Yogacharya B.K.S Iyengar is a legend in modern yoga and his teachings have spread across the world. Iyengar yoga is among the most accessible forms of the practice and the acharya’s use and application of yoga props has made the Iyengar system universal in its approach. Italy-based David Meloni is a direct student of the late yoga master and shares what he learned from his Guru and why it is important to move your practice beyond its physical aspects.
Sophia: Tell us about your yoga journey and how you found this practice?
David: As a teenager, I started to practice yoga. It was a means to support and increase my physical and mental skills as a martial arts practitioner. Initially, my aim was just to find a yoga book. At the time, it was unclear what kind of book. My metric was to look for a “good” one.
After six months of research, and having gone through many books, I found “Light on Yoga” by B.K.S. Iyengar. The book had a very different quality. The presentation of the asanas were far beyond what was depicted physically. The “poses” were impressive, but there was a far deeper quality and vastness that was being conveyed. I knew then I had found what I had been looking for. My yoga journey officially started.
After another six months, while I worked diligently with “Light on Yoga” for hours a day, I came to the realisation the book was no longer enough. My routine in practice stoked my interest in the subject and my curiosity increased. My initial aim of practising yoga to support my martial arts naturally shifted beyond an elementary goal. My determination to better understand the material more deeply became apparent. I needed to find a teacher.
I was very happy when I came to find out that the “man in the book” was still alive and teaching in India. At that time, I was unable to fathom that I would one day be a direct student of B.K.S. Iyengar.
Eventually, through hard work, dedication and determination, I was assessed by Guruji and earned my “Advanced Junior Level II” certificate. After Guruji died, Geetaji assessed me. At the time, it was the last 2 levels in the Iyengar system, "Advanced Senior level I & II” levels*. These assessments reflected what I had learned and absorbed during the time I spent under Guruji’s direct tutelage.
(*The former, ”Advanced Senior level I & II” levels, are currently named Level 4 under the new structure of the Iyengar system.)
Sophia: What was it like to spend time with and learn yoga with Yogacharya BKS Iyengar?
David: Decades separated the publication of “Light on Yoga” and my first trip to Pune, India in 2003. That is when I met B.K.S. Iyengar. He was 85 years old. It was apparent how his continued practice had deepened his teachings and asanas alike.
I was ready and there to learn from him. The intensity and magnitude of learning from the Master was beyond what my dreams and imagination could ever be. This was an incredible opportunity to study with him. I made adjustments in my life to commit myself to study with him as much as possible to further my path in Yoga. I was fortunate. I was given the opportunity to study annually at the institute. (At that time, students could only go once every two years). It began with a month at a time. Then in 2008, I started to spend three consecutive months every year.
During a 2009 trip to Pune everything changed. B. K.S. Iyengar asked me to stay close to him. In that pivotal moment, he became my Guruji. This new proximity allowed me to observe how he practised and taught. This new arrangement also gave him access to my practice. He taught me much more intimately as he ascertained what I needed as a student.
As a true Yoga Master, a Guru, he was an extremely demanding teacher. His intensity was palpable. Having had the opportunity to learn from him closely, I had embarked on an intensely transformative experience.
I had the chance to get to know him. I felt the discipline that was emanating from him. I wasn’t merely inspired. Experiencing his discipline up close, generated a strong sense of motivation in me. So strong I was both moved and pulled further into the direction of practice. He challenged me in many ways: physically, mentally, and psychologically. He demanded and expected from me on all these levels. As he was someone that worked on himself, through his display of his Tapas (discipline), he taught me to develop my own discipline in a way that I could go beyond my ego.
I consider myself to have been extremely lucky. I had an exceptional, living guide in B.K.S. Iyengar. I progressed from years of working arduously and closely to the Master.
I was inspired in many ways. First, by what he had taught. Second, as he had asked me to be close to him, I observed he was an actual living testimony in what he taught. Guruji lived his Yoga. It wasn’t just espousing words. To follow the steps of Yoga is in itself a natural transformation. The rest was my responsibility.
If one is not familiar with Iyengar Yoga, it would appear that B.K.S. Iyengar only taught yoga technically. There was a richness in how he taught that spanned beyond the physical. One can transform their mental attitude, condition and learn to work through resistance, and become resilient in how to face their practice. It is far beyond the technicalities of the poses. In short, he cultivated in us the right attitude in how one should proceed successfully on the Yogic path.
Having studied closely with him was a transformative process in itself. His presence and his words would sometimes go beyond what I could, in those moments, understand. Because he saw my potential, he was demanding and had expected so much of me. He kept pushing me.
At times, it was hard to understand his demands. Fortunately, I felt from the very beginning he was teaching me something beyond the physical asanas. The first time I saw him in “Light On Yoga,” I sensed the technical aspects of asana was a gateway to access the deeper aspects of ourselves.
As a master, he didn’t give compliments easily. However, one could understand from his gaze and body language when one was able to attain, through their embodiment, an understanding of what he taught. Whenever I would catch those moments, I felt encouraged. I persevered on my path.
