21 May, 1984 was a momentous occasion in the history of Iyengar yoga and for the Iyengar Yoga studios in Maida Vale. BKS Iyengar gave a talk and demonstration before an audience of 2,000 at the Barbican Centre in London. He talked about Patanjali and the eight limbs of yoga and he gave a demonstration of pranayama and asanas. The occasion also included a performance by some of his close students that had been rehearsed at Maida Vale. Guruji generously donated the entire income from the evening to the Maida Vale building fund.
One of his students who took part was our Senior teacher, Penny Chaplin. Here she remembers this special evening.
Could you tell us something about this occasion? In Yoga Mala Astadala 7 Guruji said that he had had a motorbike accident where he hurt his knee and back not long before the Barbican demonstration. Some sources even said that there was a possibility of the performances being cancelled. Did you notice anything in his practice during his demonstration? Those of us in the audience certainly did not notice anything
No, we were not told and, as far as I remember, he was the same brilliant teacher as ever and a great performer. He did not say anything to us. We all had aches and pains from our own practice for the rehearsals. But there was no sign of him being in pain.
Did you see him before the performance?
Oh, yes! We were standing on the side of the stage, left or right, according to where we would walk on stage. First, he gave a talk about Patanjali and the yamas and niyamas. Our demonstration included a lot of balancings. It often looked like a lotus flower as we grouped together. After our demonstration we were very hot from the lights and the asanas and we went to the back of the stage and watched while Guruji did a demonstration of pranayama. We sat either in swastikasana, baddha konasana or padmasasana. If necessary, we changed our legs, but very discreetly. We wore thin leotards and the air conditioning was blowing onto our backs. We were absolutely frozen. He gave a demonstration of the pranayama. His exhalations and inhalations were very near the microphone and the sound went on and on…. There was no strain in his body or an outward sign of effort. What I remember very clearly was how cold it was and I was shivering. I whispered to the person next to me, Victor van Kooten from Holland, “Victor, I am so cold, I am frozen, my legs will never straighten again!” I had to do hanumanasana later. Victor replied: “Don’t worry, Penny, you will do it, he is there.”
Who choreographed it?
Guruji. We didn’t have much time so we practised at Maida Vale and then went to the Barbican for the dress rehearsal. It was a big group to be choreographed. We had to do the poses flowingly and more or less synchronized. It was quite hard to get us all coordinated!
Guruji devised the sequence and formation. He explained to us that when you are doing such a demonstration, you are not a yogi but a performer. He gave us little tips, especially for balancing poses, as they are difficult when you are nervous (as you can see in the photos, he got me to press my heel very strongly into the top of the thigh so that it wouldn’t slip on the shiny material). It was nerve-racking, but he had been here teaching us for the month of May and we were so disciplined in our regular classes with him.
Were you nervous?
Yes! Being a performer is not natural to me. I did it for Guruji. If anyone else had asked me, I would not have done it. He was the only person I would do demonstrations for.
Was there anything that happened during the demo, perhaps something that went wrong?
No, I don’t think anything went wrong. There may have been a person who lost their balance, but it was not obvious to the audience.
Was there anyone who impressed you?
It was Guruji and especially his pranayama. As he had not taught us much pranayama in the beginning, seeing him doing these long inhalations and exhalations was amazing. For someone like me who is asthmatic, I never thought that anyone could take an inhalation for 2 minutes. This is what he did in the performance. It was such a very subtle movement in his lungs and ribcage. It looked effortless and was absolutely beautiful. He made this long sound as he was standing close to the microphone. It was so peaceful.
It was after then that we started to do more pranayama. At the beginning he said that it was “like trying to catch the wind in your hands.” Later he said it’s a very difficult subject, more difficult than asanas, and should be treated with respect.
This is a bit strange, but I always wondered about the leotards. They did not look very comfortable and they were two colours, red and turquoise.
Yes, I hated it. I was in red. I remember putting it on and thinking this is hideous and you could see through it. It was shiny and slippery. I think we wore red or turquoise according to where we stood during the performance.
Did you do anything after the performance?
No, I was really tired and exhausted after all the nerves with our performance and also sitting and watching for such a long time.
Did he say anything after the demonstration to you or the others? He is not known for praising, but did you get some feedback?
There were people standing outside waiting to see him so most of us disappeared to get some rest. We just scattered off. I really wanted to get home and rest.
The money they collected for the performance was around £9000.
Yes, it was a lot of money for then and Guruji gave all the money to fund the new studios at Maida Vale. He did not even want to take money for his expenses, flight and accommodation.
Guruji was a very simple man. He never expected favours. When he visited here, he never stayed in a hotel, but in private homes. It was often his choice to go on public transport. He liked to go on the tube. He never expected a reward. When we acquired the Institute building, we bought him a bed and a cupboard at Maida Vale and this is where he stayed. He was the perfect guest, always grateful and good fun. He said that the Institute was his home in London.