Friday, October 17, 2008

Iyengar Yoga: An Introduction

What is Yoga?
Generally, yoga is known to be a 5,000-year-old subject, meant for the refinement and emancipation of the human being. Its scope includes the emancipation of the human being at the physical, physiological, mental, intellectual, emotional and spiritual levels. Hence it is an art, science and a philosophy. The word yoga is derived from the sanskrit ‘yuj’ meaning to bind, join, or unite. It is basically the communion of the individual soul with the universal spirit. But that is the end of yoga. Not all humans, however, aspire for such lofty ends; not all go on to complete their PhDs. But all aspire for basic learning and/or health and thus yoga has something to give to everyone irrespective of age, class, creed, religion, gender and nationality.The subject and practices of yoga are said to have passed down from generations until sage Patanjali, said to have lived in the 5th century BC and known as the codifier of yoga, codified its subject-matter in his classic text, Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali. All Yoga teaching can be sourced to the Yoga Sutras. Our Guruji, Yogacharya B K S Iyengar’s, teachings have reaffirmed the traditional teachings of sage Patanjali.Guruji is said to have given to yoga what yoga itself gave him years ago – life. Today, yoga is one of the most widely-practiced subjects all over the globe, which is due in no small measure to the zeal and genius of this man. It has permeated the lifestyles of the famous and the common person, healthy and the ailing, old and the young, artists and educationists and ...well, anyone with an inclination to refine and enrich the capital we are born with.In commemoration of his life and work, his students call his discipline Iyengar Yoga.
And What Is True Health?
Health is that highly coveted commodity, which in today’s parlance, can be said to be the ‘neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride.’ It has been sought after through all generations by brutes and saints alike. Health is certainly not just absence from disease. It is a continuous endeavour to maintain the highly poised state of the body, mind and the self through life. Just as one cannot dip twice in the same waters of a flowing river, health also is a constantly flowing entity.Most important of all, true health cannot be bought from the chemist or a shop. It has to be earned by one’s only true capital: what one was born with.It is only when one starts looking within oneself, that an amazing fact comes forth: that the technologically superior 21st century human being can far easily communicate from Mumbai to Canada rather than from the head to the toes. Man realises that he is yet, unknown. For example, not many know the depth of the brain and body: the human body contains 12,000 million nerve cells linked by more than 10 million million connections. The air-sacs in the lungs, when opened out, would cover an area the size of a tennis court. Hence for evolution, the human being has to evolve the mind, the intelligence and emotions as also the physiological and neurological aspects. The science, art and philosophy of yoga serve to evolve every aspect of the human being from the physical and mental to the emotional and spiritual.This is the reason why Iyengar yoga begins with the asanas and pranayamas, which can be described as carrying out surgical procedures without cutting open the body. To facilitate such an intricate and in-depth purification process, there are innumerable poses to access the billions of cells in the body. There are standing poses, forward bends, back bends, balancings, abdominals, supine postures, inversions, and twistings. All these have their specific geometrical shapes and forms which create imprints in the body, mind and consciousness. Gradually and repeatedly, and when done over a period of time, the body starts responding to these fresh imprints and memorises them. It then craves for the poise and peace which floods the body after these yogic adjustments.When the world is busy bringing technology to 21st century standards, yoga endeavours to bring the Human Being into the 21st century. It has bestowed on humanity the ultimate gift – the ability to heal oneself.
Yogic Props
Guruji’s introduction of props and other instruments is an important invention in the field of yoga. Iyengar yoga is today applied as a very important tool in the healing process: in therapeutic problems ranging from arthritis and asthma to cardiac problems and addictions. It is one of the tools for detoxification and de-addiction in the acclaimed Kripa Centre at Bandra. Iyengar Yoga is a recognised curriculum subject in the Inner London Educational Authority, the sports councils of various cities and districts in Britain, the Philadelphia College of Performing Arts and the Riverside University in the US.

Mega Classes
Guruji, in his 75 years of teaching, has always been very innovative. Guruji pioneered yoga teaching to large groups of people and has taught at numerous conventions, the major ones being in Mauritius, Johannesburg in South Africa, San Francisco, San Diego and Boston in USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, France, Spain and Britain. Over the years, these mega-classes (of 500 plus students) came to be an intrinsic part of all Iyengar yoga conventions.Those further interested in the subject should avail of Guruji’s masterpieces, Light On Yoga, Light On Pranayama, Light On The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali, Tree of Yoga, Art Of Yoga and his latest book, Light On Life (2005).

