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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What hospitals can do to drive entrepreneurship and enhance patient experience

Hospitals can perform better by partnering with entrepreneurs and encouraging a culture of intrapreneurship focused on customer centricity.

At the Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, visitors don’t have to worry about navigating their way across the complex hospital premises. All they need to do is download wayfinding tools from the installed digital signage onto their smartphone and get step by step directions. Other hospitals have digital signage in surgical waiting rooms that share surgery updates with the anxious families waiting outside, or offer general information to visitors in waiting rooms. Many others use digital registration tools to reduce check-in time or have Smart TVs in patient rooms that serve educational and anxiety alleviating content.

Most of these tech enabled solutions have emerged as hospitals look for better ways to enhance patient experience – one of the top criteria in evaluating hospital performance. Patient experience accounts for 25% of a hospital’s Value-Based Purchasing (VBP) score as per the US government’s Centres for Medicare and Mediaid Services (CMS) programme. As a Mckinsey report says, hospitals need to break down a patient’s journey into various aspects, clinical and non-clinical, and seek ways of improving every touch point in the journey. As hospitals also need to focus on delivering quality healthcare, they are increasingly collaborating with entrepreneurs who offer such patient centric solutions or encouraging innovative intrapreneurship within the organization.

At the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott, some of the speakers from diverse industry backgrounds brought up the role of entrepreneurship in order to deliver on patient experience.

Getting the best from collaborations

Speakers such as Dr Naresh Trehan, Chairman and Managing Director - Medanta Hospitals, and Meena Ganesh, CEO and MD - Portea Medical, who spoke at the panel discussion on “Are we fit for the world of new consumers?”, highlighted the importance of collaborating with entrepreneurs to fill the gaps in the patient experience eco system. As Dr Trehan says, “As healthcare service providers we are too steeped in our own work. So even though we may realize there are gaps in customer experience delivery, we don’t want to get distracted from our core job, which is healthcare delivery. We would rather leave the job of filling those gaps to an outsider who can do it well.”

Meena Ganesh shares a similar view when she says that entrepreneurs offer an outsider’s fresh perspective on the existing gaps in healthcare. They are therefore better equipped to offer disruptive technology solutions that put the customer right at the center. Her own venture, Portea Medical, was born out of a need in the hitherto unaddressed area of patient experience – quality home care.

There are enough examples of hospitals that have gained significantly by partnering with or investing in such ventures. For example, the Children’s Medical Centre in Dallas actively invests in tech startups to offer better care to its patients. One such startup produces sensors smaller than a grain of sand, that can be embedded in pills to alert caregivers if a medication has been taken or not. Another app delivers care givers at customers’ door step for check-ups. Providence St Joseph’s Health, that has medical centres across the U.S., has invested in a range of startups that address different patient needs – from patient feedback and wearable monitoring devices to remote video interpretation and surgical blood loss monitoring. UNC Hospital in North Carolina uses a change management platform developed by a startup in order to improve patient experience at its Emergency and Dermatology departments. The platform essentially comes with a friendly and non-intrusive way to gather patient feedback.

When intrapreneurship can lead to patient centric innovation

Hospitals can also encourage a culture of intrapreneurship within the organization. According to Meena Ganesh, this would mean building a ‘listening organization’ because as she says, listening and being open to new ideas leads to innovation. Santosh Desai, MD& CEO - Future Brands Ltd, who was also part of the panel discussion, feels that most innovations are a result of looking at “large cultural shifts, outside the frame of narrow business”. So hospitals will need to encourage enterprising professionals in the organization to observe behavior trends as part of the ideation process. Also, as Dr Ram Narain, Executive Director, Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, points out, they will need to tell the employees who have the potential to drive innovative initiatives, “Do not fail, but if you fail, we still back you.” Innovative companies such as Google actively follow this practice, allowing employees to pick projects they are passionate about and work on them to deliver fresh solutions.

Realizing the need to encourage new ideas among employees to enhance patient experience, many healthcare enterprises are instituting innovative strategies. Henry Ford System, for example, began a system of rewarding great employee ideas. One internal contest was around clinical applications for wearable technology. The incentive was particularly attractive – a cash prize of $ 10,000 to the winners. Not surprisingly, the employees came up with some very innovative ideas that included: a system to record mobility of acute care patients through wearable trackers, health reminder system for elderly patients and mobile game interface with activity trackers to encourage children towards exercising. The employees admitted later that the exercise was so interesting that they would have participated in it even without a cash prize incentive.

Another example is Penn Medicine in Philadelphia which launched an ‘innovation tournament’ across the organization as part of its efforts to improve patient care. Participants worked with professors from Wharton Business School to prepare for the ideas challenge. More than 1,750 ideas were submitted by 1,400 participants, out of which 10 were selected. The focus was on getting ideas around the front end and some of the submitted ideas included:

  • Check-out management: Exclusive waiting rooms with TV, Internet and other facilities for patients waiting to be discharged so as to reduce space congestion and make their waiting time more comfortable.
  • Space for emotional privacy: An exclusive and friendly space for individuals and families to mourn the loss of dear ones in private.
  • Online patient organizer: A web based app that helps first time patients prepare better for their appointment by providing check lists for documents, medicines, etc to be carried and giving information regarding the hospital navigation, the consulting doctor etc.
  • Help for non-English speakers: Iconography cards to help non-English speaking patients express themselves and seek help in case of emergencies or other situations.

As Arlen Meyers, MD, President and CEO of the Society of Physician Entrepreneurs, says in a report, although many good ideas come from the front line, physicians must also be encouraged to think innovatively about patient experience. An academic study also builds a strong case to encourage intrapreneurship among nurses. Given they comprise a large part of the front-line staff for healthcare delivery, nurses should also be given the freedom to create and design innovative systems for improving patient experience.

According to a Harvard Business Review article quoted in a university study, employees who have the potential to be intrapreneurs, show some marked characteristics. These include a sense of ownership, perseverance, emotional intelligence and the ability to look at the big picture along with the desire, and ideas, to improve it. But trust and support of the management is essential to bringing out and taking the ideas forward.

Creating an environment conducive to innovation is the first step to bringing about innovation-driven outcomes. These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott, which is among the top 100 global innovator companies, is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.