Report from India: The Global Yoga Community Gathers to Honor B.K.S. Iyengar on His 90th Birthday

Carmen Viola

To attend the 90th birthday celebrations for B.K.S. Iyengar in Pune and the tour of South India, I let go of my long-held desire to study at RIMYI, as I reconciled that the journey was for my spirit and not about perfecting Asana. Synchronous events confirmed it was the right decision, and so with joyful wonder I opened my heart to experience each day in India fully. With gratitude, I joined the hundreds of international students gathered to witness the events and the ceremonies laboriously planned to honor our beloved Guruji.

December 10th was the first event, Guruji's religious ceremony, which lasted nearly four hours. Flowers, fruit, and small urns filled with water occupied a rectangular area in front of the dais where B.K.S. Iyengar, his granddaughter, sisters, son, and daughters sat. He was given garlands, shawls, and a headdress made of pure silver as part of this ceremonious event. Prashant gave a discourse on the puja. One of the sisters led us in a chant.

There were more than a dozen priests who chanted and flung water, sticks, and flowers into the fire they circled. The flames rose higher and higher, and so did the plumes of smoke. Guruji's family escorted him to the grassy area to bathe him in the holy ceremonial water and came through the crowd to sprinkle holy water on us, as well.

After the puja was over, we waited to pay our respects as Geeta directed traffic and announced items that had been lost or found. Lunch was then served in shifts. And what a prasad it was! We sat at long plank tables arranged end to end. We were given a banana leaf and a small bottle of water. An Indian gentleman sitting next to me told me to pour water on the banana leaf to clean it and to hold up the edges of the leaf closest to me up to shake the water off the leaf away from me. This would be our plate. We were served from huge vessels–a finely chopped salad, a sweet coconut carrot salad, rice, papadum, sambar, and more. We ate using our fingers and thumb of the right hand because no utensils were provided.

As we were leaving, a local woman who is a yoga physiotherapist invited me and a friend to share her personal rickshaw with her two granddaughters. We engaged in lively conversation until I disembarked to go a different direction. As I thanked her for the ride, she replied graciously, continuing the auspicious thread that began my journey, "We are all one family."

The yoga hall at RIMYI was full for the recitation from the Bhagavad Gita given by Geeta. The room was atwitter with various languages being spoken as students and teachers from around the world greeted one another like long–lost friends reuniting. Geeta lectured on the fourth chapter of the Gita, making reference to the fifth and second chapters frequently. She said the twenty-seventh and twenty-eighth slokas of chapter 2 were very important. She discussed Arjuna's dilemma, relating it to ourselves in the world today. Her basic message was that we must dedicate all of our actions to God and let go of the results.

The flute recital and the premiere of the documentary film on Guruji, Leap of Faith, took place at a small auditorium on the outskirts of Pune. The music recital was performed by a world–renowned flautist,
Pt Prasad Chaurasia, with three other musicians. The flute player and the drummer dueled–the flautist played a riff and the drummer copied it until it became more intricate and faster. The audience enjoyed their wonderful banter back and forth.

The following morning was an informative lecture and demonstration of classical Indian dance, deemed yoga dance by the dance teacher Mandakini Trivedi and her star pupil. The purity of the movement comes only if you are focused and strong from yoga practice and then is offered as a dedication to the Divine.

In the evening, we returned to the venue for The Prophet, a four-person play starring Naseerudin Shah, a famous Indian actor, as the Prophet. It was a moving performance.

A yoga demonstration by a large group of children of various ages followed. The yoga crowd was very enthusiastic to see these youngsters doing poses that some may fondly remember doing or perhaps only dreamed of being able to do!

On December 14th, B.K.S. Iyengar celebrated officially turning 90. This final program started with several women draped in colorful regional saris taking turns to wave a platter of lit candles circularly in front of Guruji. Several speakers were called onto the stage: Faeq regaled us with stories of traveling with Guruji in the early years; Padma, from South Africa, spoke of Guruji's first visit, when they struggled to get 10 people to attend his classes! Manouso expressed his gratitude to Guruji for his dedication to his art that makes us all look good. Prashant thanked the countless volunteers for bringing the events to fruition. Geeta spoke about four individuals who deserved the Iyengar's gratitude for countless years of service: Mr. Ratanlal Shah; Mr. Pandurang Rao, the secretary at RIMYI; Kali Dastur, a local teacher who lost her grandson, a chef at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, in the terrorist attacks; and Mr. Om Prakash, now deceased. Last, Lee Sverkerson bestowed a garland upon Guruji. Then it was Guruji's turn to speak. Abi, ever-present at her grandfather's side, held the microphone. Mr. Iyengar's face brimmed with emotion as he fondly addressed us all, "My children," he began, encouraging us to continue to practice to reach the heights of yoga.
A birthday dinner was the grand finale to the Pune celebrations.