Amazing Facts About The Human Being

A well-known proverb says, “He who conquers others is strong, but he who conquers himself is mighty.” And, it is only when one embarks on this greatest adventure, of looking within and conquering oneself, that an amazing fact comes forth: that the technologically superior 21st century human being can far easily communicate from Japan to Canada rather than from the head to the toes. Man realises that he is yet, unknown. Today, the average person knows more about computer software than that of his or her inner body, mind and spirit.In order to bridge this lacunae in our knowledge and wonder, I have compiled some amazing facts on what makes us tick. In this process of introspection, you will discover some mind-boggling facts that will make you wonder once again at the depth and precision of the inner self. And at the same time, thank god for giving us the gift of yoga.When the world is busy bringing technology to 21st century standards, yoga endeavours to bring the human being into the 21st century, not with expensive instruments but simply with what one was born.

# The average brain contains about 10,000 million neurons – microscopic nerve cells. Each neuron is also linked to neighbouring neurons by up to 50,000 connections known as dendrites.

# The thumb is so important to human dexterity that a larger proportion of the brain is devoted to controlling it than to controlling the whole of the chest and abdomen.

# Electrical activity in the brain is great enough to power a 10-watt lightbulb.

# The body of the average adult contains 45 litres of water - about 65 percent of the total body weight.

# Besides water, the body contains an assortment of other substances. On average, it has enough lime to whitewash a small shed, the equivalent in carbon of a 12.7 kg bag of coke, enough phosphorus to make 2,200 match heads, about a spoonful of sulphur, enough iron to make a 25mm (one inch) nail – and about 30 gms of other metals.

# 300 million cells die in the body every minute, but the number of cells remains fairly constant throughout our life. Dead cells are replaced immediately.

# Bone is six times stronger than a steel bar of the same weight.

# The stomach’s digestive acids are strong enough to dissolve zinc. But the cells in the stomach lining are renewed so quickly – 500,000 cells are replaced every minute and the entire lining every three days – that the acids do not have time to dissolve the lining.

# Although the kidneys are quite small – about four inches long and two and a half inches wide – the compressed tubes inside them would stretch for 50 miles if extended.

# The intestines, when opened out, would occupy an area the size of a football field.

# The capillaries in the lungs would extend 1,600 kms when placed end to end.

# The air sacs in our lungs, when opened out, would cover an area the size of a tennis court.

# Human beings die more quickly from lack of sleep than lack of food.

# As you read this, you are making two million billion haemoglobin molecules.

# The weight of gold in the average person is 7 mg., and the weight of uranium is only 0.07 mg., although turned into pure energy, this could drive your car for five kilometres.

# The total weight of the bacteria living in the human body is two kgs.

# The ear has two basic functions: to help maintain balance and to react to sound. The organs in the inner ear help maintain equilibrium by sending the brain information about the motion and position of the head. Astronauts experience space sickness at first, but gradually the brain begins to adapt to signals from the inner ear.

# One square inch of skin may hold 650 sweat glands, 20 blood vessels and more than a thousand nerve endings.

# So many red cells crowd the blood stream of a single human that stacked, these cells would reach 31,000 miles into the sky.

# It takes about 200 muscles to achieve one walking step. Forty or so lift and move your leg forward, muscles of the back quickly compensate by pulling on your shoulders and chest muscles to keep from losing balance; the abdominal muscles then contract to prevent you from falling backward.

# Modern science recognises that sleep is by no means a passive process. A sleeper’s brain often is as electrically active as that of someone awake and alert.

# Half of a bird’s brain sleeps while the other half remains alert. Possibly the reason why some birds sleep with one eye open.

# An electrical impulse (signal) moves along the axon (nerve fibre) at a rate of 100 metres a second (over 200 miles an hour, faster than Formula One cars). This means an impulse from brain to toe can arrive in less than a tenth of a second.

# Man is the only animal that sleeps on his back.

# The sound heard by a listener when holding a seashell to the ear does NOT come from the shell itself. It is the echo of the blood pulsating in the listener’s own ear.

# According to a medical writer, there are approximately 21,000 drugs and drug combinations produced by the world’s drug firms, yet the World Health Organisation (WHO) claims that only 150 to 200 drugs are needed to take care of almost all ordinary illnesses around the world. Many experienced clinicians believe the same needs can be met with only 25 drugs.

# The average housewife walks 10 miles a day around the house doing chores. In addition, she walks nearly four miles and spends 25 hours a year making beds.

