An Interview with B. K. S. Iyengar

October 28, 2009

by Jane Munro

Introduction

Perhaps I should set the scene for this interview, and say a word about my transcription.

 

The interview took place on October 28, 2009 in the library of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Centre Institute. I’d been in Pune for a month, one of a flock of students attending classes and practice sessions. From nine to noon, B. K. S. Iyengar would be in the yoga hall with us, doing his practice, so I’d had a chance to observe him daily. And, I suppose, he’d also seen me, though we’d only exchanged a few words.  In preparation for this interview, I’d honed five questions and printed them out on two sheets of paper. Guruji had been very busy, but finally on this afternoon he had time to look at my questions. I handed the papers over, expecting that —if he were willing to speak to them—he’d set a time for me to return. Guruji scanned the first page, looked up, and said “Yes.” It was clear he meant, go ahead. Now. Luckily, I’d brought my digital recorder. 

He sat at his usual desk with me opposite him. There was no great distance between us. Our conversation was comfortably intimate though not at all private. We looked directly into each other’s eyes. I was nervous but calmed down. Other people were waiting to see him. Stacks of paper sat before him. I didn’t know how long he’d have for me, so – at first – felt the need to rush through my questions. That was not how he chose to proceed; he continued to speak to my first question, ignoring subsequent questions, until he felt satisfied with his answer. As you’ll see, I had interjected others. Gradually, he incorporated his responses to those further questions into our conversation. I, slowly learning to relax with him, began to listen at a deeper level. 

It was a remarkable experience. I’d guessed it would be interesting; what I didn’t anticipate was that I’d find his attention, in and of itself, a blessing. I think his power to see into others comes from his extraordinary self-mastery and self knowledge. That afternoon, I was the one receiving his gaze and insight. Something about this was exhilarating. I think the closest I can come to describing it is to say I felt an awareness flowing through him warm my heart and lift my spirit. It was freely given – an open inquisitiveness and engagement. In the interview, he speaks of the consciousness developing rays, as does the sun. I felt like a plant on a sunny day – nourished and better able to grow. 

I am not a yoga teacher, just a student. But, I felt Guruji paid as much attention to my questions as he would to those of someone with whom he’d worked for years. What mattered was getting as close as he could to conveying his own truth – to getting the “infinite subject” of his experience, spiritual in character, into the “finite” restrictions of words. He said the cells in his body, though they lack words or language, send him messages, talk to him. He said his practice is guided by the discipline of listening to what can’t be put into words; that his cells chant prayers and send him petitions. In this way, he said, they bring life to the dark and unholy parts of his body. What follows from this is that the parts of the body which are holy are those brought into the light, heard, and known by the mind. Is this not fascinating? I could extend from it to say – what mattered to him was to make the obscure and confusing places in his answers to my questions “holy.” Knowable. Alive. Able to grow. And to do this in the vehicle of English. 

B. K. S. Iyengar – author of who-knows-how-many books, honoured world-wide – works at a small, chipped table just inside the entrance to the institute’s library, downstairs from the reception area, bookstore, and offices. His desk is next to the landing. While we talked, various people came and went. At one point, a woman brought him a cup of tea. He sits on a wooden arm chair that has a folded sheepskin and a flattened blanket on its seat. A light bulb, encircled by a wide aluminum shade, hangs above his papers. They were stacked in front of him in two piles, including the book manuscript he was working on. Students sat at nearby tables doing their own reading and writing. A librarian worked at a further desk. The library is quite narrow and modest in size, crammed with tables and chairs. Locked bookcases with glass windows line its walls. He works there daily from 3 pm to 6 pm. As far as I can tell, this is the setting in which he has written his books. It’s also where he deals with correspondence and speaks with visitors. 

Now, about the text which follows. In transcribing this interview, I made the choice of leaving it pretty much verbatim, skipping only interjections like “uhh huhh” and “yes” and some mentions of laughter which sound normal when heard but become distracting in print. Here and there, I’ve added a comment or a footnote. In a few places, I tightened it up by cutting some redundancy. I did consider “cleaning up” the interview more fully. That might have made it easier for a reader to follow. But, had I formalized it in this way – Englished it – I feared something of its warmth and immediacy might have been lost. Worse: you would have met the text through the imperfect lens of my interpretation. I wanted to preserve both the feel of talking with this extraordinary man and exactly what he said. My hope was to give you access to the experience – place you in the library beside the others there that afternoon – so you might hear this interview and listen to B. K. S. Iyengar with the ear of your heart.

