Excerpts from The Art of Yoga

B.K.S. Iyengar

Introduced by Constance Braden

A beginner who comes to Iyengar Yoga expecting an exercise class learns immediately that instead she is to learn an art. She finds out that it makes a difference how a pose is done. She discovers the expressiveness of the asanas right away, in Virabhadrasana II. For example, she explores the difference between the tentativeness of a too-short stance and the power of a more correct one, coming closer to expressing "Virabhadra." Soon, she, too, may find herself deep in what B.K.S. Iyengar calls the "divine discontent" (p. xiv) of the artist, the desire to get it "right," so that the pose is balanced, beautiful, and expressive, as well as beneficial to perform. Over long practice, an artist develops artistic judgment, so that he knows when something is not yet "right." He may rewrite his novel seven times, or spend a year on a small painting, getting it "right," bringing all its elements properly together until the viewer stands in front of it unable to turn away, utterly seduced, because the painting is alive. In Iyengar Yoga, we, too, are encouraged in the "painstaking, diligent and delicate labour" of making our "practices into a work of art" (p. xiv), in making our asanas come alive from toe tips and fingertips deep into the heart. A few of us from time to time may practice the art of yoga demonstration, understanding that performance for others is not the main point. Yet we do have an audience: within ourselves. Patanjali calls the audience for whom we zealously work the "Seer."

B.K.S. Iyengar is certainly the world's supreme artist of yoga. We asked him for an interview on yoga as art, and he suggested, having written extensively on the subject, that we instead publish excerpts from The Art of Yoga (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1985). We're pleased to offer the following selections from this beautiful and poetic work.
– Constance Braden, Samachar editor

Any action done with beauty and purity, and in complete harmony of body, mind and soul, is art. In this way art elevates the artist. As Yoga fulfils the essential need of art, it is an art. (p. xiii)

I had no artist for a mentor; therefore, I had to pave my own way by learning to develop original thinking, by creating new ideas, and by studying as much as possible the movements, anatomical structure and shape of each asana. I visited temples and caves to study the carvings, paintings and sculptures. I observed the various postures of the body conceived and depicted by different artists at different times. I watched the creeping gait of vegetation, amphibians and reptiles, the flight of birds, the majestic movements of animals and the behavior of men, and I learnt from all these. Looking at God's creation as well as man's, I began to perform the asanas to the fullest possible extent, notwithstanding my limited abilities. I looked into Patanjali's sutras and found his words enchanting. He says that one should become immersed and apply oneself with devotion and dedication to gain direct perception of the essence which emanates from yogic practices. This became my first guiding principle in developing sensitivity in the art of yoga. (p. 4)

Thus I laboured hard to synchronize the movements of limbs, carefully feeling the extension, expansion and creation of space for the intelligence to pervade the entire body and allow the energy to flow freely and rhythmically. Through my own thinking, assiduous practice and self-control, I analyzed every movement and adjusted every fibre and muscle of my body… There came an uninterrupted flow of devotion, attention, contemplation, beauty and grace, culminating in a radiant light of yogic knowledge… This light penetrated my being and awakened in me the vision of the artistic expression of each asana whether I was awake, dreaming or asleep. (p. 5)

An idea, a word, a shape, a vision or a symbol may grip the imagination of an artist and the interest in it is then cultivated so that the full fragrance is felt and experienced. He has to practice with the trinity of body, mind and soul until his genius bursts forth in the form of revelation. This is art. (p. 7)

Art in yoga is skill in action wherein all opposing forces are moulded towards oneness so that each and every movement expresses grace and balance, elegance and beauty, effortlessly and in unison. (p. 7)

By nature, the art of creativity is a painful process. Each act of creation has its own pangs. It requires preparation, mental flexibility, sometimes hard diligent labour. Phases of fear, discomfort, tension, frustration and dejection invade the mind of the artist and kill his interest. These have to be accepted as unavoidable accompaniments on the hazardous and arduous journey of artistic creation. Unshaken, the artist must continually labour long (nirantarabhyasa), and use his own ethical code (yama and niyama), sensitive intellect (buddhi), right reasoning and judgement (savicara and vivecana) to reach the desired goal. Then his intuitive intelligence (sahaja jnana) and inner vision (antardrsti) attain the highest order of clear perception. In the words of Patanjali, when memory is ripe the mind becomes pure and actions are perfect; the impressions take firm root, and preconceived notions stop intervening; experimentation comes to an end and experiences become distinct and crystal clear. The mind has four levels of consciousness, namely the subconscious, the unconscious, the conscious and the superconscious. In the creative artist, all these merge into one profound superconscious meditative state which is nothing but the yogic state of samadhi. Then whatever has been created stands as a work of art for posterity. (p. 9)

In beauty there is balance, order, form, symmetry and design. Through lifelong loving effort, new ideas of harmony and balance spring forth from the soul for perfect execution, expressing at once serenity and divinity. The artist loses his personal identity and becomes a universal entity. This is 'beauty in action'. Art glows from the immortal flame of the artist's soul, expressing itself through his body, senses and mind. (p. 10)

Yoga is an art in all its aspects, from the most practical to the highest. It is a spiritual art, in the sense that it transforms the seer and brings him into contact with his inner soul. It is a fine art, since it is aesthetic, expressive, representative and imitative. It is a visual art, since the body is made to form geometrical designs, lines, architectural shapes and the like which are beautiful to behold. It is essentially a useful art for the doer and is presented as a performing art for the viewer. (p. 14)


The difference between the art of yoga and other arts is that in yoga the practitioner lives in deep silence and turns inwards to behold and experience the inner hidden light and beauty wherein unalloyed truth and wisdom dwell. His work is his own art of life. Other artists follow the example of the inner light, beauty and wisdom of the yogis. They portray externally the radiant mien, exalted demeanour and deep serenity of the yogi as expressions of their art. Thus the yogi is an example to others as he conquers the body, the senses and the mind and integrates them with the soul. He lives in total freedom, develops insight (antar drsti) and acquires illuminating knowledge which he uses for creating new dimensions to his expressions. When this is accomplished, he moves from the known to the unknown, from the apparent to the real, until at last the body (ksetra) is welded with the knower of the body–the soul (ksetrajnan)–in divine union. This divine union comes only by practice and by the grace of the Radiant Light of God… So, through the faculty of insight, the creative power of the yogi-artist goes on springing from the inner well until he reaches the culmination of true and pure art. (p. 20).

Photo courtesy of Chandru Melwani