Geeta Iyengar: an interview with Rajvi Mehta part 1

Do you recollect when and how you were firstintroduced to yoga?

I really don’t remember how I was first introduced to yoga. From the age of three, I used to watch my father and would playfully follow him. I was not very sincere but like any child I would follow my parents. They would not teach me but my father used to make us play when he was practising. If you watch Guruji’s 1938 practice film, you will see how Guruji’s Guru, T Krishnamacharya, made his two daughters do back arches and other postures on his feet. Similarly, Guruji also used to make us do on his feet. He would be in Sarvangasana and make us do back arches, front bending and what not. When he did Urdhva Prasarita Padasana, we would be on his feet, curve back and come back on his hands. So we were all doing ‘yoga’ playfully and fearlessly. I started practising sincerely and consciously only after my bout of nephritis. I was very sick after the attack of nephritis and felt very weak. I understood what an illness is. My body could not bear this sickness.
Then one fine day I found that I felt better if I did asanas. I felt life within myself. The sinking mind got uplifted. So after that day, I started practising regularly after returning from school without waiting for even a cup of tea or coffee. Like any other child, I knew that I would want to eat something if I waited in the kitchen, therefore I used to go for practice directly. I would practise for 40 or 45 minutes. Guruji’s album was my reference book. I would look at the pictures and without knowing what the asana was, why and how to do it. I did in whichever manner by body bent and finished my practice. I never knew anything about a methodical approach or sequencing. That is how I started. Ignorance was a blessing. 

Geetaji, can you share some of your early experiences after Guruji actually started teaching you?

 I remember the first time Guruji taught me was somewhere in 1957 – two years after I started practising on my own. One Sunday evening after returning from Bombay, Guruji was doing Sirsasana and
Sarvangasana; I too was practicing at that time. And he pointed out to me in the variations of Sarvangasana – Parsva Pindasana – what is meant by stretch. My body was flexible and would bend easily since I was young but I never knew what was to be done from inside. My knees used to touch the floor easily in Parsva Pindasana. But when Guruji asked me to raise my spine up, that was the first time I realized what the stretch, lift and lightness could be. And that gave me a clue. Another incident I remember is while I was doing Kurmasana. I was very thin like you and did the pose very easily. My body including my feet got lifted up when I did Kurmasana and that day I realised what is lightness – anga laghava – what Guruji often talked about. I then realised that lightness can be brought after practising in this manner. I felt as if all the knots in my body got unknotted. Earlier to that in 1955, Guruji used to teach the cadets of the National Defence Academy. I used to go there sometimes in the holidays. One day, the hall was not available and he had to conduct the class on the lawn outside the main building. One of the cadets raised a question on Urdhva Dhanurasana so Guruji asked me to show it. I do not know how I managed to do it on the grass on that day. How I curved back and dropped on the grass and got up! I learnt that on the spot. I would say that just Guruji’s own sadhana, his regular practice, his way of living, way of conducting the classes, all such were a kind of indirect teaching. I learnt a lot such as courage, simplicity, strength for working, emotional stability, steadfastness and so on and so forth.

What was it like to have a father as a teacher, especially in the early days?

 Was he harder on you than the other students? Or were his expectations greater from you than the other students?

I do not know how he was with the other students. I only knew that he was a very strict teacher and with me he was definitely hard. I remember that he would push me on the spine or the back if I could not get some thing but it did help me to move my body, and it opened up the mind. You know how children do the asanas. They do not know where they hold themselves, be it the shoulders or the back. Guruji would press and make me move those areas. That made me understand better. He also used to appreciate me whenever I did well especially when I practised more seriously after my nephritis. He watched me for nearly a month and saw that I was practising regularly after returning from school. My mother also told him that I was very regular and did not have coffee or snacks until after my practice was over. He did appreciate that I was at least picking up something. He was strong like he was with any other student when he started helping me directly. Whatever had to open, had to open. Whatever had to get fixed, had to get fixed. I enjoyed it. I realised that when he hit me, it opened up the area. I could feel that area and realised how the practice has to be effective. His hit or touch was exact. I had enough intelligence to know that. In fact, I would not call it a ‘hit’ but rather a strong touch – very exact and to the point. I knew the difference immediately. That is helping me now when I teach. I immediately go to and touch that area, those areas, where a person gets caught. What Guruji often says is that the body also has its own fear and it holds you back. It does not allow you to progress. This happens to everyone and I can see that now when I am helping others. Guruji was not strict only with me; the method of teaching that he applied to others, he applied to me too. It was fine and definitely helped me. For asanas like Kapotasana, Vrishchikasana and other back bends – I used to get a touch from him only once in a while, not every day. For that he had to be free and I had to be practising at that time. It was not that he was waiting and said, “Geeta come – now I will teach you.” He would teach me when some tuition was cancelled and he was at home. I still remember the class that he taught us in 1961 when Sri Krishnamacharya was here with his son Sribhashyam. We had to give a lot of demonstrations, when Sri Krishnamacharya gave a series of lectures, and we were practising for that demonstration. We did lots of asanas but we did not have much understanding. There was no life in our practice. That day Guruji watched and explained everything to us in detail. How the armpits should be. How the elbows should be. “Now lift here a little more and see how it feels; see what the…