Finally, I would like to thank Shirley Daventry French, my senior teacher, for writing to Guruji to ask him to grant me this interview, and Margot Kitchen, another senior Canadian teacher, who gave me generous support and encouragement while I was in Pune.

 

The Interview, Part One 

JM       Thank you very much for being willing to do this. It means a great deal to me, and it will mean a lot to the Iyengar Yoga Center of Victoria's Newsletter. We have many students who read it.

BKS     Yes. I'll try my best. I’m not an all-knower. I’m a student, after all. I may be a little advanced.

JM       You are just a little advanced.

BKS     Art isn't finite, but our practices are finite, so naturally it's not so easy to speak on an infinite subject by a mortal body. By a mortal intelligence. 

JM       Yes – well, I think you have had many years of practice at doing this.

BKS     That’s the only thing I can say all of. [laughter] 

 

How he can be “within” and also “without” at the same time

JM       In the month that I've been here, I've been astonished by your ability to carry on your practice in the midst of everything that's going on. One day I was in the hall and you were practicing – you were deep in your practice – and you noticed a student whose blood pressure was going up, and you called out, and there were people who went and helped him. So you notice all of this “without” while you are deep “within.”

BKS    Well, by looking at them and their practices, the message comes to me that … ah, something is going wrong, and I have to correct them.

JM      How can you help students learn this ability to be within, and also without, at the same time? 

BKS    Well, you see, it's not so easy. It's a long process. Anyone who starts in the beginning cannot reach that level at all. Even for me, I’ll make a guess, it’s taken fifty or sixty years to go within and to be looking out. So my intelligence would be looking in, but my eyes will be looking out. So intelligence is also an eye, it is an intellectual eye, so I use the intellectual eye inwards and the visual eye on students while they are practicing, so I do both the things at the same time. 

JM      It's astonishing. It astonishes me.

BKS    So, I don’t get disconnected from my practices.

JM      I can see that you don't.

About humility and confidence, as well as being “within” and “without” at the same time

JM      And this brings me to my next question which is, I've been very moved by your humility – that you are right there with us, practicing as we are. I'm very moved by this.

Comment: As you’ll see, Guruji ignores this new question, even after I reiterate it, and continues his response to my first question. In what follows, he’s still speaking to the first topic.

BKS    See, anyone who comes to practice in the beginning, they'll only go for external benefits. Exterior benefits only, because the mind is close to the senses of perception; the mind tries to satisfy according to the dictates of the senses of perception and the organs of action. So it will take long to reverse, to make the mind take a U-turn: for the senses of perception, which may take time, but at least while students are practicing, even though they may be novices, they will tell you that when they practice, automatically the senses of perception go in, so when they go in the mind goes in. So as the mind goes in, we have got the external body and the internal body. Internal body is the mental body, where their intelligence, their consciousness, their ego – I-maker, or I-ness, whatever you may call it – is stored, all the interior parts of the outer body.  So the mind plays a dual role. It has to satisfy the senses of perception, and at the same time, it wants to satisfy the self.  By the practice of asanas, the dual mind becomes the single mind. So that takes a longer time. 

JM     Yes.  I'm also struck, because not all yoga teachers, unfortunately, have humility.…

Comment: Once again, my nervousness has prompted me to push ahead, but he’s not deflected and carries on speaking to the first question. 

BKS    There are two types. You people do not understand; perhaps you will today. They call it meditation. But reflection – actually, reflection is meditation. So as I reflect, so I am meditating; but for the observers, they think that I am practicing the postures for my health, or something like that. That’s their opinion, but they cannot enter into my soul to find out how my self did, the years when I am doing it 

JM      Yes, that's true.

BKS    So for me, meditation is complete.  My practice is completely reflection, or reversing the agents of the self to be close to the self.

