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Close Encounters with a Yoga Master

by Ruth White(more info)

listed in back pain, originally published in issue 90 - July 2003

I was 24 years old and booked into a ward to have a plaster cast on my back to immobilize the back and one leg for three months.

"This is the only way we can correct the back", said the specialist after an X-ray had shown a fracture in my lumbar spine. I had been an active body at school, loving gymnastics and athletics but – according later to BKS Iyengar – working to my detriment.

I'd suffered from backache since I was 17 and had been put into a surgical supporting belt which did not seem to help much – I must have been in-between sizes and the only available sizes were small, medium and large. I remember it was a khaki colour and I did not have much affinity with it.

I believed most people had backaches and I would have to learn to put up with it. I would lie down on the back seat of a car if travelling long distances. I found it impossible to sit through the length of a feature film or when a minister said "Let us pray", I could not actually bow my head. I put up with it until one morning I couldn't even get out of bed.

A friend of mine – a black-belt Judo instructor – whose opinion I valued, suggested I get a second opinion and took me along to my first ever yoga class given by Diana Clifton in Hammersmith. She was one of three women who were BKS Iyengar's first students in England. The class was dynamic. Here were stretches and challenges given in such a precise way I knew I wanted to explore a lot more.

"Try this for three weeks," said Diana, "and if the pain doesn't get any better, give up!"

It was indeed painful. My body felt damp with perspiration most of the time and was not a very healthy colour. Slowly the pain lessened – it was still there all the time but not as intense. Then Diana told me something that would change my life, and my back, forever:

"BKS Iyengar is coming in four weeks and I want you to see him."

In retrospect I realize now how privileged I was to work in a group of just 12 people with Mr Iyengar encouraging, insisting, smacking and teasing: "work the legs, tilt the pelvic girdle, lift the top chest" and on and on, sometimes in three to four hour classes. Slowly, I was beginning to learn his language. The body was waking up with remarks such as "dull mind, slow body!" and lots of other similar encouragements!

At that time I was still a student and attended every class I possibly could when Mr Iyengar visited each year for just three weeks. His popularity increased so quickly that rationing became essential, so I watched when there was no space to participate. On one occasion, he turned to me as I was busy scribbling down notes and shouted, "You want to be clever later! Help me now!" After the first year his parting shot was "Halasana with support", said with such fire and compassion I did it every single day until I saw him the following year.

My back became stronger. Through this great teacher I have learned how to keep my back free from pain.

He taught me through three pregnancies and shown me the delights of being able to move the unaccustomed bump in a way that gives mother and unborn child a feeling of freedom and space. During pregnancy, most of the asanas are possible, as long as one does not compress or twist the abdominal area.

Having a body which does not always run smoothly has given me a wonderful opportunity to learn how the asanas work: what effects the asanas have on kidney infections; how the stretching of the sciatic nerve relieves sciatica; how to soothe the nervous system in stress; how to work with spondylolisthesis enabling students to invert; how to work the feet with dropped metatarsal arches and last, but not least, how to lift the heart.


  1. N K Srinivasan said..

    A great article---nice to hear about Diana Clifton, one the early "Iyengar Yoga" teachers in London and CA.. I am an Iyengar fan and also hail from Iyengar sect in India. I watched T Krishnamacharya teach yoga in Chennai, India but did not become a student...I learned yoga from my father's nephew in India..I regret that I did not have the opportunity to learn from these masters....Teach yoga to others whatever your age. I am in my seventies and practice regularly.

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About Ruth White

Ruth White is an established yoga teacher, who was taught by BKS Iyengar. She has two centres for Yoga, one at Fetcham, Leatherhead and the other at Cheem, Surrey. She has produced an entire range of Yoga Videos and DVDs useful for everybody's needs or abilities. Ruth conducts Teacher Training Certificated Courses and Workshops throughout the UK. She can be reached on Tel: 020-8641 7770;;

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