Decades before there was a World Yoga Day, this is how BKS Iyengar won India over with his yoga

‘Iyengar was so skinny in comparison to even the average Indian man that he became the butt of ridicule.’

Iyengar was an anomaly in the Maharashtrian city. He stood out because of his strong Dravidian features, his South-Indian style veshti (dhoti) and his kudumi, the long lock of hair that signifies the Brahmin’s one-pointed focus on god. The front of his head was clean-shaven, with the kudumi like a long ponytail hanging behind him. This ponytail, which the Maharashtrians disparagingly called a shendi, was the object of much mirth, particularly amongst the youngsters of Pune. Iyengar took to covering his head with a cap to prevent people from taunting him.

To add to this ignominy, people would call him a lunatic when he told them that he was a yoga practitioner. But all these were minor difficulties when weighed against the prospect of returning to Mysore and the claustrophobic life he had been leading there. Pune allowed him a chance at a new kind of life.

When he first came to Pune, he was often asked whether a couple would conceive if they did yoga. Barely eighteen and, by his own admission, a complete innocent in matters pertaining to sex, he would confidently say, “Yes. Yoga will help if you practise regularly for three years.”

From 1937-40 he stayed at a hotel at Raasta Peth close to the racecourse; it was populated by regular race-goers. The race-goers in the hotel, wanting to cash in on his power of intuition, routinely asked him for a number between eight and fourteen. Iyengar had no idea why they did this and he was far too absorbed in earning his livelihood to pay much attention to the strange quirks of city folk. He had no idea that they were betting on the horse with the number that he chose that day. Seemingly he had a high enough success rate to keep them coming back.

Soon he started getting even more suspicious calls from people who wanted him to choose any two numbers between 1 and 100. The race-goers had apparently publicised his prowess with picking the winning horse and now he had people who were speculating on the opening and closing prices of American Cotton stock calling him every day. As soon as Iyengar realised that he had been used as a pawn to make some quick bucks, he stopped obliging these people. He would find many more productive uses for his intuition in his teaching.

Dr Gokhale had made an arrangement with six colleges and the Deccan Gymkhana, that each of these institutions could, on the payment of eight rupees fifty paise a month, send ten selected students for lessons with Iyengar, which would earn him sixty rupees a month. The classes were held at the Deccan Gymkhana Club and there were ten students in all. Not one of those who enrolled was from the Deccan Gymkhana Club. After six months, the colleges, feeling that there was not enough interest among the students, rescinded the contract with Iyengar. Though his students wanted to continue, Iyengar was faced with the prospect of shutting down his fledgling class.

Thankfully, some friends of Dr Gokhale chipped in to help fund the class for another six months.

Dr Gokhale also arranged for lecture demonstrations in the Club. With their antagonistic attitude towards yoga and towards Iyengar, the demonstrations were squeezed into the last ten minutes of the lecture. Dr Gokhale was clear about the distribution of labour. “The body is known to me,” Dr Gokhale said to Iyengar. “You leave it to me. I will explain very accurately. You just do the poses.” The doctor’s profound knowledge of anatomy and physiology added much interest to the demonstrations, but more importantly, it provided Iyengar his first acquaintance with a precise scientific understanding of the systems of the body. The reputation for anatomical precision that Iyengar later acquired was probably sparked off by his early association with Dr Gokhale.

After one of his demonstrations, Dr Gokhale asked him why despite his great prowess with the asanas, his body was so under-developed and lacking in muscle. Iyengar told him about the diverse illnesses that had plagued him and the extreme privations of his childhood. Dr Gokhale remarked that in all his life as a surgeon, he had not seen anything as remarkable as Iyengar’s performances.

All Iyengar’s students were taller, better built, better educated and more articulate than he was. He was still struggling to master both Marathi and English. He taught himself English by preserving shredded newspaper pieces in which bhel-puri was served and reading these in his spare time. But about his physique, there was not much he could do.

Iyengar was so skinny in comparison to even the average man that he became the butt of ridicule.

This was an India that was obsessed with the ideal of the “body beautiful”. Why would they want to pay to do yoga if this is what they would end up looking like?

Despite his emaciated appearance, in strength, flexibility and endurance, Iyengar was infinitely superior to any of his well-fed pupils. They would often see him practise for ten hours without a break, and they began to look beyond the thinness and the broken English to the passion that was driving him. In their hearts they felt a stirring of admiration.