JM      Reversing the agents of the self to be close to the self….

BKS    That is, from the senses of perception. The body, the senses of perception, all systems of the body: mind, intelligence, consciousness should draw close to the centre of the body. 

JM      And that also provides you with the humility I see?

BKS    Naturally. You see, humility comes from the heart. Actually, the head is the seat of the ego. Heart is not the seat of the ego at all; head is the seat of the ego. And heart is the seat of humility.  And those who will practice yoga, if they know how to keep the head, because the mind is exactly in the middle of the two hemispheres of the brain, so if one starts seeing, not from the hemispheres of the brain, but from the centre of the brain, which is the mind, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain, the two hemispheres of the brain come under control. And, at that time only, one subjectively experiences what humility is: it cannot be taught.

JM      That's very interesting. What is the balance then, between humility and confidence?

BKS    Confidence is where maturity has set in. Confusion would be there for everything. So when the confusion is removed by the thinking process, corrected, naturally the confidence comes. So when the confidence comes, with that confidence you develop clarity. Through clarity you develop maturity. Through maturity you get wisdom. Through wisdom you practice. [laughter]

So there’s a process to what I say. First we begin to develop intellectualism. For any beginner, confusion will be there, so that’s why they all work: to get clarity. And slowly, slowly, when that comes, then they practice through their wisdom, by their maturity: what is missing? what is not missing? what is correct? what is not correct? how to correct where the intelligence does not flow at all in the body? – there are lots of dark areas in the body.

You see we have got several sheaths — kosas, we call them — and we have seven kosas actually, not only the five called annamaya, pranamaya, manomaya, vijnanamaya, anandamayaAnandamaya is the fifth kosa; that means it will be citta, because the kosas are going to contribute to Nature. But what about beyond Nature? So, beyond Nature, is the Soul. So we have to think of that also. So the connecting link between the citta – between the consciousness – and the Soul is the conscience, so that is the sixth sheath of the body, which nobody pays attention to. It is the lost difference between consciousness and conscience. 

 

A culture which is information rich and attention poor, and more about being “within” and “without” at the same time

 

JM       Our culture is so information rich and attention poor. It seems as if this is becoming more and more the situation.

BKS     Because we have not distinguished the consciousness and conscience. According to yogic science, as we have got senses of perception, we also have a sense of judgment. It comes from the conscience, known as antahkarana – we can call it antahkarana: there is a word for it – so the one which connects the citta with the Soul is the antahkarana. We call it dharmendriaya

JM       Dharmendriaya?

BKS     Sense of virtue. Patanjali explains in the fourth chapter what is called dharmameghah samadhih. The mind should reach that state of intelligence that virtue should flow like the torrential rains. 

JM       That would be wonderful.

BKS     But that people cannot understand, but he has said it.  So that’s enough for us to think. We may not be able to reach that, but it is possible, if one goes on working, that one can experience that virtuous state in their sadhana. After maturity, to practice means it is virtuous sadhana. To practice is to reach the righteous life. So when you reach the righteous life, then that righteous life has to change into a virtuous life [laughter] and that is the effect of sadhana.

JM       That's wonderful.  But what about those of us prone to information gathering and learning “about’?

BKS     Information gathering is a view. Then they end up only with views. But how – how to bring understanding to views: true or not? You have to put into practice. Is it not?

JM       Yes. It’s true.

BKS     So that the moment you put into practice – and this is what Patanjali also said – verbal analysis and reasoning should meet together, and then there is judgment. Right judgment comes: pratyaksa jnanendriya. He speaks of that in the first chapter, the 17th sutra. The two hemispheres of the brain are further divided biologically into two: that means four “hemispheres” of the brain. Patanjali speaks of the four intellectual parts of the brain, not biological conditions of the brain. These are his four: the analytical brain; the reasoning brain; the brain which has experience of the bliss, our joys and sorrows; and the one which experiences that, and the true self. So these are the four parts of the brain. Patanjali explains in such a way that the I-feeling – as you say, the feeling of I, the feeling of ego – is in the information level. Vitarka and vicara are on the information level.

JM       Right.