The tour of South India commenced on the outskirts of Bangalore in Electronic City. There were nine tour buses filled to capacity with international students, teachers, and their families. The orchestration of the group going to the various sites was indeed monumental. An easy camaraderie exuded from the global participants as we traversed South India for hours on end.

On December 17th, we visited the Bellur school/dormitory/hospital complex. Uniformed schoolchildren sang the national anthem to Guruji on the roof of a building adjacent to the school. As the school bell rang, the girls and boys scurried to their classes, excitedly greeting us in namaskar or handshakes. With their ever-present smiles, they eagerly posed for photographs.

A very short distance away was the Patanjali temple. The villagers stood outside their homes watching as we paraded on the road lined in the center by a floral carpet strewn with red and gold marigolds. At the temple a band played; sadhus, priests, children, foreigners, and locals all intermingled under a canopy of brightly colored cloth that shielded us from the approaching midday heat.

Ceremonies took place to bathe the idols in various liquids and colorful herbs as we all perched wherever we could either just to listen to the chanting or to observe if we were close enough. We returned to the complex for lunch, followed by a program by the school children and felicitations from the esteemed guests who were there to honor B.K.S. Iyengar.

On December 18th, we had a six-hour ride to our luncheon destination and were immediately informed on arrival that we had to leave in fifteen minutes! After a hurried lunch at the beautiful Hoysala Village resort, we drove two hours before reaching the temples on the schedule–Channakeshava Temple, capital of the Hoysala Empire in Bellur, and Hoysaleshwara and Shanthaleshwar Temples in Halebidu–only to spend about 30 minutes at each! After the final temple, it was a three-hour ride to the Pai Vista hotel in Mysore. There, we were greeted by a band of drummers exuding a deep, resonant tribal beat. Some people danced, others walked between the drummers to enter the hotel ballroom, where we were to observe a folk dance performance in which two men balanced large square frames covered in fabric and streamers on their heads or foreheads or between their teeth, twirling, stomping, and lowering themselves to the floor to the drum beat!

On December 19th, Guruji deemed that we would begin our journey at 9 am instead of 7 am, already delayed from 6 am. We visited the Chamundeshwari Temple in honor of the Great Mother. As we stood in line with our offering, I was handed one rupee to add to the bill I had in my hand that was in an even amount because it is bad luck to offer an even amount.

Next, we toured Mysore Palace, where the Rajah imported the best glass lamps from Czechoslovakia and Italy and tiles from Portugal to construct a simply beautiful palace. A curse was placed on the family so the royal couple would always be barren. Therefore, the royal family's chosen heir to the throne was an adopted niece or nephew. Two years before one of the Rajahs died, he financed Guruji's 1938 silent film!

We drove to the Giant Nandi in Chamundi Hills, the largest bull statue in South India, but I had had enough sight-seeing and so did not venture out. While waiting, I noticed a cow eating a flower garland draped across the front grille of a vehicle, while two monkeys opened bags tied to the rooftop, ceremoniously rifling through bags and throwing things to the ground! Although a man came to chase the monkeys away, the cow had finished eating the floral and foil garland!

A leisurely lunch was served outdoors at a park along Karanji kere (lake). Guruji sat on a bench near the lake, showing no strain from the long days and the endless stream of people who came forward to speak with him.

Unexpectedly, we stopped to see the first hall where Guruji taught, and then proceeded to the location of his high school. Despite our best efforts, the gate remained locked. We were told that the building that stands there now is built on the site of his old school.

After our final dinner at the hotel, many crowded around the hotel steps for their last glimpse of Guruji and his entourage
as they left the hotel. It was truly a wondrous experience to be part of the global yoga community gathered to honor our beloved yoga master for the blessings
of his yoga legacy.

Carmen Viola was certified at the Introductory II level in 1995. She served on the IYNAUS board from 2003 through 2006 and as secretary for IYANW from 1993 through 1995. She has taught yoga in Maple Valley, Washington, since 1990. Carmen attends Bellevue College, where she is enrolled in the website and information design certificate programs.

All photos courtesy of Carmen Viola