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It Is A Classic, But Is It Classical?

There is no denying that Light On Yoga, authored by BKS Iyengar, is a classic. First published in 1966, nearly 50 years ago, it contains a detailed account of the various ‘limbs’ of yoga, and instructions of how to do more than 200 postures. Of even more value are the photographs of Mr Iyengar expertly presenting each one of these postures often in various stages leading towards the final asana, and photographed from various angles. These photographs adorn the walls of the Iyengar Institute in Pune, and are often used in classes to show how the final asana should be presented. It was considered ground breaking at the time, and even to this day is considered the ultimate reference book on asana practice.

When it comes to presenting the asana in its traditional or classical form, however, there seem to be anomolies. It is thought that classical Hatha Yoga is described primarily in three Hindu texts: the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Siva Samhita, and the Gheranda Samhita, all written between the 15th and 17th century CE. If you take a number of poses from these texts and compare them to the version presented in Light On Yoga, there are often marked differences. Take, for example, the pose gomukhasana, or ‘cow face’ pose. Read the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the simple instruction is given: ‘Place the right foot next to the left buttock and the left foot next to the right buttock’ HYP(20). In Light On Yoga, however, BKS Iyengar instructs the practitioner to sit on the foot of the bottom leg. Moreover ‘raise the buttocks and with the help of the hands bring the ankles and the back of the heels together till they touch each other’ LOY (Part II.37.3). Furthermore there is no instruction for the arms in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, whereas in Light On Yoga the arms are configured into the shape of the ears of the cow face.

Apart from these variations the majority of poses presented in Light On Yoga have no documentation in any of the classical texts. Indeed, there exists a documented interview with Geeta Iyengar where she reveals that one particular pose, parsva kukktasana, was made up by Guruji at the photo shoot for urdhva kukktasana. He performed it on the spur of the moment and up until that moment Geeta had never seen it presented before. The pose parvritta ardha chandrasana, which does not appear in Light On Yoga, was apparently invented by Guruji in the early 1980’s when he was working on a trestler trying to figure out how to remove a persistent catch in his back.

In his thesis, The Yoga Tradition Of The Mysore Palace, N.E Sjoman distinguishes between two types of tradition: lineal and dynamic tradition. The former is a tradition that is static and based on maintaining the status quo. It is inert. Dynamic tradition, on the other hand, displays an openness to change and adaptation as a response to changing environment and aspirations. In this way we can clearly see Iyengar’s most famous authored work, and indeed his entire life work, follows a dynamic tradition of Hatha Yoga. It follows then that Light On Yoga is both a classic and classical.