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The Early Days of Iyengar Yoga in Edinburgh

By Katie Rutherford

I always think that the introduction of Iyengar yoga to the UK was like the story of the origin of the Kumbh Mela sites in India. According to Hindu mythology the legend tells of a battle between the Devas (Gods) and Asuras (Demons) for amrta, the heavenly nectar of immortality which was created from the churning of the ocean of milk and placed in a kumbha (pot). To prevent the Asuras from seizing the amrta, Garuda took the pot and flew away. The amrta spilled at four different places in India where the Kumbh Mela is now celebrated.

October 1974

Edinburgh was one of those places in the UK blessed by the dropping of the amrta of Guruji’s teachings from the very early days. Our auspicious year was 1974. In October of that year, Scotland’s first introduction to Iyengar Yoga came when the Edinburgh University Yoga Society (EUYS) was started up. It was immediately hugely popular with waiting lists for all the classes. Elaine Pidgeon and Meg Laing were among the group of many future teachers who were taught from that time by Kathy Welham in the large Societies’ function hall -often the venue for boozy student parties at the weekend! Bob and Kathy Welham had undergone teacher training in London with Silva Mehta from 1971and attended Guruji’s London summer classes in 1972, 1973 and 1974 and there received his approval to teach. Bob and Kathy married that same summer of 1974 and Kathy left her job as a graduate trainee at the BBC in London in order to teach yoga and joined Bob in Edinburgh where he was working on his PhD.

The Yoga Society went on to be allocated a room which was equipped as a yoga practice room and was where Bob and Kathy immediately started to train the first small cohort of teachers. They were taken to Manchester (another site blessed by the amrita of Guruji’s teachings) in 1976 for them to be approved by Mr Iyengar (as he was generally known then).

1974-1979

Bob, Kathy and, increasingly, the new teachers took classes in various schools, halls and other public venues, as well as the new, spacious University Chaplaincy Centre. Pupils came from Glasgow and other places outside Edinburgh, and started to introduce Iyengar Yoga to wider Scotland for the first time. Teacher training continued, spreading the teaching of Iyengar Yoga, and Silva Mehta, Silvia Prescott and other senior Iyengar teachers visited.

During December 1975 and January 1976 Bob and Kathy spent a month at the newly built and opened Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India studying under Guruji. A longer period of three months’ intensive study at RIMYI followed over the next winter of 1976- 77. These were the early days of RIMYI and they were fortunate to participate in very small classes.

1979-1986

In the summer of 1979 Bob took a group of Scottish trained teachers, from Edinburgh, Glasgow and elsewhere, to Pune for their first intensive. Several other similar trips followed in subsequent years.In October 1979, the EIYC building at 195 Bruntsfield Place (then a branch of the TSB bank) was purchased by Bob and Kathy with a NatWest loan. Bob and Kathy wrote to Guruji often to keep him abreast of their search for a suitable building and he always wrote back promptly with advice and encouragement. It was renovated by Bob and others, then equipped and opened for an increasing range of classes conducted by Bob, Kathy and other teachers. Bob and Kathy carried out ongoing teacher training and organised assessments at the Centre. Senior teachers from within and beyond the UK visited regularly to give popular workshops. A dedicated contingent of pupils and trainee teachers from Glasgow, including Tom Yeudall, continued to attend the EIYC regularly.

1982 – Guruji’s Blessing of the EIYC

Guruji had always promised to visit and bless the Centre when it materialised so it was an enormous thrill and privilege when he came in 1982. He was delighted to finally see everything he’d heard so much about, not just the Centre, but the Welhams’ home too, where he stayed. “He took an interest in all our living arrangements, like the honorary father he always felt like to us. He was particularly pleased that in our house, as well as at the Yoga Centre, people took off their shoes at the door, as in India. He really liked the fact that we had adopted that way of keeping our house clean. Both visits, but particularly the first, felt like the head of a still quite small family coming to check up on us, to see how we were doing and to make sure we were on the right path, with great affec¬ tion and a sharp eye.