BKS     When they join together, synthesize together, then there is a joy. Because you’ve come to the conclusion that cause and consequence have met together, are knit together, so there’s no further doubt, so cause and consequence have come to an end, so you experience a joy. And at that time, at that time of bliss, the self gets neutralized, the “I”. So when it gets neutralized, then one experiences the true quality of the Self, according to yoga sutras, you know? So this is very beautiful. I don't think anybody ever explained, but that is the meaning of what I study about, that.

JM       Thank you, very much, Guruji.

BKS     And, similarly, in 1:33; he divides also the four chambers of the heart. We have two ventricles, two auricles. But he speaks of that in an emotional intelligence way as friendliness, compassion, gladness, and indifference. So that means the union of the head with the union of the heart. For that reason we practice yoga so that head and heart work together in our practices. So that there is no other flow of information to the head, or no feelings of emotions from the side of the heart. So that one experiences the eternal time, where the time becomes timeless because it has no movement. That is within and without.

JM       That is, within and without. That is also an answer to my questions about humility and confidence, and the information cycle to which we are so addicted. 

 

The Interview, Part Two – How he goes about his writing

JM       The next area that I wanted to ask you about is your own writing practice. Since I'm a writer, I'm curious about this. You've talked about your asana practice, and about your pranayama practice, and about your teaching, but I haven't read about your writing practice.

BKS     No. I'm a rather raw student in writing, still. [laughter]

JM       You have written so many wonderful books!

BKS     Well, but each time I have to correct it ten times or fifteen times. Now, what I am writing is the third time correcting. Same book.

JM        But I think that's how writers are….

BKS      No. Many writers do not do like that.

JM        Oh, but I think….

BKS      No. Because they work from the head. So here I have to find out, whatever sentence I write, whether it is coming from the experience outside, or just from an expression of words.  Because lots of writers I’ve seen create a lot of confusion. So I don’t want to create confusion in my practice, in my sadhana. So, that’s why I have to write and rewrite, read and reread, so that the doubts are completely removed. 

JM        That is how I have to write, too. [laughter] Very slowly, going through it many times, and trying to recognize what it is that’s speaking.

BKS      Because experiential knowledge, we've got plenty. But expressive words are few. So, one is immeasurable – one side, my sadhana, is immeasurable – and on the other side, the words are measurable, so I'm caught in between. So it's very difficult to express the experiences. Sometimes the words do not come at all.

JM        Yes. I know! Do you see your writing practices as part, as akin to….

BKS      No, no, no! I'm not interested in writing practice at all. Please know that I'm not interested in that part – writing books or anything like that. Circumstances are forcing me, because people say you explain but we forget, so can you put it into black and white so we can read and remember. Beyond that, I absolutely have no taste for writing. I have a taste for practice, not for writing.

 

JM       So would you say that your writing is part of your teaching?

BKS     Yes.  It is 100% part of teaching.

JM       When you write, do you work on one book at a time, or do you have a number of them going?

BKS     No. Actually, I said I’ve written books by process of consensus of other people. So I have no idea at all. Even what I’m writing, working on now. Only, it struck me several years ago, but until now I have only sat on it.

JM       Right.

BKS     So the name of the book is going to be called: Yogic Advice and Essence. So advice I’m giving on one side, and the essence is where I'm regrouping or reiterating the sutras for people to understand. So that, as you say, is information: first I have to give information. 

Now, even if you read the yoga sutras of Patanjali, they speak of cittavrtti nirodhah without mentioning the consciousness. How is it that a man of intelligence does not speak? So it is a compound word, cittavritti is a compound word: waves of the consciousness, but he has not explained the first word, what citta is. And if we’re going to understand, it’s a real sideways task. What is the source? The root of the thought waves?

JM       Do you think that it comes through?

BKS     No. But, it does come in the fourth chapter.

So how do you understand? If you ask anybody: what is consciousness? they cannot tell you at all. But you ask them what is, ah – movements of the consciousness, such as sense modulations, modifications, vacillations, fascinations, all this would be said. But, what is consciousness?

JM       It’s very hard to say.

BKS    That's what I'm saying! So I'm bringing that into view. I’m giving the information – so they know from the source, how, from the source, the actions take place.