# Every person alive today carries within his/her body approximately 300 chemicals, which did not exist prior to 1945.

# Women have the ability to produce around three hundred eggs in a lifetime, and men to manufacture three hundred million sperm in a week.

# Turtles and whales can stay underwater for several hours while birds such as ducks and penguins can stay submerged for up to 15 minutes. We, humans, cannot hold our breath underwater for more than about two to three minutes.

Heroes - Different benchmarks

Don’t be seduced into thinking that that which does not make a profit is without value… Arthur Miller

Have you heard of Mahavirprasad Saraf? Unlikely, because he is not the latest Bollywood entrant, a new telly-filly from the K-stable, a cricket hopeful, a hockey reject, or the next emerging voice of India. He is an ordinary man like you and me, except for one crucial fact. His tally of donated benches to Mumbai recently crossed the 15,000 mark.

The word hero today attracts an entirely new buzz. For most in the genNext, it is someone either from cricket or Bollywood or Page Three. What chance do common mortals have when even the Mahatma could become hero material only when he arrived on the scene via Munnabhai?

There was a time in the not-so distant past when the average person looked up to a class of people who exemplified commitment. Commitment to their art or profession or discipline, as well as to the community and society. Heroes went beyond the call of duty. The models to emulate then, were the visionaries and artists, scientists and inventors, swamis and acharyas, gurus and sants, writers and philosophers and the avatars and immortals whose lives and work forever pulsate in our collective consciousness.

Also, there were tycoons (the Tatas and Birlas) who eschewed mere profitability and brought in social change; there was a princess (Mirabai) who became a bhaktan; there was a simple barrister (M.K.Gandhi) who stood up for the rights of his countrymen; there were educationists (Annie Besant, Vivekananda) who taught little minds to soar and not hoard. India has the highest per capita of temples and holy sites in the world. But never in a previous age, were temples and shrines built to film stars and politicians.

Yet, there are true heroes amongst us. We have a journalist who covers farmers’ suicides more than fashion weeks; we have a rare and unparalleled music guru who, (forget about giving interviews and appearing on talent search shows), has not stepped out of her home for the last 40 years; we have a yogacharya who has put in more hours in perfecting shirsasana than the number of hours some so-called gurus have spent in self-propagation. Oh yes, we do have such heroes. But I doubt if any KBC participant would get their names right. (Just for the record, the names are P Sainath, Smt Annapoorna Devi and B K S Iyengar.)

Mahavirprasad Saraf? Well, little chance of this name ringing a bell even for today’s well-informed netizen. And this after 50 odd years of truly caring for the city that he lives in. Yet, for a moment, consider the work of this not-so-common man, who has donated 15,000 benches, 98 water tanks, 366 PCOs, 1,412 wheelchairs and tricycles, 400 ambulances, 2,260 sewing machines, 27 sewing institutes, 400 Jaipur foots and 400 canes for the blind among other things. This is not the largesse of a King (Shahrukh) or a Queen (Rani) or a Prince (Saurav), but of a Mahavirprasad Saraf. It is entirely another thing that we (the so-called king-consumers) still crave for a king, badshah or a shahenshah to advise us, define us, taste things for us and sell things to us.

After all who are the remembered heroes today? Definitely not the freedom fighters of yesteryear or even the valiant martyrs of recent years. You’d need to boost the imagination tremendously to come up with a name other than the cardboard one on a city’s billboards. Still we need to stop and think. Do we really want to proclaim and perpetuate a society where we see many people but meet less of them; where breast implants probably outmatch nursery plants, where hair-bonding takes precedence over human bonding, where an anorexic model starving herself and a hungry farmer starving for want of food, both make for award-winning photographs and where the rush-hour peak and the rush to the peak leaves one equally breathless?
Or do we want a place that nurtures, values and celebrates the ordinary guy who has created a new benchmark for urban living: providing a space to sit in peace. To be still.
Think you can remember that name?

(The writer is a practitioner and teacher of Iyengar yoga)

Sunday, October 12, 2008


IT IS very difficult to define art because it is a very subjective experience. An individual’s subjective experience may or may not be appreciated by all people in all times. Yet we all know that art touches one and all. Everyone possesses his or her own artistic side.
You watch a work of art by Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo and you are awed, inspired. Listen to a composition by Mozart or Beethoven, and it keeps you enthralled. Attend a Hari Prasad Chaurasia concert and you are struck by his sheer virtuosity.
Now imagine if the canvas of the artist was the human being himself, his life, his thoughts, his words and his deeds. If the composition and virtuosity required were the harmony between body, mind and soul to create the symphony of life.

