Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Yoga Prince of Pune turns 70

On 2nd of July 2019, Sri Prashant Iyengar turned 70. RIMYI has organised a 4 days’ workshop on yoga under the tutelage of Prashant Iyengar himself, where he showered deep insights on Yog. He never liked the idea of teaching yog through workshops, as he believes; yog can’t be learned in workshops. In spite of his dislike, he was dragged into it as a part of Guruji’s centenary celebrations last year. He did few of those workshops last year and continues to do so occasionally there on, upon the insistence of his students. Whether he likes it or not I feel workshops provide ideal platform for his teachings as classes have the limitation of time. As I heard him saying in a class “my dear friends understand my problem in a classroom scenario. People come with different mind and body sets. Some come up with pathological conditions; I have to give them relief. Some come here to work out; I need to work them out. Some come up tired and fatigued, I have to relax them and so on and at the same time I need to teach yog. Just imagine how difficult it is for me in the given time frame of two hours.”

The Yoga Sessions:

This was my second encounter with Prashant sir’s workshop after Bellur in September 2018 apart from his classes at RIMYI in Pune. This workshop was uniquely distinct from the one I attended before. The classes were more like sessions, where he tried to explain how one has to move beyond physical aspects of asanas using breath and the body. All the while, he has been talking about how students learned from Guruji remained at physical level where Guruji has gone way ahead from what he practiced & taught in his early years.

Highlights of the Sessions:

I am quoting some of the highlights of the session that I remember.
  • Prashant sir was at his best and therefore he was the prime highlight of the sessions.
  • He began the sessions throwing some light on modern yog which he calls “yogaaaa”. (Y. O. G. DOUBLE ‘A’ DOUBLE ‘A’)
  • People say, yoga is for health but it is not meant for health. Health is by yoga.
  • They also say ‘yoga’ is for all. In fact, yoga is not for all. The appropriate statement would be ‘Yoga has something for all’. 
  • Yoga is not just doing but it’s also listening. 
And believe me we listened and listened a lot. Prashant ji is such a power house of knowledge that he talks from yog to science, physics, geography, food, medicines, plants, trees, nature and what not. He is amazing. We had all of these during the sessions.

On yogic front, he revealed one of his secret on how he developed the art of knowing what Guruji used to do inside when he was practicing. Though he learned alongside other students with Guruji, he developed a better understanding of his actions beyond physical. He understood what he was doing within rather than the physical outlook. For this he used the faculty of imagination. He emphasised the students to develop the art of imagination to see what’s beyond physical actions of the body. He demonstrated on Abhijata, Siddhart and Raya in Purvottanasana and asked the students to imagine what must be happening at the palms to elbows, elbows to armpit, armpit to chest, toes to shins, shins to the knees, knees to thighs, thighs to pelvic floor, mid pelvis, abdomen to chest, tail bone to sacrum, sacrum to lumbar and imagine what would be the breath in these confinements and how it is aiding to lift the body up. The chest can’t go up unless there is assistance from the toes of the feet and palms and the breath at different levels.

Take away from the Sessions:
What have I gained from these sessions? Well... I understood how to use different body parts and breathe while doing asanas. Sorry...sorry... while participating in asanas.  He explained in his usual self in Marathi “KAR MAR KAR – DO DIE DO. You people just and die!  “You do yoga! I do yoga! We do yoga! All do Yoga! This is all what you do. Yoga is all about happening. It doesn’t happen when you do and therefore participate! Participating will let it happen. You participate in somebody’s wedding ceremony, birthday parties but you never participate in self activity like yoga”.

I don’t know yet how far I can take this understanding. I leave it for the time to reveal.

On the concluding day, Prashantji revealed how asanas and pranayama work to purify the “Annamaya Kosa and Pranamaya Kosa” thereby cleansing one’s karmas, whereas Manomaya Kosa is touched only by the actions outside the mat. This was some kind of revelation for me and may be for many others.

70th Birthday Celebrations:

The concluding day was a grand event to celebrate his birthday. He was grandly felicitated by his students. The idea of this title " The Yoga prince of Pune" came to my mind after a student felicitated him with a traditional Maratha pagdi (turban). He looked very Royal in it. 