JM       Okay. 

BKS     Now, as you said, you've taken this. I’ll give an example. This is the third time I must have written, which is no English at all. I’ll give you a chunk: “Consciousness: citta is like a disc of the sun at the time of raising and setting without any rays.” So people cannot understand, right? So I have to work. Now, “like the disc of the sun which has no rays at the time of rising and setting.” The consciousness is like that. It’s like a disc without any thought rays. “As the sun raises up, millions and millions of rays generate, penetrating the world with heat. In the same way, similarly, the consciousness generates thought waves by various means.” So this is how many times I have to work to write. See: one, two, three, four [flipping through his drafts] – it’s the fifth one. [laughter]

JM       I have files this thick of one poem! Not that I think that's a wonderful thing. 

BKS     How to make people to understand? I do the same thing.

JM       Do you rely on readers to give you feedback?

BKS     No, no. I can't do all those things. This yoga is a very difficult, practical, subject. Theoretically, writing on yoga is not worth reading. Anyone who writes a book on yoga, without a good background, just having words – such books are not at all worth reading. But the market is coming with lots of books. For example, there was a book sent to me for review.  Just last month I read it. They say, a book – guide – for teachers. There's not one sentence how to guide a teacher! And the book will be sold like hotcakes because the title’s very good. So the people get carried away by the title, but when I read inside, nothing.

JM       Yes, I understand.  So then, when you start writing, do you write by hand? 

BKS     By hand.

JM       And, do you go through, say, four drafts before you have it typed up?

BKS     I'm a conservative; I belong to the old generation. So how do old generations do writing? I do that. 

JM       You work, and you work, by hand, until you reach what point? When do you give it to someone to type up?

BKS     Unless and until it gives me the satisfaction that I explained well. I go on working on the same thing until it sets in.

JM       Do you have publishers, and readers, who give you feedback?

BKS     My friend, it is not publishers! You know, the recent ways of publishers asking the artists: you have to pay – you, the artist, have to pay for publishing the book in the beginning.

JM       I wouldn’t think they’d need to make you pay for much.

BKS     It’s going on everywhere because they're not sure that the book will be sold out. So, naturally, they want some protection. Fortunately, they know that I do not repeat, I give always new things, so they are – publishers are waiting for me.

JM       I'm sure the publishers are waiting for you, Guruji! I’m certain that they are. Your books are read by many, many people, all round the world. We’re looking forward to the next one.

Thank you for answering the questions about your writing “practice” and telling me — clearing up the idea I had — that it is a “practice.”

BKS     No. Even this is a sadhana. This is also a sadhana for me. [laughter]  So it's not just writing.

JM       No?  You sit down every day and work at it?

BKS     I work to clear and clarify and find out. To find out, I even give it to raw students to read – whether they understand or not. If they don't understand, again, I redo it. So that even the average intellectual can grasp this difficult subject. It is a spiritual subject, so naturally I can’t talk in that language where others do that.

JM       Yes.  So you have a very clear sense of the reader when you're writing, and the reader is exemplified by your students. That, I think, is really clear.

BKS     Even this [touching the manuscript he’s working on] may be read five, six times by different people. Then only, I am straight. For no doubt should be there.

JM       I understand. That's very interesting. Thank you!

 

The Interview, Part Three – Practice for older students

JM       The next question that I had was about practice for older students. 

BKS     Yes! I’m an old student! [laughter]

JM       Well, you are more than a student!

BKS     I’m going to complete 91 soon.

JM       I know! It's extraordinary! I saw you do an amazing backbend yesterday. I can't imagine anyone else at almost 91 doing a backbend like that! 

BKS     That is devotion and dedication. I am dedicated to the subject. You know people go to the church and pray. I go to my temple; I practice. The others chant; I practice. That's all the difference, you know. My practice is a chanting. Each cell in my body has to talk on its own. They have no language but they will talk, and send the message to me: you are not attending here, you are not attending here, don't make this part unholy. So the message comes to me, and creates life there.

JM      And so that is how you shape your practice? [He nods] Yes.  

Over the month that I've been here, I've often observed you doing very long holds of not too many asanas in your morning practices. Is this generally a good way to practice for older students?