Our Guruji, Yogacharya B K S Iyengar, is such an artist. All who have got a glimpse of Guruji’s life and work cannot but be touched by this overwhelming feeling. It moved renowned violinist, Lord Yehudi Menuhin, to write the inscription, “To my best violin teacher,” on an Omega wristwatch he presented Guruji. It inspired Robert Engman, chairman of the Fine Arts Department of the University Of Pennsylvania, to sculpt a unique monument — ‘After Iyengar’. It spurred E. Simmons, renowned American photographer, to exclaim, “Iyengar is to yoga what Renoir is to painting, Rodin to sculpture and Sterchen to philosophy.” With a performance record of over 10,000 live lecture-demonstrations throughout the world, he has earned epithets such as “An artist with no instrument” (Lord Menuhin), “A supreme artist” (Robert Engman) and “The Michaelangelo of Yoga” (BBC). And this coming from people of different backgrounds, cultures, religions, countries and professions.

We, part of the global Iyengar yoga family, know the man and his art. Art we say, and yet what is the art practised by our Guruji which moved commoner and aesthete alike to proclaim him variously as ‘my best violin teacher’, ‘Michelangelo’ and a ‘supreme artist’?

Life – The Masterpiece
Arts are of many types such as basic arts, manual arts, fine arts, divine arts, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, prose, poetry, drama, so on and so forth.
And then there is yoga. Not for just one aspect but for transforming and perfecting the life of the individual wholly. It’s eighth-fold path lays down the artistic influence it exerts. It begins by enforcing the moral and ethical parameters (yama and niyama) which change the nature and character of the individual and then follows it up with purifying the body (asanas), breath (pranayama) and consciousness (pratyahara, dharana and dhyana). When these are achieved, what remains is the state of unalloyed bliss (samadhi). The practitioner then lives, breathes, thinks and sleeps in perfect art.

The art of yoga is as old as civilization itself. From time immemorial, human beings have aspired to transcend their human frailties and seek the highest state — become God-like. As the saying goes, “Nar ka Narayan ban sakta hai.”
The highly classical and esoteric definition of yoga means the communion of the individual self with the universal spirit. Many a times the novice in yoga, while practising the initial aspects of asana or pranayama, is confronted with these mystical queries – in what way is one connecting with the all-pervading divinity? What happens to the mind and body in meditation? When will I obtain samadhi? But this indicates that one is trying to produce a masterpiece without first learning the basics of drawing.

It was not until Guruji shed light on yoga, that the answers to the above became clear. Yoga is a science as well as an art. Guruji’s genius lies in being able to recreate and impart those rare moments of artistic poise repeatedly and, at will, to people of different attitudes and aptitudes. He has perfected and distilled his artistic experiences to such an extent that they have assumed scientific precision. His precise hits and kicks, as well as the props he devised, are like the master sculptor’s strokes, which are wrought to bring in symmetry, poise, precision, beauty and form in the practitioner’s life. That is why Iyengar yoga has potentials to transform each and every aspect of the practitioner’s life — from the physical to the psychological, physiological to the emotional, ethical to the spiritual.
And that is why people from different walks of life experience such profound and discernible results; Iyengar yoga thus makes a dancer a better dancer, a writer a better writer, a musician a better musician, an athlete a better athlete, a physician a better physician and above all, a human being a better human being.

Thou Art Immortal
It is said that art is immortal but life, mortal. Art is eternal, infinite and life, finite, limited. To capture the vast and infinite depth of art in a carefully cultivated, ephemeral moment of inspiration becomes the raison d’être of the artist. As the immortal lines of William Blake remind us, “To see a world in a grain of sand, And heaven in a wild flower, To hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”
To get a glimpse of Guruji’s art is to see divinity in powerful perspective. To see the conjunction of the perfect art crafting the perfect life. Consider Guruji practising an asana, say Trikonasana. As he says, you have to sculpt yourself to become the asana, which is truth. So he, like a master sculptor, sculpts meticulously from the arch of the foot to the crown of the head. Is the physical body (muscles, bones, ligaments, tissues, joints, fibres, nerves) explored evenly everywhere? Is the mind a witness, or a participant, what about the emotions, what about the intelligence? Is the consciousness flowing equally in the back and front leg, in the back and front ankle, in the back and front knee and thigh, in the top and bottom arms, in the back and front lobes of the brain and the heart? One would have to constantly, moment-to-moment watch every nuance and move of the body, mind and emotions and set about purifying them.

