Interview with B.K.S. Iyengar by Gabriella Giubilaro
published in Yogadhârâ, from The Light on Yoga Research Trust, Mumbai
January 1998, Pune
[Q.] People look at you and admire you at the age of eighty, still full of health, energy, vitality and spirit. This is a clear sign of what yoga has done for you. Could you please tell us something about the difference in your practice, over the years, in your thirties, forties, fifties, sixties and seventies?
[Guruji] You know ... evolution in practice goes on as one refines the body inside as well as the intellect. This intellectual refinement developed tremendous intuitive understanding to see and practice yoga with a different perspective altogether. From this stage onwards the inner body and the inner mind became more attentive, toned and cultured than before. At the age of thirty, forty and fifty years of age I was seeking and searching with my practice and bringing the missing points and missing links for the cognition of the mind in the ásanas, as well as in the movements of body and breath. I was studying the missing grips, changing various grips, at different times measuring the wrong tensions and with right tensions and vice versa, in the body. It was like a fluctuating body in a fluctuating mind. For years all this was there. Sometimes, I began to touch right to zero tension. This I developed so that it remains as permanent imprints in my intelligence.
The matter of studying the ásanas and pránáyáma, to become a perfect sádhaka was not explained or taught by anybody. I had to study the definition of ásana with the available explanations, the movement of the in-breath and the out-breath as well as the fluctuations and oscillations.
The body has its own mechanisms as the mind has it's own. The body has its own intelligence. I had to bring out this hidden intelligence for the mind to focus on. This is called the bodymind language, but I do not think it is the right terminology to use for the intelligence of the body. The body language is an outer expression and the language of the mind is an inner expression. Intelligence of the body rubs with the intelligence of the mind and the intellect. This is an unknown phenomenon. Only yoga practitioners will understand it. Hence, there is a vast difference between body language and body intelligence. The body language is an expression of a failure or a success; this was there in my earlier presentation. Body language is a kind of exhibitionism or showmanship. While giving public performances, I used this to make each part of the body express itself as an individual entity. This is known as body language. You may call it the egoism of the body. After expressing the ego of the body I used to feel that there was something more than body cult or language that is the mental quality of the body. I call it a psychological expression. I do not know if there is any terminology for that, it is a difficult point to explain for me. The content - mind, ego, intelligence and self - as well as the container - the body, has to work in unison so that both the content as well as the container express together.
Everybody knows that the body is matter. Our ancient science declares that mind is also matter. If the body is gross matter, the mind is subtle matter or one can call the mind as fine matter. These differences in matter took me a very long time to realize in a practical way. It is very easy to talk about such things but to experience it moment to moment in sádhaná is very difficult. These differences come to the surface after reached the zero state of tension in ásanas. Now I say that my physical, mental and intellectual maturity is on an equal level while doing ásana, pr?náyáma and dhyána.
In the case where one may be intellectually mature but the body does not respond and send messages; of where one is good or bad, and right or wrong, when it comes from the intelligence of the body, and the intelligence of the intellect; then I say that harmony in doing and feeling has come, or set, in that person. If the manual pressures, which are considered purely physical, are uneven, the internal balance of the mind do goes uneven. I could not express these sensations of uneven pressures between the body and the mind in my earlier practices.
The two scooter accidents I had in 1979 limited my movements a great deal. Probably if I had not met with these accidents I would have penetrated the inner body - I use the word the inner body - far deeper, with ease and comfort. For me, the inner body is where the physiopsychological body ends and the mental body begins. This is my inner body and the inner mind. I can feel the organic body with ease, but beyond the organic body is an empty space inside the body, and to penetrate that empty space requires really a great amount of discipline, not only that but a great amount of attention and observation. While observing one has to attentively reflect again and again on re-adjustments so that in the re-adjustments one does not disturb the other parts which are already in an attentive "zero" state of action.