BKS    Old people cannot do quantity. So, quality: to do, they have to use their brain. Like I said, some maturity will be there for older people, so they have to use that maturity to see that the self – like  water which spreads all over, evenly. So when one reaches old age, one has to learn how to spread the consciousness, like spreading a carpet on the interior body, the exterior frontier. So that would be what the elderly people should do, not just as a physical exercise, but as a seeing: let my soul spread in the body like I spread the carpet in my room.

JM      That's a wonderful image! It's very vivid, and very memorable! 

Facing old age and death

JM      And then the difficult question that I have, I hesitate to ask, but it is something people think about and talk about. I'm sure that, at almost 91, you have come to terms yourself with the fact that you won't be with us forever. But how can you help those who, I know, will be very unhappy to lose you? How can you help people prepare, or deal with – to come to terms with, this?

BKS    When they come – my job is only to help when they come. To [anticipate their future needs] would be ridiculous. That's not true compassion.

JM      Right.

BKS    For me, my confidence is still so strong, because I’m quite physical. I’m not becoming the victim of the mind. I am still the master of the mind. That’s why I am practicing. So I tell the old people how to come out of the pit of the mind, which creates a snake pit in you. Mind creates a snake pit, so the fear goes on increasing. You can’t come out of it. That's the old age – sign of old age. So one has to come; you cannot be a victim of the dictates of the mind. The mind dictates: No, it is enough! Even if you will tell me. Because at this age, the muscles cannot bear the weight of Sirsasana, which still I do! I get pain. The pain is there, but I also do it. I do twenty minutes, thirty minutes.

JM      I know. I have watched you. It’s amazing! 

BKS    So many people drop off. Even, if you want, I show you here: the neck, you know, like cracks. You can hear the cracking sound when I’m practicing, no? But it has not made me nervous, or anything like this. I continue, no? I do not stop automatically. But it is there, still, not so high. In the beginning, it frightened me. Like a cracking sound [cracks his knuckle], you know? People could hear just standing. What’s that sound?

JM      It would be frightening.

BKS    Now, I can create that sound on my own! Now I can create! Because I’ve learned! [laughter]

JM      So you have control over that sound, as well as over your mind.

BKS    I observe how it comes, and so, how the nerves do not behave.

JM      Right.

Comment: The other people in the library, listening to this interview, burst out in laughter when Guruji talked about how he can create the cracking sound in his neck. 

 

About having a “vision” of what will happen 

 

JM      What is your vision of what will happen to the institute?

BKS    My friend, at the age of 91, do you want me to develop vision? God is calling me. My vision is to be close to God. No. All these things are now, nowhere different, eh?

JM      So you don't have a particular vision of what will happen?

BKS    I never practice with a vision. Therefore, I do not advise what the future will be. Nobody told me what yoga was. Not even my guru guided me, what yoga is. I started practicing; nobody answered my questions in my early days. So I used to tell them, don't talk for me. Write to me what your experiences are. 

In the year 1958 — even students will tell you — I used to get blackouts in the practice. So I asked Shriman Krishnamacharya, my guru, everybody. Not one could answer me. Now at your age, you are to test it. I said that is only a frame of mind. That is not the true way of seeing.

Then I work. When I, you know, do Vrschikasana, I could not do even two, three. So one or two, immediately I used to feel, no: I should completely lose my consciousness. Till then I tried. I went on increasing – four, five. So let me try one more. Can I try this? Can I continue? Then I came back 

I never heard these people’s words. I did not follow them. If I’d followed them I would have fallen. So I used to question: Have you done it? Have you got it? Don't give me from your head. Tell me the fact. Have you ever done? Nobody’d ever done. 

So that means, with these ideas, I just pick up information: that old age means you may get all these things. I had it! But how to conquer it? 

JM      Wonderful. 

BKS    So I worked like that, and learned more and more. That's how I developed confidence. If I'd not continued, probably I would have – you know – been on the infirm side, due to: “do this,” “do that,” “do that.” That’s all.

 

JM      Thank you very much, Guruji.

BKS    God bless. God bless.

JM      Thank you very much.

BKS    Thank you. God bless you. 

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