot, was to culminate in one of Guruji's renowned medical classes. Could we watch? Pandu looked doubtful. "No picture" he said. Of course not; we were radio. And so we were allowed to witness an extraordinary scene.

Guruji, wearing a pair of maroon-coloured shorts, was moving so fast that we couldn't keep up with him with our microphone. The big, tiled marble-floored studio was packed with people. There were people who couldn't walk. People with damaged limbs. People clearly in great pain. Everyone had a helper - and Guruji to advise them both. He appeared to have eyes in the back of his head. He knew exactly what was happening on the other side of the room even as he was attending to someone. He raced around pulling at limbs; barking orders; re-arranging equipment to stretch recalcitrant bodies.

A woman was lying on the floor, belts strapped around her. He placed a foot on her thigh. She shrieked with pain. "More" he commanded. "Stretch this more". She grimaced. And then smiled with relief when he removed his foot and the permanent pain she endured day and night, was relieved. A young man who couldn't walk was being supported by equipment and by his helpers. His face was twisted with effort and anxiety. "Look" said Guruji "Like this" and manipulated his body. "Try. Try." He took a step. His very first step. A great smile spread over his face. Guruji beamed. And shot over to the other side of the room to shout at someone else. "How old did you say he was" asked Mark. "Did you really say eighty"?

Some of Guruji's helpers had come from afar. Stephanie and Alison from Australia, Annette from Germany. Nivedita from Delhi. Nivedita had spent eight years in bed with a back problem before she had travelled to consult Guruji. After many years of consulting different doctors, she had finally been diagnosed accurately, using the latest high-tech Western medical equipment. But the doctors had not been able to treat her successfully. Nivedita told us that Guruji had made the same diagnosis. Only he had done it simply by looking at her. Now she can walk again. Nivedita had decided that she wants to teach yoga.

Geeta and Prashant took many classes. They worked hard in the heat. Prashant explained that yoga had helped him to ?go with (his) nature. That's the greatest gift of life for me. One should not compromise with one's nature, because nature gives you the power. If one is able to follow one's nature, life is smooth.? We asked them about their mother and they told us how for many years she had cared for the family in one of their two rooms, while Guruji had to devote himself to his yoga in the other one. It was the greatest sadness that she had died as soon as the institute was completed.

Guruji described himself as being "semi-retired" but he appeared to be inexhaustible. His daily routine was rigorous. Up at 05.30. Coffee with milk and sugar. Pranayama for one hour. Paperwork. Read newspaper from 07.30 to 08.00. Coffee. Practice from 09.15 to 11.30. Home for bath and prayer, a little fruit or milk and to relax for half an hour. Then to the library, to write letters and read. At 17.30 practice again, until main meal of vegetables, or curds and rice at 20.30. His meals vary according to practice. Difficult poses require lighter meals. He is reluctant to advise on food for others. Too discriminatory, he says. Some people might not have the money to eat the food he recommends. And as someone who grew up poor and hungry, he knows how that would feel. In the evening, he likes to watch the TV news at nine and after that, sport and films. Bed between 22.00 and 23.00. No holidays.

On the morning of our last day, we record Guruji taking us on a tour of the octagonal-shaped building - up eighty-eight steps to the apex and the image of Hanuman sitting in his shrine. It had to be made from three tons of reinforced concrete, in order to withstand the extreme Pune weather. The building becomes narrower and narrower until we reach the roof, which pitches sharply up like a steeple towards the shrine at the top. There are metal steps attached to the near-vertical surface. Guruji bounds up these towards Hanuman, describing to us over his shoulder how he used to climb up primitive rungs before these steps were made. Mark, Nivedita and I follow, one at a time. I am getting the microphone cable all knotted up in my anxiety to keep close enough to Guruji to record what he is saying.

By the time we get to the top, everyone is breathless - except Guruji, who proceeds to give us a fluent account of the building of the institute and of the shrine. He bought the site from some Christians, he said. They were keen to sell it to someone who would make good use of it and they decided Guruji was that person. It was a splendid site, and he was ahead of his time in building here. Shortly afterwards many other people built around him. He sweeps an arm over the landscape and laughs at his own business acumen.

A well-known photographer arrives at the institute. He is an old friend of Guruji's - and, it turns out, of Mark's as well. As he takes his pictures, Guruji and Mark sit on a simple stone seat outside the institute, chatting amicably together. From time to time they laugh uproariously. Two very different men with much in common. They have both been awarded one of India's greatest honours, the Padma Shri.

The photographs are excellent. And as for the programme - well, you will be the best judge of that.