His family members tried to introduce us the Prashant behind the doors. Some interesting programs were conducted during the event. The highlights were Abhijata’s interview with Prashantji, Iyengar sisters sharing the stage and a parody of his classes by some of his students.

Unmasking Prashant ji:
Like many others, I had some curious inquiries about Prashant sir which were answered during this session. The year 2011 was the first time I saw him in person but in the year 2012 an incident developed my curiosity on him. I was standing outside the yoga hall below the statue of Guruji in vrishchikasana. My eyes popped in through a window of Prashantji’s office. To my surprise, I found him practicing with a Bollywood song played on television. Since then every time I visited for my classes at RIMYI, I found him aloof from the hullabaloo of activities in the institute. Without knowing or meeting him in person, I developed some kind of respect for him. My heart always felt that he is something special. He was silently growing under the two giants ‘Guruji and Geetaji’.

It was clearly seen, unlike Guruji he is timid and shy from people. He prefers to stay most of the time in his office and practices behind the closed doors. Because of this very nature many developed misconceptions and misunderstandings about him.

My first experience of his classes at RIMYI:

In 2015, I was given the classes of Prashantji along with intermediate level 2. Due to my medical condition I used to struggle doing sirsasana and its variations in intermediate classes. I used to perspire and sweat so much that my entire t-shirt would get wet even when it’s raining outside.

On first day of Prashant sir’s class, I jumped onto ropes the moment he said Sirsasana. Day two, it’s the same. Day three, I was right in front of him, so gathered some courage and went up in Sirsasana. It was an unbelievable experience that I hold till now. I held the asana effortlessly for 10 minutes and may be even more had he not asked to come down. There was no perspiration as it was totally a breath work, no sweat and fear disappeared in few seconds I went up. I still remember that he started with Udyanic exhalations, calling to exhale further and further and further, flush out the abdomen completely and then inhalations and exhalations from different confinements. He asked to make the abdomen an ATC – Air Traffic Control and breathe from abdomen. Similarly making sacrum an ATC, Chest, back of the chest, sometimes shoulder blades, head the ATC, back of the head, front of the head, face, eyes etc. That was an amazing and unforgettable experience. My Sirsasana improved very well thereafter. Then in one of the classes, we did sirsasana multiple times after every asana. Like, we started with Sirsasana, Trikonasana then Sirsasana, Ardha Chandrasana and Sirsasana, Supta Padangustasana and Sirsasana etc. Every time, the Sirsasana was different.

I remember during Geetaji’s Yoganusasanam 2014, I was putting lot of effort and getting tired while doing the inversions. So tired that my leg muscles would leave the bones and hang loose after a while and breath becomes heavy.

Surprisingly in 2015 Yoganusasanam with Geetaji, I could participate without any perspiration, breathlessness or fear. In fact, I understood her instructions with more clarity than before. Such a difference Prashantji had brought in my practice in mere one month of his classes. In fact, I understood though Prashantji and Geetaji’s teachings appear distinct but in reality, it’s the same.

My first meeting with Prashantji:

After the conclusion of Geetaji’s teacher training program in July 2018 I met Prashant ji for seeking his permission to make a documentary film on Bellur. I never imagined that he is so approachable. He not only gave permission but gave his valuable suggestions on how to approach and what I can include in the video. His suggestions worked really well for me.

Then I met him for his interview in Bellur in September 2018 during a break of his workshop. He made me feel so comfortable that not even a single moment I was nervous. He answered all my relevant, non relevant questions with lot of patience and benevolence. Though I was allotted 10 minutes for the interview, it went on for over half an hour.

Later I met him during his 70th birthday to inform that the film is complete and we would like him to release the video and he agreed to release the same in coming August on the eve of Guruji’s punyatithi.

The highlights of 70th birthday Celebrations:

Apart from the heavy knowledge Prashant ji was pouring on us, there were some lighter moments and moments of fun as a sigh of relief by his students and family members in between.

 Yog Katta:

Yoga Katta - a parody of Prashant sir’s classes by some of his students generated some humour and thought. It’s a play based on the students meeting at a tea point after the class and discuss about his teachings. The programme was wonderfully executed by the students.

Sister’s exposing Prashantji’s mischiefs:

It was a delightful sight to see all sisters Vanita, Sunita, Suchita and Savita sitting on dais sharing their fond memories with Prashantji. They told how shy Prashantji was with women during his school days. He used to bunk the class and sit in a maid’s house till the class is over because the teacher was a woman. The Principal put him in class 3rd from class 1 on realising his problem with a female teacher.