April 1984 – Guruji’s second visit

Bob, Elaine, Alan and Meg in Prasarita Padottanasana at the demonstration
Bob, Elaine, Alan and Meg in Prasarita Padottanasana at the demonstration

Guruji returned for a second visit, and teachers wanted to perform a demonstration for him as they knew he would love it. It was performed in front of a packed audience at the George Square theatre and was a feat of organization managed and produced ably by Bob. Elaine Pidgeon, Meg Laing, Catriona Instrell, Jenny Livingston, Gerry Chambers and Alan Cameron were all part of the demonstration. One of Gerry’s memories is “of having a discussion about whether we should accompany the demo with music.

Dear Jody Higgs, who was largely responsible for the choreography, and I think delegated by Kathy to do it, had evolved an elaborate system of counts for each asana and we wouldn’t have heard these if we had a musical accompaniment. So there was no music.

When Guruji was asked for his comments after the demo one of the things he said was that it would have been nice to have some music to go along with it!!” And from Catriona “Seeing him jumping up in the middle of our yoga demonstration and clapping loudly, at Virabhadrasana III still stirs my soul, at the pleasure and happiness that we gave him by our efforts. And his speech at the end to the entire audience signified that this was so! I was so fortunate to have been there”.

Guruji also conducted a teaching workshop at the EIYC when all the teachers had to teach in front of him and did an asana demonstration himself.

BKS Iyengar sitting in the alcove at the Edinburgh Iyengar Yoga centre watching students teach
BKS Iyengar sitting in the alcove at the
EIYC watching students teach

1986

In 1986 Bob and Kathy left Edinburgh for Bristol in order to be nearer to their families, in particular their aging parents. As part of the big move they spent another three months at RIMYI studying intensively with Guruji, Geeta and Prashant over the winter of 1985-6. They took with them their three young children John (8), Alice (6) and Jane (3) who attended the children’s class. The whole family lived in two of the rooms at RIMYI. Elaine Pidgeon took over the day to day running of the EIYC and the other established teachers continued their contribution to the Centre which grew to full independence. Elaine bought the EIYC in 1999 and ran it beautifully and devotedly, encouraging students to train to become teachers with her and Meg which they did until 2011. In 2014 the EIYC became a Community Benefit Society which means it was bought by students and teachers to be run “for the benefit of the community” and, as such, is being managed by a committee of both students and teachers. We run 25 classes a week and a good number of our students have been with us since the 80s.

Bob and Kathy went on to establish the Bristol Iyengar Yoga Centre, now known as Yogawest, and trained many teachers still teaching in the South West.

Our Legacy

No words can adequately express our gratitude to Bob and Kathy Welham for bringing the amrita of Guruji’s teaching to Edinburgh and Scotland. During Guruji’s visit in 1984 they had 3 kids – Jane barely 2, Alice 4, not yet at school, Johnny 6 and yet they managed the demo, the Q&A, putting up Guruji and his entourage (Savita came too one time) at home, catering, transport, running/taking part in the teachers’ workshop at EIYC. Generous to a fault, young, enthusiastic and, above all, brimming with devotion to Guruji.

Kathy’s words “Guruji was unfailingly cheerful and tolerant and encouraging and appreciative and affectionate. He was in paternal, sociable mode, and enjoyed making fun of us and our British ways. Both times, he made the whole visit a delight, and was very sweet with the children, as he was when we took them to Pune. He loved our conservatory full of freesias that scented the whole house”.

This was the spirit of those no-holds-barred times when it was all new and a lot more innocent! 40 years later the EIYC is still going strong and we use our best efforts to pass the nectar of Guruji’s teachings on to the next generations. And feel especially fortunate to have received Guruji’s blessing by letter when we became a CBS in 2014.

Published in IYN Autumn 2018




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