The Deccan Gymkhana often held wrestling matches that were widely attended. Pune was bubbling over with excitement about an upcoming match between Imam Baksh, brother of the famous Gama, and a hefty Punjabi wrestler called Puran Singh. Imam Baksh had, a decade ago, already fought and defeated world legends like the Swiss wrestler John Lemm. After that historical win, the press fawningly declared that Lemm looked “quite commonplace” in comparison with Baksh, who was “really like a great cat, wonderfully nimble and lissome, able to turn and twist with lightning-like dexterity,” writes Graham Noble in his book, The Lion of Punjab.

The year was 1937. The Deccan Gymkhana wrestling arena seethed with people waiting with great expectations for the big fight. There were hordes more waiting at the ticket stands to buy a ticket to enter. Excitement sparked through the air as the tall, loose-limbed Imam Baksh wrestled Puran Singh to the ground in a few deft manoeuvres. The umpire counted to ten and declared the fight over. Imam Baksh was the winner. The audience felt cheated. The match had hardly lasted minutes and was over before many of them had even entered the wrestling area. In the manner of displeased crowds in India, they vented their aggression by vandalising the Gymkhana. The police found it impossible to control the mob.

Some members of the Deccan Gymkhana called Iyengar and asked him to do a demonstration of his yoga asanas.

It was like walking into a live minefield. No one had any idea how his demonstration would be received.

Would the crowds laugh and jeer at this scrawny lad with his bald head and Brahmin ponytail who was daring to replace their heroes? Would the crowds, unhappy at being denied a glimpse of the heroes they had come to watch, throw their footwear at him? Or would they, inspired by his appearance, choose a more violent option?

Iyengar, however, didn’t seem to sense the danger in the situation. Instead, all he smelt was the alluring aroma of opportunity. He could see a potential audience, the largest he had ever had. He could see the most famous wrestlers of India, Gama and Imam Baksh, amongst them. This, he felt, was a great time to display his prowess. Brimming with confidence, not a thought of possible failure in his head, he approached the wrestling ring.

One can imagine the collective titter of amusement that rippled through the crowd when this frail young man came on in his skimpy Hanuman chaddis. It looked distinctly like three of him would fit into one wrestler’s clothes. Iyengar went on to do a breath-taking forty-minute demonstration of his most advanced asanas. By the end of it, the audience was eating out of his hand.

As a result of this spectacle, Iyengar became extremely friendly with the wrestlers who lived next door to him in a cheap room provided by the Gymkhana to its employees. He puzzled over the fact that every time they entered or left their rooms they would knock on his door and ask Iyengar, who was much shorter than they were, to lock or unlock the latches on the top of their doors for them. Iyengar, polite as always, obliged, but could not help wondering at the strangeness of this request. When he got to know them better, he understood that their exercise routine left their shoulders so muscle-bound that it was impossible for them to raise their arms above their heads.

These were the same wrestlers who in England in 1910 had issued a challenge to anyone in the world to come forth and fight them.


For four months no one dared take up the challenge. After four months, Doc Roller, a full foot taller than Gama, rose to the challenge. In the first round, Gama had brought Roller down in one minute and forty seconds. And this powerful wrestler could not open the door for himself!

Iyengar, who had been working on his flexibility for many years now, was aghast that their exercise regimen had actually left them incapable, rather than more capable. He later found out, when he got to know them much better, that they had difficulty sitting on the Indian-style squatting toilets. This made it impossible for them to evacuate their bowels completely, and was the cause of many other attendant ills. Iyengar’s encounter with the wrestlers left Iyengar more convinced than ever of the importance of a holistic regimen like yoga.

Loneliness also led him to befriend characters whom he may not ordinarily have chosen. Some of the people he met at the Gymkhana were regular drinkers, and would spend many of their evenings going out into the town. These people invited him along on their riotous evenings.

Though he did not drink, his longing for companionship in this city of strangers made him accompany them on their escapades.

After the boys had had a reasonable amount to drink, they would inexplicably disappear into the by-lanes nearby, asking him to wait till they returned. Within half an hour, they would generally be back, always much more genial and cheerful than when they left.

On one of these days, as he stood waiting for his friends to return, another of his acquaintances spotted him. The man stopped and asked what he was doing there. Iyengar told him he was waiting for his friends to return. The man told the young Iyengar that this was not a savoury place for a decent young man like him to be hanging around and advised him to go home immediately. It was only when he was slightly older that the innocent Iyengar found out that he had been standing under the street lamps of Pune’s infamous red light district. Finally, he understood the reason for his friends’ exuberance when they returned from their excursions into those by-lanes.

Excerpted with permission from A Life of Light: The Biography of BKS Iyengar, Rashmi Palkhivala, HarperCollins.

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