B.K.S. Iyengar requires no introduction to readers of yoga, particularly in the West. Iyengar is synonymous with yoga, hatha yoga. He is the most well-known hatha master. Light on Yoga, first published in 1966, is one of the timeless classics in asanas.
Readers and yogis today may find it hard to believe that in the 1960s, Indians for the most part did not know yoga. The West was beginning to discover hatha yoga, which in India was considered to be like a circus act performed on streets. Western concepts of yoga were not much different. Readers asked Iyengar, "whether I can drink acid, chew glass, walk through fire, make myself invisible or perform magical acts." One of my teachers would tell us that his family called him yogi-bogey and he was not even a hatha yogi. This is the backdrop for the writing of the book.
Now there are classes everywhere, swamis abound on TV and in cities across the country, schools have yoga curriculums, and even the Indian army learns yoga. Westernized brands of hatha yoga have become cool in large metropolitan areas where Indians are championing "imported yoga."
Reading this book will make traditionalists realize that what goes under the Iyengar name is not always what he teaches. Anyone who wants to know more about Iyengar yoga would do well to read what Iyengar himself writes instead of getting his work interpreted, second or third hand.
The purpose of the book is to "describe as simply as possible the asanas (posture) and pranayamas (breathing disciplines) in the new light of our own era, its knowledge and requirements." The book does not give detailed instructions of specific techniques for pratyahara (sense withdrawal) and dharana (focus/concentration) and so it is a hatha book. However, it is not a commentary on Swatmarama's Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the most important and the oldest manual on hatha yoga. (See the review of Hatha Yoga Pradipika.)
There are highly detailed instructions and benefits for 200 asanas. No limitations are given as in Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha. The book is an excellent resource for asanas and pranayamas given in great detail. For pranayamas, the author does give cautions and limitations about the various practices that are very important. The three bandhas are described with their significance. Iyengar includes two appendices. The first one is a 300 week-structured course for an intense practice. The second is an index of asanas and pranayamas for therapeutic purposes. Iyengar yoga is challenging.
The obvious question that arises most commonly is: How is this any different from gymnastics, athletics, dance, acrobatics? Iyengar makes this point, which is arguable, that people in these endeavors "lack control over the mind, the intellect, and the Self." Many of these people, in fact, exhibit enormous control over the mind and intellect. So the answer lies in the sampling of the several meanings of yoga that Iyengar gives in the Introduction.
What makes these asanas yoga is the spiritual philosophy in which they are grounded. A note of interest is that Iyengar's first meaning of yoga is from the Bhagavad Gita, "It is the true union of our will with the will of God."
Some of the other meanings of yoga cited are:
- a deliverance from contact with pain and pleasure (Gita)
- means by which the individual human spirit can be united with the Supreme Universal Spirit (Gita)
- equipoise in life through success and failure (Gita)
- steady control of senses and mind (Kathopanishad)
- restraint of mental modifications (Patanjali's Yoga Sutras)
We notice that there is no definition cited from a hatha text. In Hatha Yoga Pradipika there is no definition of yoga or of asana as there is in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Hatha Yoga Pradipika was written after the Yoga Sutras. We know from the descriptions and inference that a hatha yoga asana has a different meaning from that of the Yoga Sutra asana, commonly associated with raja yoga and meditation. (See What is Asana?) Iyengar states in passing that hatha means "forceful" or determined effort.
How is this yoga achieved? The book explains the means of achievement as expounded by Patanjali. It is a brief but comprehensive explanation. The grounding in philosophy is solid. Yoga is not a mat practice but a way of living, thinking, behaving.
The underlying tension between those who distinguish themselves as hatha yogis or raja yogis comes through. It is true though that for most of us, training and disciplining the mind is impossible. It is like disciplining the wind! The way to the mind lies through the body and asanas. Just as we learn to crawl, sit, walk, and then run, the body must be made flexible, strong, balanced, and coordinated. This reigns in the senses which start reigning in the mind, leading to spontaneous sense withdrawal and focus.
Iyengar does note other paths by which a "man travels" such as karma yoga (selfless work), bhakti yoga (intense devotion and faith), and jnana yoga (path of wisdom and knowledge).
Even in 1966, it was deemed necessary to state, "Yoga is not a religion by itself. It is the science of religions, the study by which will enable a sadhak [practitioner] the better to appreciate his own faith."
To end in the words of the author, "As a well cut diamond has many facets, each reflecting a different color of light, so does the word yoga, each facet reflecting a different shade of meaning and revealing different aspects of the entire range of human endeavor to win inner peace and happiness."
A reading of the review on Hatha Yoga Pradipika is recommended in conjunction with this review. They complement each other.