Probably I could have jumped miles ahead if the accidents had not occurred. Sometimes destiny plays and disturbs one's determined goal and practice, tempting one to give up making further efforts. Destiny almost made me give up the practice, as the movements were very painful. Because of my strong will power I have not given it up. I had to begin again as a raw beginner after the accidents and pursue yoga persistently. I re-tooled and re-tyred myself. My inner body was still aching but the will ignited me to work to come out from the weakness in the parts of the body that were injured. Even at eighty-one, I can say with confidence that I am bringing out the best. Just now, you said that
I am keeping very well. The quality of keeping up the well being of my earlier days was definitely on the physical plane, which I was using with great intensity.
Today my well-being is not from the physical level but from the mental and intellectual level. Naturally, first the body decays, matter decays and the gross body decays before the finer body decays. When the gross body goes on decaying, the mind gives way. In order to keep the mind in fine tune, I have to tone and keep the gross physical body expressing the dynamic vibrancy latent in the cells by attending to each and every fiber of my body. It is a sense of well-being in the very life force of man.
Glamour is purely the external expression of the body. My practice of yoga has brought glamour to my inner body, to my cells, fibers, tendons, muscles and organs. This glamour is nothing else but refinement in practice and experience. Refinement of Soul comes with intense work with the internal body and mind. I continue to maintain the inner glamour without allowing the deterioration that comes with age. With internal practice the natural process of deterioration is slowed down and arrested. My yoga practice is now aimed at transforming the glamour into glory.
I did not pay attention to external beauty as I was sick and looked ugly due to ill health. I paid much more attention to inner life and inner lively sensation, which according to me is inner beauty. Today, I say at the age of eighty-one, I do not think of my age when I practice. The very thought of age can become your enemy in your practice. People remind me of my age, but while practicing yoga I am beyond my body and its age.
The moment one thinks of old age the mind takes shelter for escape and the body fails. Whenever the body starts failing I start to enthuse it for work by rejuvenating and recouping the part of the body that remains dull. The moment my mind says I am eighty-one, the mind naturally wants to give way. Then I am lost for yoga. Hence, I work and struggle to find out where the blocks are and each day I work to remove these blocks and go ahead without thinking of my age while practicing. I keep in my heart the will to work, to maintain this extreme refinement in my body and sharpness in my intelligence. If in my practice, my body skin contracts, I feel my mind is contracting. If part of my body is dull, I know my mind is dull in that area. At this age these are the things which appear, but very few pay attention to these. I am grateful to God for giving me the wonderful gift of sensitivity of mind, intellect and body (note 1). I am working hard even now to maintain that quality, because nature is to shrink as one ages, but I am not allowing it to shrink so that my mind may not become small or petty. If the mind shrinks, the courage also shrinks and ageing begins.
I do not call it struggle, because I love to practice yoga, I am comparing the duality that arrives at this age. Where the body says I cannot reach, yoga practice helps me to reach there. Having seen ageing people the mind entices with the thought, "Why do you want to strain yourself so much? Enjoy life, you have worked with discipline, enjoy life, forget everything." I say, "No." In order to be honest to my conscience I am practicing. Even to date my goal is to trace the ethereal body, beyond the organic body. Now, I am not struggling but educating the channeled mind to move consciously everywhere in it's frontier the body. I am educating myself when I stretch my physical body. I create an internal stretch, which the spectators cannot see. I am bringing my Self, the very Soul and the inner being, close to its envelope the skin. This way I keep in contact with the inner body, so that the body does not feel the age and is one with the Soul.
Though ageing and death is certain to the body, for me practicing yoga keeps me away from the idea of age and death. Practice brings the diminishing body in contact with the Eternal Soul. The eternity of the Soul does not remain mere ideology any more as you experience it practically.
This union is a very complicated thing. Many people may not understand easily. Know that I do not stretch the body today, which I used to do in my thirties and fifties. Now I stretch the intelligence in my body to expand so that the intelligence stretches my body. Today I make the intelligence trace the body everywhere. That is why I say I was a seeker in the beginning. Now, being no more a seeker, I stretch my intelligence and make the body to stretch on its own. If I stretch my body I may feel the signs of fatigue, because the body feels the strain, the mind feels the exhaustion. Now I work with the intelligence so that I support the mind in the body. Previously, I was making my body and my mind the major important means in order to master yoga. Now I make them secondary and I move my intelligence firmly with the Self. The Self as content expands in my body and the fluidity of my inner body expands the solid body. In the early days I was using the solid body to make it fluid. Today it is not so, it is the fluid I make to come in contact with the solid body. It is a very subtle and sublime practice, which non-practitioners perhaps, may not understand.