This journey into the realms of one’s own inner being is the grandest and the noblest, yet one of the most daunting. For like the explorer, one never knows what to expect. And on the way, one would have to learn and imbibe skills as diverse as those of a physician and a poet, a scientist and a philosopher, an artist and a mathematician, a student and a teacher.
Seeing Guruji, is to see the realization of all the above. Hence through his life and work, he creates, elevates, inspires, reveals and illumines. To make us hear the ethereal music of thoughts, words, deeds and… life. It is a life where as Guruji says: “The body is the bow, asanas the arrows and Self the target.”

Guruji’s is the most basic art and yet the most difficult to master.
It is to align the billions of cells, nerves, muscles, ligaments, sinews, bones, joints, tendons, organs, glands, systems, humours and senses to produce perfect harmony in thought, word and deed, like a symphony orchestra under the baton of the inner, divine self;
It is to perform with no instrument, only what one was born with;
It is to express the highest art in the body, mind, intellect and emotions, through joy and sorrow, heat and cold, pleasure and pain;
It is to unstintingly pursue the divine discontent, channel talents and resources to it’s fulfillment, exercise physical, mental, emotional and ethical discipline and demonstrate skill, creativity, grace, elegance and balance required to produce that rare achievement — perfect life and a perfect art.

Becoming that incomparable artist is Guruji’s unique contribution to humanity. Guruji with his body as the canvas and the asanas as paints and brushes portrayed the ultimate freedom sought by mankind — health in the body, poise in the mind and beatitude in the self.
It took him a lifetime of unswerving dedication and zeal. Of patient and persistent effort. Of living, breathing, thinking and sleeping the eternal yoga.
To become that man mortally present but having caught and communicated a glimpse of the eternal… through his life and his art.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Reach and Depth of Yogasanas

As a well-known quote tells us: mostly, people suffer from poor health and disorders not because of what they eat but from what is eating them. (There are more than 330 million people around the world suffering from depression – this is more than those suffering from heart disease, even AIDS.) It is imperative that we must effectively learn to control and filter what we eat or absorb from all the five senses and their king, the mind.Yogic postures (or asanas) effectively purify the karmendriyas (organs of action) and the gyanendriyas (senses of perception), thus creating an effective filter which sieves impurities. This maintains the qualitative content of sattva (purity), rajas (dynamism) and tamas (inertia) in the human being.

People today exercise under the mistaken notion that burning calories is burning impurities. The main aim of practising yogasanas is not just burning calories but burning impurities, be they physical, mental or spiritual.

Fact is that when most of us do the asanas we are working unevenly and superficially. All of us while doing the asanas are busy ‘doing’ and hence our hearts are beating faster than it should or our limbs are getting tired, or our breath suffers. In short, we work our parts singly but not as a whole. Our hearts thus age faster (or if we are walking our knees are deteriorating) and we age and deteriorate unevenly as a whole.

We think that if we do many postures or exercises we might get a better circulation or increase the efficiency of our heart. However, just consider the amazing things happening inside of us even when we are ABSOLUTELY still:About eight million blood cells die in our body every second, and the same number are born each second,As you are sitting here reading this, you are making two million billion haemoglobin molecules,Every day, you circulate 1,000 billion particles of air through your lungs, Even during sleep, the heart pumps about 340 litres an hour, enough to fill an average car’s petrol tank every seven minutes,The body’s entire blood supply – about four and a half litres – washes through the lungs about once a minute,The flow of blood through the liver is so substantial that even at rest two and a half pints of blood move through this organ every minute,The brain remains active to some degree round the clock, and each day it triggers hundreds of millions of impulses – more connections than all the world’s telephone systems put together,Electrical activity (even at rest) in the brain is great enough to power a 10-watt light bulb.When we reflect on the above, we begin to understand that it is not merely ‘do-ing’ but ‘co-ordinating’ which holds the key to a perfect asana. We are constantly shaking in any pose, not remaining steady which in fact is the definition of an asana (meaning to hold steadfast). We have to learn to coordinate body with mind, mind with breath, body with breath and so on and in the process correct and mould the sheaths from the physical to the spiritual.

Armed with this intense body knowledge will come the wisdom that the body is the bow and the asanas arrows to hit the target, the inner self or soul. Thus, in the kurukshetra (or the battlefield) of the asana, we have a glorious chance to fight the impurities of mind and body.