by Jane Myers
Ann Arbor News, Friday May 21, 1976
They came from Beaverton, Oregon. Elm Grove, Illinois. Hendersonville, North Carolina. Chicago. Indianapolis. Washington, D.C.
Men and women from small towns and big cities across the U.S. came to Ann Arbor last week for the privilege of standing on their heads in the basement of the VFW Hall on East Liberty. Could they not, you might wonder, have stood on their respective heads back home in Beaverton and Hendersonville?
Of course they could have. But here it was better. Here, while they were twisting and turning, and stretching their bodies, they could be told by a trim, gray-haired, 58-year old man from Poona, India, that they weren’t trying hard enough, that they were wasting his time, and that they were all “masters of confusion.”
B. K. S. Iyengar is a teacher of yoga. But not just any teacher of yoga. His number of years of experience as a yoga teacher, – 40 – put him in a class by himself.
So does the notability [of some] of his followers. He has given yoga demonstrations for Queen Elizabeth II and her family. For Pope Paul. One of his most devoted students is violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who calls Iyengar “the best violin teacher I ever had.”
Iyengar has made three visits to the U.S. in the past four years, all of them under the sponsorship of the Ann Arbor “Y”. How a yoga teacher from Poona, India, happens to be associated with the Ann Arbor “Y” is not really too complicated a story. Mary Palmer, who is wife of William B. Palmer, a U-M professor of economics, began taking yoga lessons at the “Y” in the late 60s to see if the exercises would help reduce pain in her knee joints.
They did, and Mary has been a devoted student and teacher of yoga ever since. When she and her husband were on sabbatical leave in India in the winter of 1969, she traveled to Poona to meet Mr. Iyengar and take lessons at his school there. Out of that experience, a close friendship developed between the Palmers and Iyengar. Mary convinced the “Y” to sponsor his first visit to Ann Arbor in April, 1973, when he gave a lecture demonstration at the Power Center.
His visit this year included a one-week workshop for teachers of yoga, and another week of classes for both students and teachers. (The classes were conducted in the basement of the VFW Hall, where all “Y” classes are held.) After his Ann Arbor stay, he flew to San Francisco for more classes and demonstrations, after which he planned to head for London for more of the same.
Participating in a class under Iyengar’s direction is not for the uncourageous. In fact, it looks downright scary. As he himself explains it, “I go like a tiger”.
Yoga, you see, is not just a body thing. It is a mind thing as well. If you try to talk to Iyengar about the “mind” and the “body” as separate entities, he simply looks you straight in the eye and asks, “How can you separate them? Where does the body stop? Where does the mind begin?” Iyengar is very convincing. The mind and body, of course, cannot be separated.
The trick, as Iyengar explains it, is to keep the body, mind, and soul “harmoniously functioning.”
The problem is the following: there is a “human weakness” that stands in the way of this harmoniousness. What is the human weakness?
When you hear Iyengar describe it, you quiver at the horrible thought of ever catching it… he makes it sound like a dread disease that you certainly wouldn’t wish on your best friend, or your worst enemy either.
It’s called “inflated brain” otherwise known as “intoxicated intelligence” or “inflated intelligence”.
Nobody leaves one of Iyengar’s classes with “inflated brain”.
“You people don’t want to try… you’re not following me… why should I waste my energy here?… you should have been in the beginner’s class, I don’t know how you choose… look at him, he thinks he is doing it, he thinks he is Superman… you are all masters of confusion!! Follow??!!”
Nobody winces noticeably. When he tells them that “the head and the tailbone should not be shaken,” they try valiantly not to shake the head and tailbone. When he yells out that the “skin of the left back leg should become sharp,” they try to sharpen the skin of the left back leg.
And when he tells them to “feel the inner ankle and outer ankle parallel, from left to right,” and “to move the outer skin of the right hip up and the inner skin of the right hip down,” they try, they really try to move that skin up and down.
Move the skin?
If B. K. S. Iyengar says it’s possible, it’s possible. And he proves it by doing it. If he seems a bit merciless, it’s because he means to. “An inflated intelligence is like an abscess,” he says with conviction.
When he shows a young woman, a beginning student, how to put her hands together behind her back in a position she thought she was not yet advanced enough to attempt, he draws oohs and aahs of amazement from his observers. “How did you do it?,” they ask. “I put her brain in her pocket,” he says with dramatic simplicity.
The atmosphere in an Iyengar class verges on the reverential. It’s all respectful silence, tiptoeing, whispers. And now and then, a low chorus of groans when he gives permission to end a difficult position.
What is it all about?
“The practice of yoga makes the mind free from the shackles of the body,” Iyengar explains. “What is the use of intelligence in an unhealthy body?”
“You can release your mind to think of a higher life. You can open the gate of your own soul.
“Through yoga you can know what the self is.”
At 58, Iyengar has no plans to sit in the shade in Poona, and sip tea.
“The more I work, the more I feel the energy pouring in,” he says with a smile. “I want to practice yoga until my last consciousness.”