January Interview with James Murphy

The first in a year-long series of celebrations of the centenary of the birth of B.K.S. Iyengar took place Dec. 17-22 in Pune, when thousands of practitioners gathered for an intensive taught by Guruji’s son, Prashant S. Iyengar.

Senior Teacher James Murphy shares his observations from the experience. Look for more interviews on the Intensive from other Members of our community in upcoming emails.

Richard Jonas: This was historic: Prashant never taught an intensive before.

James Murphy: Prashant was always reluctant to teach “intensives” because by definition they’re short-lived. It’s too much information compressed into too short a time. He feels extensives should be taught instead, unfolding the subject over a long period. He didn’t even call these classes; they were sessions designed to open up the subject.

Looking at it another way, some people only came to India for intensives. But Prashant lived at the Institute so he had a more extensive experience of Guruji’s teachings and of yoga.

RJ: Prashant encouraged questions. Even that’s a departure.

JM: After every session, he would ask if there were questions. He answered them in a way that wasn’t complex, with clear direction and simple information.

There was a twinkle in his eye, a lightness and humor. It was uplifting, and you never thought a question was wrong or that you didn’t understand something. He opened up the dialog.

He told us: In a formal situation there are certain protocols, ways you have to behave. But how do you dress, how do you behave in your room when no one’s watching?

That’s who you really are. You have to be that comfortable to take in information. He wanted us to be relaxed and neutral to start the learning.

That was the tone: It was about being a student, about learning, rather than being a teacher and trying to record everything that was said. Let the teaching be digested, he told us. Let it be in you, then let it come out of you in your own voice instead of just parroting what you’ve heard.

RJ: I remember Prashant saying we should cultivate our “studentship,” not just gather points and notes to take home.

JM: Prashant said some people thought Guruji was just teaching points about the poses. They picked up on the points Guruji gave, but missed out on some more important information, Prashant said. Because we asked questions about physical things, those were the answers Guruji gave us.

Prashant is definitely changing history, the way things are perceived, in a very positive way.

He told us not to get stuck in our habits. We have to break our habits so we can look at ourselves in ways we wouldn’t think of otherwise.

Prashant is taking us to new places to help us understand ourselves. If being on a spiritual path is to seek the truth, he’s teaching us to go in and find the truth about ourselves.

Prashant would say, Do a pose, and when you do it on the second side, don’t say you’re repeating it. It shouldn’t be a repetition. It should be an evolution. You’ve done it once; it shouldn’t be the same when you do it again. You must look at your condition each time.

RJ: What seemed “new” in the teaching?

JM: I’ve been studying with Prashant since 1992. To some people who haven’t studied with him, this was all new.

Some people say they find Prashant confusing – but as an organism, we’re confusing. Human beings are a complex system. We can have a thought and we can think about our thoughts. Animals, even children: they just think, they don’t think about their thoughts. If a child wants a cookie, they want it. They don’t think, Should I have that cookie?

When as adults, we start to think about our thinking process, we have the ability to change it, to send our thoughts in the right direction. Prashant shows us that it’s the thinking process we need to be aware of. It’s not just – as he says -- Do, do, do and die. You have to question how you’re doing, why you’re doing, how you practice, when you practice, why you practice and what you should practice.

RJ: He wants us to work on a much deeper level.

JM: We have to start to look inside, to think about our thoughts, so we can correct ourselves and not wait for others to correct us.

That’s why his teaching is so empowering. He’s saying, Don’t wait for the teacher to tell you. I’m not going to tell you when to change sides, I’m not going to tell you when to come down from the posture. Prashant doesn’t adjust people in his classes unless they’re doing something unsafe. He says, It’s very easy to see the mistakes in others. It’s much harder to see the mistakes in ourselves.

RJ: This intensive required 10 years’ or more Iyengar Yoga experience. Can this approach work with newer students?

JM: Prashant can do what he’s doing now because of all those years when Guruji laid the foundation. You can’t feed babies the same food you feed adults, he says. Similarly, when you’re teaching beginners, you have to make the teaching digestible and palatable. You learn the ABCs when you’re young, but do you want to learn them forever?

