In this personal article, from a booklet published in January 1975 to commemorate the opening of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, BKS Iyengar describes the extraordinary highs and lows of his yoga practice. It is reproduced here from a selection of typewritten manuscripts held in the Iyengar Yoga Institute Maida Vale archives.
It is embarrassing to write about oneself but if it enthuses my friends and pupils with keener interest in the practice of Yoga, false modesty should not keep me back from showing how my own interest in Yoga gathered momentum.
I was born in Bangalore during the world influenza epidemic of 1918. As my mother was also in the grip of the fever, there was little hope of my survival but thank God we both lived. I was a sickly child with thin arms and legs, a protruding stomach and a top-heavy head. My appearance was not prepossessing and my physical weakness caused me despair. No one could guide me to health. I was a burden to myself and to my family. My condition deteriorated and suspected tuberculosis of the lungs brought me almost to the point of death.
In April 1934 at Bangalore, my sister’s husband Shri T. Krishnamacharya, offered me the chance of going with him to Mysore. He was the head of the Yogashala (school of Yoga) in Mysore, patronised by the late Shri Krishnaraja Wadiyar Bahadur IV, Maharaja of Mysore. While I was there I began a few Yogasanas under his guidance. My body was so stiff that I could barely bend down and touch my toes. Thus was the seed of Yoga implanted in me, and for that I call him Guruji.
Perhaps even today my Guru would not believe that I could persist in the practice of Yoga for though I struggled hard, I had no confidence that Yoga would do me any good. I did not turn to Yoga naturally for I was not born in the house of saints or Yogis. It was rather a stroke of good luck that Yoga pursued me rather than I it.
In my two years in Mysore however my Guru hardly encouraged me nor did he explain to me either the principles or the more subtle points of Yoga. In two years he did not teach me for more than forty days and never showed me how to get rid of the excruciating pains I had to endure. On the contrary he was frighteningly fearful. Had circumstances not forced me I would never have gone on. People wanted me to teach them Yoga and I was forced to practise. It was as simple as that. My interest was for the sake of earning my livelihood .
In 1936, on a lecture tour in the northern part of Karnataka a number of people, including ladies, requested us to start classes. In those days women were very shy about the practice of Yoga and so I, as the youngest of the group, was put in charge of the ladies class. Thus was the seed of my teaching career planted and it has grown into a mighty tree with branches in all five continents. In 1937, the Deccan Gymkhana Club invited me to teach Yoga in some schools and colleges in Poona for six months. My responsibilities were heavy for I was younger than the college students who were also bigger and more cultured than I. I weighted at that time only 75 pounds, my chest measured 22” and you could count my ribs. But it was a challenge and I faced it boldly. I had no theoretical or practical qualific.. (missing text)
…problem was the language. I was forced to practise with determination and effort what little I knew. I was faced with the option of acquiring second hand knowledge from books or living first hand from the experiences gained from intense practice. I opted for the latter and started practising 10 hours a day.
The college authorities appreciated my work and my services were extended for three years. After that I continued teaching independently. The intense effort I had put in gave me good health and my teaching helped me obtain a bare minimum. It took years of practice to gain control over my body. I slowly achieved mental stability and my approach to the problems of life became more spiritual. I confess that at the start my mind could not grasp the vast background of the art and science of Yoga, but with devoted effort my knowledge increased. I cannot put into words the suffering I underwent.
My hard practice caused agony to my body, nerves, mind and to my very soul. I was tossed from one side to the other sometimes, as my body and mind alternately refused to co-operate. My spirit oscillated. My energies were sapped and physical and mental fatigue came on. If I did not try, the self within grew restless; if I tried, failure brought on dejection. Very often exhaustion brought me to the point of collapse. I could neither eat nor drink with comfort. Sleep was almost impossible as both my body and mind were restless with pain and failure. I continued this way for years. When circumstances forced me to live on my own, I sometimes had to go without food for days. Often I lived only on a cup of tea and an inner flame that made me persist in my daily practice. As I had no guide I made enormous mistakes, but I learnt discrimination from observing my own errors. My body grew in strength, but though I started with the practice of Yoga in 1934, it was only 1946 that an inborn interest arose in me.
This happened thus: our family deity Lord Venkateswara seemed to smile on me and bless me in a dream. I was told that I had no other vocation but the practice of Yoga. With one hand he blessed me and with the other gave me a few grains of rice. The benevolent deity told me that from now on I should not worry about my physical survival. The very next day pupils called on me for lessons and from then onwards my star has been in the ascendant as the grace of God has been with me. My one regret is that I am not as ready to thank him now as I was to curse him then in the hard days of my trial. From 1934 to 1946, then I can say that Yoga was attached to me willy nilly. Today it is I who am attached to Yoga.
However it has not been all that easy since then. In 1958 I felt I was losing my grip on the postures I felt dizzy, heavy and stiff. Correspondence with other Yogis including my Guru brought me no relief. I was told only that age and married life must take their toll. Even the forward bends were very painful. However after another three years of effort I am glad to say that I regained control and have not lost it till today.
I will not say that I have completely mastered this art and science even today. Perfection always eludes us but this should not reduce our efforts. The more I work, the more insignificant my efforts appear to be. I have to be content with the divine discontentment that drives me on.
Yogic discipline lifted me from a sub-human level and made me a man of conscience, hardy and honest. If yoga could do that for me, who was not blessed with the good things of this life, how can those who have started life in more fortunate circumstances refuse its lessons? The science of Yoga is vast and progress there seems agonisingly and disappointingly slow. But Yoga has helped me to overcome physical, mental and spiritual obstacles, so that today I am sipping the nectar of Yoga. Now that God has blessed me with strength, courage and clarity. I cannot hesitate to share my experiences with those of my fellow men who come to this new abode of Yoga, the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Memorial Institute, dedicated by my pupils, friends and admirers to my beloved wife Ramamani.