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A Vegetarian Lunch With B. K. S. Iyengar

Remembering the master On International Yoga Day.

21/06/2017 8:50 AM IST | Updated 21/06/2017 8:53 AM IST
LA Times via Getty Images
Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar.

I don't know how many people in the world will remember B. K. S. Iyengar on 21 June— declared as International Yoga Day in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)—but I certainly will. Iyengar, after all, was the Father of Yoga, popularising it in India and then taking it around the world.

The idea of such a day was proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Yoga practitioner himself, when he addressed the UNGA in September 2014. Modi in asking the world to work towards an International Yoga Day, said, "Yoga is an invaluable gift of India's ancient traditions. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; and, a holistic approach to health and well-being."

Sadly, Iyengar didn't live to see the first International Yoga Day.

He passed away in 2014 at the age of 96.

Sachin Tendulkar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee [came for help]. But the sad thing is that they weren't interested in doing yoga at all! B. K. S. Iyengar

My favorite B. K. S. Iyengar memory is the impromptu lunch I had at the Yoga grandmaster's home and institute in a quiet and leafy bylane of Pune's Shivaji Nagar. It was October 2002. I had gone to interview him because Iyengar was in the news. He had just cured Sachin Tendulkar of a debilitating back pain. And he had brought new life into Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who at 78 was valiantly soldiering on with all kinds of crippling physical ailments.

I reached at 8.30 in the morning. Iyengar, who was then 84, had started his day at 4.30am with an hour-and-half of pranayam. "This is a form of breath that steadies the mind and brings calmness to the body," he explained to me later. After that, he took his first class of the day. His breakfast had been half a cup of strong Madras coffee. It would sustain him until lunch time. And fuel his ageing body through yoga's many awesome and strenuous physical exercises and contortions meant to make man physically, mentally and even spiritually fit.

"It is South Indian filter coffee that comes from Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu, I am from there, perhaps you have heard of Sriperumbudur," he casually remarked.

I most certainly had. But I wasn't there to discuss the historic city outside erstwhile Madras where poor Rajiv Gandhi met his end. I had made the trip to the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute on Harekrishna Mandir Road in Pune to do a lifestyle interview with the world's greatest practitioner of yoga.

Animals in the slaughter house know by instinct when they are going to be killed. They become emotionally disturbed. The blood quality in such agitated animals is unhealthy. B. K. S. Iyengar

By the time I reached, his class was over. It was for a batch of advanced students. They were all foreigners. As he walked out to meet me in a pair of black shorts holding a stopwatch, supple and energetic, a look of great peace on his leonine face, the students respectfully parted before him. Like he was Moses crossing the Red Sea in a scene out of Ten Commandments. They all held cameras and handycams on which they had captured Iyengar demonstrating his intricate yoga poses before them. He later told me, somewhat wryly but not bitterly, that he was synonymous with yoga everywhere in the world but India. In 2002 he had about 300 Iyengar Yoga Centres globally with some 6000 teachers teaching 20 million students. In spite of which people came to Pune from all corners of the world to learn yoga directly from the great Iyengar himself.

Iyengar graciously invited me to stay for lunch.

His home was a simple bungalow attached to the institute. In a small courtyard stood a marble statue of Iyengar in his favorite Yoga pose – the Natarajasana. "It's dedicated to Lord Shiva," Iyengar told me in passing. "The asana is known as Lord of The Dance pose. It depicts His love for music, dance and art."

The institute had more challenging architecture: it was a three-storey pagoda, semicircular and pyramid-like in front, vertically segmented and with a flat, triangular rear. Right on top was a shrine for Hanuman, Lord of the Breath and a symbol of strength, stability, intellect, courage, celibacy and humility. Iyengar encouraged his students to be inspired by Hanuman. He himself bowed reverently before a statue of the sage Patanjali, who codified yoga. And everybody, all his students of the morning batch, bowed to him.

I recommend vegetarian food to all. Vegetables are healthy, they are exposed to air, earth, water, fire and wind, the five elements, just as human beings too are made up of the five elements. B. K. S. Iyengar

The morning session had rejuvenated Iyengar. He was looking 50. And it had also worked up an appetite in him. At 1pm we sat down to lunch. His daughter Geeta and grandchildren Abhijata and Hareeth Sridhar laid out the table. The meal was simple vegetarian fare. Dal-chawal, sabzi-roti, a bowl of dal payasam, prepared to Iyengar's exacting standards by Geeta. "He has excellent tastebuds even at this age," she revealed, "He can identify all the spices, and if there is anything more or less in a dish, he can tell immediately."

Could the great yoga master and gourmet cook too? I asked.

Iyengar gave me a toothy grin and said, "Of course, I can. When my wife was alive, and the children were small, I used to do the cooking when she got her period and could not enter the kitchen. But nothing fancy. Simple food, a dal and rice, some sambhar and rasam, a few vegetables, maybe a payasam. I learned to cook when I first went abroad and found there was nothing Indian and nothing vegetarian. Also, it was costly to eat boiled carrots and mashed potato at restaurants. How long could I survive on coffee, bread and fruits? So I started carrying rice and pulses and cooked my own meals whenever I traveled."

He was slurping the food, eating with his hand, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist whenever he wanted to talk. And he wanted to talk and share his wisdom about food because we were at lunch, anyway, and he was done with talking about yoga. He was a strict vegetarian. It helped maintain purity of the mind. "Animals in the slaughter house know by instinct when they are going to be killed. They become emotionally disturbed. The blood quality in such agitated animals is unhealthy. What kind of meat are we eating?" he asked. "Our mental stability, our intellectual clarity, depends on the right kind of food."

I can trace their problems by just looking at how people perform the asanas. It is a science of the eye. An instinctive nature developed into an instinct. B. K. S. Iyengar

He was aware that yoga and vegetarianism are synonymous. "But the problem is that people are all born differently. The authors of books on yoga and diet do not know what their readers like," he complained, "They have no idea about the readers' tastes, their emotions, what allergies they are suffering from. Some people can digest milk, some cannot. So I recommend vegetarian food to all. Vegetables are healthy, they are exposed to air, earth, water, fire and wind, the five elements, just as human beings too are made up of the five elements. And besides, I think being a vegetarian causes least injury to any living thing."

The lunch was over and Iyengar called for coffee.

It is the strongest beverage he will drink, and he has his with honey."It is an acquired taste," he said producing a bottle of El Qvexigal Honey from Spain and handing it over to me for examination.

One of the legends associated with Iyengar is the story of violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin who met the Yoga guru in 1952 when he was a guest in India of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Menuhin mentioned to Iyengar that he had trouble sleeping and was therefore constantly fatigued. Iyengar put him into Savasana, the Corpse Pose, and had the renowned violinist snoring in five minutes. He woke him up refreshed and raring to go just when the curtain was rising on Menuhin's first concert in India!

Until then, the world only knew Iyengar as a great Yogacharya. It was now discovering that he was also an astonishing healer. People began queuing up with all kinds of muscular and exoskeleton problems from then on. Also with histories of heart disease, digestive problems, spinal issues, epileptic disorders and diabetes. When all other cures failed, people said, "Go to Iyengar!"

How did he treat these people, I asked.

"I make them do Yoga," Iyengar said, "I put everybody through asanas first. The cures strike me then, I can trace their problems by just looking at how people perform the asanas. It is a science of the eye. An instinctive nature developed into an instinct."

And who were the most famous people who came to B. K. S. Iyengar for medical help when everything else failed for them, I asked curiously. He looked me dead in the eye and replied, "Sachin Tendulkar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But the sad thing is that they weren't interested in doing yoga at all!"

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