Unknown to me at the time, it seemed Guruji perceived my potential. He saw the dedication I had to the practice and what it could bring. When he saw I was able to perform the outer frame of the asanas he wasn’t satisfied. He insisted that was just the surface. He challenged me. He demanded more of me.
He taught, guided and prepared me in a particular manner. It appeared that he entrusted me to transmit his teachings - as I understood them. I appreciate how fortunate I was. When Guruji passed on, I recognised how being a direct student of his brought certain responsibilities. What he taught me and what I gleaned from him was invaluable. It was beyond the sharing of information. It was beyond asana, pranayama and philosophy.
The need to transmit his teachings in a way that embodies the essence of what he was trying to share became evident. My genuine and sincere hope, as well as my duty to him, is to transmit Guruji’s teachings without diluting the essence of what he was trying to teach us.
Sophia: You teach in Italy and conduct international courses and retreats. What is it like teaching yoga in the West?
David: Based on the information available, most people, even yoga students, don’t clearly know what yoga really is. Yoga is far more than exercise, movement, and relaxation; and these are all fine and good. Compared to what yoga is, these are superficially oriented.
At first, I was no exception. Eventually, I came to understand how yoga is far greater than strength and flexibility. Guruji guided me to experience the deeper depths of Yoga. It is my hope to share that with students. As long as we apply ourselves, we all can reach our potential.
Sophia: How do props (which the Iyengar system is known for) affect asana practice?
David: Using Guruji’s words, “my method is based on actions.”
Actions as a connection of micro movements that build up the visible positions of the limbs in space. This creates the condition of alignment, extension, expansion, space, and integration between and amongst the different parts of the body.
This well-known quote by Guruji sums up this concept. “Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action.” Consequently, props then become secondary to the actions. Props were invented by Guruji to help students that couldn’t manage to access the actions when they practised poses. The props aided the students to reach the actions or the chain of actions as detailed above.
Everything is a prop of something. Props are not just bricks, belts, bolsters, and chairs. The prop is the support for the Asana. Asana is the support for the body. The body is the support for the soul. In meditation, we need a “prop” for the mind. For example, when we focus on an image or sound, they can be a support during meditation. This is further illuminated by sutra I.39. “Or, by meditating on any desired object conducive to steadiness of consciousness.” As seen in Guruji’s book, “Light On the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” by B.K.S. Iyengar.
Early on, when Guruji adjusted people, he was a “living” prop for the students. He would use his body to support them or give a sense of awareness to the dull parts of their body. To be able to provide “support” to many students at a given time he invented props in the form of bricks, belts, blankets, tresslers, rope wall, etc.
When we practice with tangible props, it depends greatly on how the set up is placed and/or used. It can give access in a superficial way to increase the ability to assume the yoga pose. Or, the set up can be placed in a particular manner to help to increase the awareness in a particular anatomical area. Otherwise, a lack of sensitivity resides and the area stays in darkness. By bringing increased sensitivity, like shining a light to the area, the skill of the practitioner to access the “actions” deepens. Then the actions become the access points.
When practising without props (free body) there can be affects beyond the physicality of physical boundaries.
The use of props, as support, is to create better awareness and to increase the capability to control or bring awareness to a particular part of the body, breath or mind. This will give multiple gates of access; from the surface of the body to the inner layers, till it reaches our soul. Yoga Asana is not just for the sake of increasing strength and flexibility. Otherwise it would be called contortionism or gymnastics - not Yoga. So the point is not to practice until it comes. The real effects of Yoga can also be attained by understanding and knowing how to use the support of props properly.
Let’s consider the last part of his life when Guruji was over 90 years old. His body couldn’t face the asana without support. The props helped him to create the frame of the asanas and reach the maximum potential of the Asanas. When he practised, one could not distinguish if his body was young or old. The quality of sattvic energy was vibrating from him and was palpable to anyone that passed by in the practice hall. He was like a black hole attracting everything around them.
Sophia: What is your relationship with India?
David: For many years, I spent 1/4 of the year in India. As I spent more time in India the culture became more and more familiar. As time went on, I was invited to teach in many places around the globe. The richness of India and its culture became a part of an international fabric that I was getting to know. I enjoy the blending of all cultures. However, I like to consider India like a second home.
Sophia: What is your advice to young yoga students in the West who want to learn and teach yoga in the future?
David: Yoga is a serious matter. It is not for fun. More specifically, one needs to go beyond the fun. Go beyond what you find boring - your likes and dislikes. If you choose so, yoga is a discipline that has the ability to bring you onto your inner journey. In Iyengar Yoga, the body is the access point. We start by observing the more tangible parts of us.
As far as teaching, don’t be in a rush. First, you need to learn before you teach. In other words, be a student first.
Nowadays, there is too much of a rush to teach. It is important to keep the curiosity of a beginner - even when you are teaching. The matter of study is infinite. Teaching is NOT sharing information. The information has to be assimilated by the teacher before we attempt to transmit it to others. Then, the teaching is alive. Otherwise it just stagnates, repeating dry words.