RJ: Was there one central message?

JM: When the guru is gone, you fall apart, you don’t know what to do. The answer, Prashant said, is to listen to the teacher inside yourself.

Yoga is self-empowering. If we’re learning it correctly, we learn from the teacher inside us, whatever our level. With beginners, a teacher has to give points and directions to send them in the right direction. But later, they too have to be guided to look inside and find that teacher within.

RJ: Prashant’s approach is unique.

JM: Prashant said we watched Guruji as he practiced all those years but Prashant listened. Being there year after year, Prashant heard not just what Guruji said, but what he meant to say. Now Prashant is asking us to read between the lines of what Guruji said and understand what he meant to say.

Prashant also listened to the way Guruji breathed when he practiced.

RJ: For Prashant it’s always about the breath, isn’t it?

JM: I heard someone say, Prashant isn’t giving us points. But Prashant explained that if he only gave us points and techniques for the asanas that Guruji taught so well over the years, it would mean he was saying Guruji had been deficient. He asked us, Do you think Guruji was deficient? Don’t you think he gave us more than enough, was overly generous?

In one way, Prashant is saying techniques are not important. He’s saying, Listen to yourself. Be guided by what teachers tell you, but don’t neglect the teacher inside you.

It’s an evolution.

He told us: If you study the breath, it has a huge potential for transformation. It can negotiate the conflicts between other parts of ourselves -- the body, mind and senses.

RJ: When its founder dies, there’s discussion, sometimes division, about how a movement will evolve. When Mr. Iyengar’s granddaughter Abhijata Iyengar taught in Florida in 2016, people still grieving over Guruji’s death were so heartened.

JM: After Guruji’s death there were lots of questions. How will this method survive, how will it continue, what’s going to happen? All that was put to rest by the inspiring, uplifting way Abjijata connected with the younger generation in Florida. Now Prashant has done the same thing with seasoned teachers, giving us a way to look at our teaching, evolve what we know and keep moving forward.

RJ: How can the teaching from a workshop like this reach beginners and students who couldn’t attend?

JM: With profound teachings like Prashant’s, teachers first have to take it in. We’re learning ideas and concepts about the larger aspects of yoga – not just points. We have to sit with this, ponder it, incorporate it into our own practices. Then finally we can put it out to our students, depending on which students are in front of us.

RJ: How would you sum up Prashant’s message?

JM: That we have to be more natural in what we do. We have to observe. If we’re more natural, if we listen to our breath and listen to the teacher inside ourselves, we’ll find the natural actions that Guruji learned himself by doing them time after time after time.

To try to figure out things the way we’re doing now makes us unnatural. We shouldn’t over-do with rules and regulations, binding ourselves up with those things.

Prashant reminded us that Mr. Iyengar didn’t practice Iyengar Yoga. He didn’t follow all those things he told us to do. He gave us those cautions and boundaries to safeguard us and steer us in the right direction, but he did those things he said not to do: How else would he know they were wrong? You think he never did Sirsasana after Sarvangasana? Prashant asked us. You think he did everything his guru told him? Of course not. He was a creative force. He did it all, then figured out what didn’t work so well.

Prashant cautioned us: But you’re not all B. K. S. Iyengars. You all come with a set of conditions that you have to accept and understand.

Prashant is taking us to a place that’s strong and requires strong practice. You can’t listen to the first voice that tells you to come down from a pose, he reminded us, or you won’t make progress.

Guruji taught the way he did because he was propagating the subject. With his demonstrations, he exposed the world to yoga. That was to impress people. That’s been done.

Now yoga is all over the world. Now there’s a new challenge.

What’s important now is to bring the work inside, with intelligence. All the techniques and points are there, along with a profound layout of the method. Now it’s our job to evolve what Guruji gave us by listening to the teacher inside ourselves.

RJ: It’s a generational passing of the torch.

JM: Guruji said, My end is your beginning. We have to use what he gave us as a stepping stone to go forward. You don’t negate what he gave. You add on.

Now, it’s about bringing maturity and intelligence into the practice, and making it more natural.