Pune 23 August to 9 September 1977 by Meg Laing
I was 24 years old and had been doing Iyengar yoga for about 5 years, first with Penny Nield-Smith in Oxford and then in Edinburgh with Bob and Kathy Welham. Bob and Kathy were both newly qualified teachers and we had arrived in Edinburgh at the same time, not knowing each other previously. Bob was doing a PhD in Artificial Intelligence and I was doing one in medieval English dialects- both at the University of Edinburgh. You can imagine my joy and relief at finding I could continue my two year-old love affair with Iyengar Yoga in the University of Edinburgh Iyengar Yoga Society that Bob and Kathy started up. Bob quickly realised the necessity of getting other people in Edinburgh qualified as teachers -although he didn’t bother to tell us that was his intention! Three of us students were sent to Manchester in 1976 for a weekend of classes taught by Mr Iyengar (as he was always known then). Suffice it to say I was totally and utterly hooked. So when Bob said I should go to Pune the next summer I took time out of the PhD for three weeks and wrote to Mr Iyengar to ask if I could come. The dates I’d requested were accepted and I set off.
I was all on my own having never been to India before and the journey (5 hours delayed at Heathrow at the outset because of a catering go-slow) was a huge adventure in itself. With the flight so badly delayed and not arriving till the afternoon, I missed the last electric train from Bombay to Pune the next day and had to get on a slow one, having already been travelling by now for 24 hours. I arrived in Pune at 11.30 pm and, having slept at the station (in a proper bed!), I got to RIMYI at 7am the next morning in time for the first class but not having booked anywhere yet for my stay. It was not an auspicious beginning, especially as I had come in on the final few days of an intensive course! Prashant, who was helping Mr Iyengar with the class, reasonably enough pointed out to him at one point that I was yawning. Mr Iyengar looked at me and just said “Leave her alone. She’s new”. I think in that one look he probably took in the essence of my whole journey. After class I was scooped up by the wonderful Sylvia Prescott, who is so much missed and whose kindness to a (then) stranger I shall always remember. She took me to the hotel she was in now the Ketan then the Sutlej – and that’s where I stayed.
The next three weeks were electrifying. The intensive finished and other students arrived. It was more informal than now; there were other singletons like me and much more coming and going, with far fewer in the classes than nowadays. Many of us were young and most very raw – with more enthusiasm and energy than skill. When I registered I had put down as my occupation ‘Research student’ (I was hyper-conscious that I was a post-graduate!). At one point Mr Iyengar looked at me and said “Huh, she calls herself a Research student and she can’t even research her own knees”. Fortunately my immediate reaction was to grin sheepishly and he threw back his head and roared with laughter. I appeared not to have learnt my lesson however. Anxious to show I was attentive and could research at least something, I always keenly watched whatever he was showing and was quick to be in the front row whenever he said “Look here”. He was teaching twists one day and was not happy with our inability to get a good strong connection with the entwining arm in Marichyasana III. “Look here”- and he went into Marichyasana III, just sitting on the bare floor. I was right there in front of him and all eager. He looked at me severely from under his already burgeoning eyebrows and said “Push my arm”. I was so surprised and confused that I did nothing. Thinking I hadn’t heard he shouted very loudly: “Push my arm”. I was only inches from him and, in shocked reflex, I shoved his entwined arm so hard he fell right over onto his straight leg side- nothing else changed at all. Now everyone was in shock and there was a horrified silence as I waited for the ground to open and swallow me up. But he just lay there still in full Marichyasana III, but on his side, and burst out laughing. Through his laughter he said: “I wanted to demonstrate how my arm was so well entwined that you couldn’t push it off my leg. Here I am and it’s still entwined”. I couldn’t have proved his point more effectively.
Much of the three weeks seemed to be spent doing jumpings, arm balancing asanas and back¬ bends. I found I had to get very strong very fast but I remember everything being fun as well as hard work. We had a 3- or 4-hour asana class every morning first thing and then a pranayama class every early evening. One class in particular was typical of the sort of crazy inventive surprisingness that seemed the hallmark of that life-altering three weeks.
On Tuesday September 6th, in the morning class, we did intense backbending work on the ropes for just over an hour, followed by all the forward bends (Tuesday was forward bend day normally) for another hour and a half or so. We did not do especially long holds except Paschimottanasana for 15 minutes in the middle of the forward bend sequence and Urdhva Prasdrita Padasana (legs perpendicular, arms at shoulder height) for 15 minutes to finish.
In the evening we came back for what we expected to be the usual 90-minute pranayama class. Listed below (opposite page) is what in fact we did, totally out of the blue, with Mr Iyengar calling the asanas at lightning speed and Mr Shah on the platform leading us. Someone observing the class took down the sequence and let me copy it afterwards. I remember that it went so fast I sometimes had to leave out a couple of asanas in order to catch up and I think I also spent some of the time wallowing about on my stomach, vainly attempting to persuade my arms to push up one more time, until the miraculous ordering of the sequence enabled another access of energy to materialise.
Mr Iyengar ran out to the house and came back with a huge pan of sweet mixture and we had to hold out our cupped hands for him to give some to each. I remember a lot of laughter. Towards the end of my three weeks there were only four of us students left for the last few days. In one class My Iyengar organised for us each to be one on one in rotation with himself, Geeta, Prashant and Mr Shah. He asked what I wanted him to teach me. I had had a kidney stone removed surgically the previous year and I asked for help with preventing such an occurrence in the future. So I had a tutorial on my own with Mr Iyengar for 45 minutes on twists. What an experience. At the end of my three weeks I went to say goodbye and Mr Iyengar handed me my Introductory teaching certificate. I was completely amazed and only afterwards realised that it was what Bob Welham must have hoped for all along. Of course I was ludicrously untrained as a teacher compared to what is expected nowadays, but you certainly learn on the job!
Published in IYN Autumn 2018