[Q.] Once, I heard you say that you now understand what happens to the body when it becomes old, could you explain what happens?
[Guruji] This is also a new thing. If you see a youngster's body and if you see an aged person's body, the top ribs shrink in an ageing person to a greater extent. Why? Only when we are full of life, the top chest is broader than the middle chest or the bottom chest. Look at a skeleton. There you see the contraction is on the top. This fact was guiding me, how the energy of life shrinks from the extremity, that it gradually moves towards the inner body and shrinks from the external to the internal and from the internal to the inner most, which the ordinary mind cannot grasp. When shrinking goes on, naturally the life force does not reach there and so the life energy starts getting contracted. When the life energy starts contracting, the top ribs get smaller and smaller. There is no room or space for the energy to occupy. They get dried out, and the energy does not flow to the extremities. The lifeline becomes short and evaporates at the last moment. That is why I am practicing to see that the life energy does not shrink from the body. This I learned very recently. You have seen me today doing a lot of backbends. When you do backbends you complain of backache and pain, you will be surprised to know that at this age backbends bring pain and dryness in the sternum. I do not get pains or aches like you, but I get pain in the sternum. This is how I have learned how old age sets in. The sternum is known as a dry area, where energy recedes. Even a medical person will tell you that this area is full with a bony structure and movement is very little. That is why, when I explain the breathing techniques, one third of the chest is full of bones. You do not fee the dryness in the sternum at your age. When I am in touch with yoga for years, why do I feel this dryness and shrinking? This is how I know that the old age develops by this shrinking quality.
You know that sometimes, strong athletes die earlier than the common man does. They overwork and dry out. They do not know how to recuperate and do not know how to keep the dry areas wet. Even today when you see my backbends, I do them more in the area of cervical spine than the lumbar or the thoracic dorsal spine, because the dryness is only here. When I do backbends I feel completely dry and at that time I rub my hands. This is what this age is teaching me, that life is shrinking and warns me to be careful. Do not allow the part to become dryer than what it is now, make it wet - that is, re-energize it and do not allow the area to shrink further. This is what I am learning even at this age. I did ask my pupils who are doctors to give the clues of old age other than muscles contracting. Not one has the clue. They talk about shrinking of muscles tightening of joints and stiffness. No doctor said anything about the dryness in the sternum. As I told you before, the refinement in the intelligence is so little that they cannot reach the solid area. Because of having trained my body for sixty years, it has developed its own sensitivity, its own intelligence. Now at this age it tells me that even the hardest part, the life in the sternum, is slowing down and drying out. It cautions to be careful. So I have to attend more in order to keep my sternum wet. Who will understand this? Tell me. I make the Self expand itself to the sternum so that shrinking is stopped. Know that this happens only in backbends and not in any other ásanas. It has remained to me an enigma, a mystery. In old life, though the life goes on, it becomes shorter and shorter. The area near the sternum shrinks and this is the indication that the elderly have to face and work out so that the fear may not set in. The fear is bound to be set in, that is why old people do like that, which you have seen (note 2). You see anybody then you will know.
If people look at me as a gymnast, it is their fault. It is also wrong to say that I am able to do ásanas because I started my practice early in life. At this stage, at a different age the new understanding, new penetration, the fresh courage is required. People should see the honesty, the integrity and the dedication in practice. They should see my love for the subject and the way I live in the subject.
[Q.] Once I heard you saying that once you used to practice for teaching and now you practice for yourself.