In asanas, the body of the teacher has to clearly transmit in which way the body should move. Using verbal instruction as a prop, the teacher’s body needs to emanate the qualities of Yoga. The body should take on the ideal shape of the asana: like a diamond embedded into the setting of a ring.
First, choose the right guide for your journey. Be close to the guide. Then you can start to really understand this vast and deep subject of Yoga. This is not measured by years of practice or number of classes or courses taken with this or that teacher. A lot of discipline is required to learn deeply. It comes down to how we apply ourselves; the quality of our focus.
Sophia: Has your practice and teaching been influenced by any other yoga masters besides Yogacharya BKS Iyengar?
David: Studying directly under Guruji’s guidance has given me the biggest impact. His daughter (Geeta) and son (Prashant) were very influential as well. I always felt them as branches stemming from Guruji. Geetaji excelled in asana and pranayama didactics and Prashantji is adept in matters of philosophy. Guruji was the root and the trunk. Geetaji and Prashantji were the branches of that tree. In the end, they are the same tree.
Once I felt the depth of how the Iyengars taught, I easily recognised that I needed a long time to be able to assimilate what they had to offer. I always knew that the understanding can be broadened only by going deep in one direction. Not by jumping from one to the other. Otherwise, I would be scratching the surface of Yoga – an immense subject.
Sophia: What are your favourite books on yoga and spirituality?
David: The Yoga sutras of Patanjali and other philosophical Yoga texts by various classical commentators. Books written by Guruji, Geetaji, and Prashantji.
Sophia: How has practising yoga changed you as a person and affected your life?
David: Completely. It happened in stages. Yoga carries one forward as one applies themselves. Starting from a young age my interest in the practice of yoga was to use it as an instrument; to learn to better navigate my body, mind, and emotions. Asana practice was never really the point. Then I wanted to progress in asana. But still, the outer frame only.
When I started to teach, I was no longer just a student. It became apparent I needed to encompass all aspects of Yoga practice. I considered each of the following a world unto themselves. I worked diligently in each area. 1) I was just doing the poses (which is the outer frame only. Poses become Asanas when the qualities of Yoga are experienced. I had to learn how to work with and teach the actions first. 2) It was essential to learn how to use and work with the different props. 3) I learned how to instruct: verbally, adjust manually, convey didactics. 4) Prime and prepare students for the subtle and profound characteristics of restorative poses, and 7) conduct therapeutics.
Once there is integration and deep understanding in all these areas, they naturally blend into each other. However… all these still fall under the realm of bio-mechanics and the real experience and effects of Yoga can still be absent.
I learned to go beyond the bio-mechanics by observing Guruji’s practice in close proximity. I could see how he integrated his breath. By having observed his practice closely and using it as a guide, I too integrated the breath. I was able to go deeper in my Pranayama practice where I was able to touch an expansive quality of stillness. I also applied this subtle quality of the breath (long, smooth and deep inhalations and exhalations), into my asana practice as well. From there, I felt the deepening and transformative quality of integrating the “biomechanical” aspects of asana with the breath to bring more fullness into my practice.
As philosophy became Guruji’s guide at one point, I turned to philosophy to see how it would benefit my practice. The Yoga Sutras and other classical yogic texts became my textbook. They taught me how to go beyond the physical outer frame of poses. Studying earnestly, I began to understand the sutras to be beyond words on a page. It illuminated a more comprehensive path that could be embodied and could have significant physical and mental impact. Once integrated, not only does our practice begin to transform, but our very life.
When I began to go deeper in the process of Yoga, the Yoga process began working on me. It was beyond the number of raw hours spent on the mat. It was far beyond that. It was about how I applied my efforts on and off the mat. How to connect and move deeper inward; closer to the source. Simultaneously, refine what is being perceived; allowing clarity in perception, to be more expansive and limitless.
This all gave me the chance to face the obstacles and problems of life with a different perspective. Oftentimes, the troubles we face in life can bring a lot of stress. The support of my yoga practice changed how I meet life and its inherent obstacles.
After years of learning from him closely, I thought my learning was finished when he passed away. Instead, I realised, through my unwavering practice, I was still learning from him.
I continued to digest the work I did with him when he was alive. The storehouse of memories that has accumulated in my mind, body, cells, and inner being are continually being assimilated and digested. Insights are carried to the surface by fusing and consolidating the actions in the Asanas, tapping into the power of the breath, and application and integration of philosophy.
As Guruji continues to teach me and ushers me along this Yogic journey, I practice and teach through insights. These insights are produced from my years of direct and strict guidance with the Yoga Master, B.K.S. Iyengar….Guruji.
My devotion and dedication to him is paramount. He has given me so much. It is my humble duty to transmit the essence of his teachings. I endeavour to share wholeheartedly what I have learned from Guruji.
Please visit davidmeloniyoga.com to learn more.