Last Sunday in Mysore, I had the great fortune of being near someone I admire immensely: Mr. BKS Iyengar. The incredibly dynamic 94 year-old, who has shared the science of yoga through 6 continents, was the guest of honor at an event outside the Mysore Palace. The program, which was attended by a couple hundred Indians, was in celebration of the upcoming Dasara festival and a precursor to 2 days of teaching Mr. Iyengar was leading. It also happened to be October 2nd, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi.
Upon his arrival, Mr. Iyengar was greeted by a swarm of admirers and press. It was amazing to see in person the small man who has created such an intelligent, alignment-based approach to yogasana. Likewise, it was such an honor to be around this scholar of yogic philosophy. His teachings, which until this point, I’d solely grasped through his writing and the instruction of his students, have certainly transformed my practice on and the off the mat.
We welcomed Iyengar-ji with chanting and a few rounds of surya namaskar. After this, he rose to speak. While his discourse was primarily in Kannada (the language of Karnataka, which I know a little of), he interwove poignant statements in English throughout. His indefatigable passion and zeal seemed so timeless that I consistently had to remind myself that he’s witnessed almost a century of life. I admit my eyes watered up slightly with gratitude as I stood there, 10 feet away with Megha, the wonderful 16 year-old from Deenabandhu who I sponsor. (She maintains a regular yoga practice.)
Mr. BKS Iyengar’s speech, which touched upon the yama and niyama of the Yoga Sutras as well as his life-experience and relation to Mysore, where he began his study of yoga at age 15, was followed by words and demonstrations from other guests. The press became sidetracked during the yoga presentation of the kind American Swami of the Govindan Satchidananda ashram in Los Angeles, CA, however, by a small group of blind children practicing their yoga routine in front of the stage.
Earlier, I had noticed the partially and fully blind children sitting quietly onstage. Initially, I was moved that they were being provided the great therapy of yoga and excited to watch their performance. When I began to witness the extreme postures being asked of them, however, I grew incensed. The press eagerly flocked to the front row, where the children, under the strict command of their yoga coach, forced their small and undernourished bodies into radical back-bending postures like full locust and scorpion over and over again.
The poor children complied, their breathing erratic and discomfort too evident on their faces. One small girl, who I photographed in a full shallabasana variation, was crying in pain at one point. Megha and I quickly felt guilt witnessing all this. It was not yoga, but a cruel circus show of involuntary contortionists. I can only imagine that these poor children, already impaired by blindness, will be further debilitated if such irrational practice continues.
The press grew disinterested in the blind children when a group of 4 much healthier looking girls took the stage. They maneuvered their bodies in and out of extremely advanced postures with such ease, their content expressions unflinching. Their act was trailed by a large group of young adults who performed an incredible array of asana and even shatkarma (Hatha yoga cleansing techniques), such as dandha dhauti.
Finally, the small blind children went up for their demo. While I greatly commend their courage and perseverance, it was still tragic to watch. Mr. Iyengar looked on from a few feet behind, his expression suggesting he, too, disapproved. Afterward, as the children and their coach rushed to touch his feet, Mr. Iyengar insisted on visiting their school to lead a yoga lesson. I can only hope he has been able to do this and protect these poor children from this abuse of “yoga” and free them from their ringleader.
Sophie Herbert is an alignment focused yoga teacher (and perpetual student), a singer-songwriter, and a visual artist. She has lived, studied, and volunteered extensively in India; teaches yoga in Brooklyn and Manhattan; and recently released her first full-length album, "Take a Clear Look." Please visit her website at SophieHerbert.com.