[Guruji] lf I have to teach I have to be to a great deal an extrovert. If I am an introvert, I cannot teach. My practice time then is meant to follow the art of teaching to a great extent. As you know from the story of my early days, the art was not popular I had to practice more in order to present this art in public. One has to respect the public and then show them what they do not know. Naturally, I had to be an extrovert. I was appearing in public as well as teaching. So, in order to be an extrovert, one has to create glamour in the inner body. My presentation was more attractive for the people, as I was presenting not only physically but also intellectually and emotionally. Each fiber, each tendon, each cell expressed the ásana. Many of you cannot present the ásanas in that manner. I used to trace the portrait of each ásana and made that area expressive. This way I used my attention to make this dry subject very attractive and tasty. This public presentation attracted millions of people who are practicing, for which I am grateful to all of them. From my efforts of seventy years what I got is unimportant, but what yoga gave to the mass was something, which I say is a great success in my life. Yoga was not given by me, but through me. Now see how far it has spread! For example, in 1989, I was invited by the Ministry of Health to visit Russia to introduce an unknown subject. Now there are twenty-two centers in Russia. See how much the yoga has spread! I think my practice has opened the eyes of the masses. I am sure that if I have not benefited, the grace of God is on my students who have benefited and are benefiting. I had to struggle in yoga from A to Z, but my students need not struggle from A to Z. All my students should remember this. Naturally, the effect and benefit of yoga will be there even if a small percentage of my way of practice is taught.
I teach less these days because I want my pupils to come up. I do not want the yoga that I practiced and am practicing to die after me. This is what happens to a lot of great people who do not allow their ardent students to grow under them. If I am the trunk, branches are my pupils. They have to be kept in an even, fresh and trim condition. That is why I give chances to all the youngsters all over the world to progress in yoga.
This is the stage in which by closing the windows of knowledge from the senses of perception, which were going outside for the art of teaching all these years, I reverse them to see what is inside and make it more glamorous. I am using the word 'glamorous' because the Western world is very much attracted to this word. That is why I want to show that, that glamour should shine from within in such a way that the others can see and feel that person is totally within and without. This is what yoga teaches the student. With this in mind I am doing more and more to find out whether further refinement can be made to become supremely sensitive.
I do not want to die as a non-practitioner, as many yogis have done. Probably, they could not face the difficulties coming in the practice due to old age and had no courage to accept the truth. They said that they have reached a certain spiritual level just to cover up their weaknesses. They said so to save their honor. I want to be true to my sádhaná and my conscience and hence, I continue with my sádhaná.
I am not a liberated Soul; I have experienced what is freedom. I have experienced the quality of what freedom is. I do not think of liberation while I am practicing. My mind probes on what more yoga can reveal from practice. My mind is still open. As it is open, I am seeing the ásanas now as a seer. I am not searching. As a seer I am seeing, and seeing as a seer. Who knows if God gives me a next life, if people like you are made to do yoga again you may be searching for a good practitioner? You may find me again to learn yoga! Therefore, I am practicing yoga for that knowledge, which has not struck me now, but may strike in the next life. So, I do not stop my practice. Let that light, which may not be coming now, come at the last moment. Illumination can take place further in my practice. That illumination, you may call it selfish, but I do not say it is selfish. On the contrary, I say that if I get illumination, in my next life I may start from where I ended just now. If there is a break I cannot say that I stopped here. If there is a gap of ten years I may not start in the next life, at that time, because my consciousness has covered a lot of other things, but if I am practicing, my consciousness will be in that same point, yoga. My consciousness is closer to yoga even in my next life, but if there is a gap of ten years, fifteen years or so, my consciousness will not be in contact with yoga. I may say I have done sixty-five years, so how can I forget?
Why is it said that every one should have hobbies? For me, my hobby is yoga, my profession is yoga. A hobby means to be free from profession and to keep engaged in other activities, to avoid monotony. So, I converted my professional yoga into a hobby to find out how much more it can exhilarate my heart. For me, yoga is not a monotonous practice. I find all in yoga and that is why I am continuing my practice with love.
Note 1: Then gerontologists may say that one should not think that one is old. Old people are also advised to keep their mind occupied in some leisurely activities. At the age of eighty-one to make the body bend in advance ásanas like Sirsásana, Kapotásana and Vráchikásana and to stay longer in the ásana is extremely difficult and challenging. This requires tremendous flexible, stability, compactness and balance. Gurují talks about the courage of the mind, but for other old people courage at the body level is also difficult to maintain. Note 2: Gurují was rubbing his hand on his sternum.