They gone on to share his mischief with younger sisters, relatives and neighbours, his love for music, violin practice & performances, his inspiration from Yehudi Menuhin, his yoga practice behind the doors and his transformation as a yogi and his philosophies.

Abhijata’s interview with Prashantji:

Abhijata and Harith did their best to introduce the Prashant that many people don’t know. Abhijata on behalf of the students asked many questions related to Prashantji’s life that was not known to many. I would like to share a few that I remember and I will try to bring the abstract of their conversation not exactly but very close to what they have told and that I remember. So, please forgive if I go wrong anywhere.

Prashantji, you were very close to your mother Smt. Ramamani. How did you feel when she left you at an early age?

There were no tears in my eyes ever since I had grown up when someone dies in the family. Their time has come up and they have gone. There is no point in thinking they should have stayed for another 10 or 20 years and then die. One day everyone has to die, then why worry?

I heard it from your sisters; is it true that you had an aversion for yoga?

One incident was quite strong on my mind. When I was in school, Guruji used to give demonstrations and my schoolmates would tease me by saying that your father is a ‘street performer’. This I could not take it. At that young age, I felt bad and it stayed badly in my mind and then I felt that I should never get into it in my life. Lots of negative forces were working in me which was not the case with Geeta. So lots of negative forces working for me and that’s why I had aversion for yoga.

Then in my childhood, I started becoming plumpy as you can see me now. The infrastructure was there and my physical form was also an embarrassment for me. My first urdhva dhanurasana if I tell, you won’t believe. The distance between feet and hands is apparently the distance of Trikonasana legs. That was my case. So I could not identify any potential in me that I could pursue in this line. I was enormously stiff. Guruji was very wild with me; I could not even sit straight when I was playing violin. I was always like a punctured wheel when I sat. Guruji would never tolerate my sitting. I got so many spanks from him merely for my sitting not for my violin performance. My appreciation for my violin practice was surely eclipsed by my sitting posture.

So with this background, you started practicing asanas in 1968 and the legend is; your practice went on behind the closed doors. You started practicing in 1968 and by 1975 you did all the asanas of light on yoga. No one knows even Guruji what you were doing behind the doors till one day Guruji’s student C.L. Sanghvi accidentally saw you practice. He then told Guruji during a practice why don’t you call Prashant to practice. He said, No... no.. He is not interested and he can’t do all this. Then Sanghvi said I saw him practicing viparita chakrasana. Guruji then called him and said, hey Prashant! Can you do viparita chakrasana? This is how he came to know about your practice.

Prashantji, what happened behind those closed doors in Subhash Nagar house?

As I said, I did not had suitable body, flexibility etc. I, myself could not bear my physical form or physical abilities. So there is no question of making a display of such a condition of my body and such a condition of my posture. So it is out of shame, I kept my doors closed. I won’t say that I worked very very hard but some sort of inner motivation came up at that point of time. My samskars would have surfaced. And then off course, it was the grace; I got the pace. And now I conceive it was not just samskars but the grace. And I feel grace is the greatest force to take me this far.

Prashantji, at a very young age, when you were well established in yoga and we know how much you loved playing violin. You met with a terrible accident and how was it like for you when you are not able to hold the violin for rest of the life?

It didn’t matter much because I lost a mere limb of my body. Similarly it doesn’t matter I lost my hand to lift the violin. I merely lost the violin but the music is still in me. I haven’t done adhomukha svanasana after the accident but adhomukha svanasana is still in me. Music played an instrumental role in my yoga practice.

(After Prashantji’s rare footage of his asana practice and his class in 1990)

After those footages of your practice and yoga class, Prashantji can you tell us what transformed you to this now?

It was just spontaneous. Nothing planned as such. May be because of music my yoga practice transformed. Breath is an important instrument in classical yog. None of them realised the importance of breath. People saw the external body of Guruji and admired his broad chest and deflated abdomen in an asana but none of them realised what he was doing from inside.

That is it. I would like to conclude with Prashant sir’s message:

‘Thanks for your patience and thanks for bearing me’. Thank you!

Yoga Shopping