Finding Contentment in Yoga

Sophia Ann French talks to Iyengar teacher Kobad Variava about props, modern yoga and the importance of steady, regular practice.

When I walked into my first yoga class at age 21, I was an enthusiastic journalist fresh out of college and ready to change the world. It’s been 18 years since, and my idealism, though tarnished with the reality of life, remains intact. I have my first yoga teacher, Kobad Variava, to thank for it. Kobad sir learned yoga under the tutelage of BKS Iyengar for 20 years and carries forward that great master’s lineage to every student that attends his classes. I also have him to thank for keeping my understanding and experience of the subject and the practice real, as anyone who studies with him knows that the true benefits of yoga go beyond asana practice. “Experience the pose.” I would hear sir say this in almost every class when students became restless or eager to progress to advanced asanas in a hurry or came out of an asana within five breaths. 

Like all Iyengar teachers and students, his emphasis on using props is not restricted to practitioners with ailments or ill health. He integrates props into the practice to challenge students, to help them stay in a pose and to understand the correct alignment of any given asana, without which, the asana won’t benefit the student. At age 71, his practice is still growing and evolving as he combines his teacher’s knowledge with 45 years of his personal experience practising and teaching yoga.

My own yoga practice has changed a lot over the years but the foundation of my Iyengar practice, which I got from Kobad sir, shaped my yoga journey and gave me a solid base upon which I have built my practice to suit me. I caught up with sir when I was in Bombay recently and here are excerpts from our conversation:

Sophia: What was your experience being a student of Yogacharya BKS Iyengar?

Kobad: My first yoga class with BKS Iyengar was on 18th May 1972. He was a very good teacher and a very strict teacher. You couldn’t do any nonsense with him. He didn’t tolerate it. Teachers like BKS Iyengar were not for the faint-hearted. There was no mollycoddling in his classes. If you could handle his toughness, you could survive and thrive, if not, you said bye, bye and left. He was only interested in the student’s practice. If you practised regularly and sincerely, he accepted you as a student, if not, he said, ta, ta, bye, bye. 

Kobad Variava practises pincha mayurasana with props.
Kobad Variava practises pincha mayurasana with props.

Sophia: How has yoga changed or evolved since the time of Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois?

Kobad: When we were practising, there was not so much interest in yoga as there is these days. At that time, everyone wanted to go to the gym and build their body. Nobody knew anything about yoga. People were more interested in cricket and sports. Now, yoga has become a business to make money so everyone is interested in it. Money does this to people. I started yoga when there was nothing. At that time, people who practised yoga were genuinely interested in the subject. Now people are interested because of money. They do some diploma, practise for a few months and start calling themselves teachers. This is not the correct method. You have to practise regularly and sincerely. Practice karo, khush raho. This is yoga. Then you will make spiritual progress. Until then, it’s all nautanki. And now this online fashion has started. I don’t agree with this. You have to have the physical presence of a teacher. The teacher has to show you the right way to do the practice, through adjusting and correcting bad posture. Even people who don’t know yoga want to teach. Asana ka naam bhi nahi pata logo ko. No. You have to learn to become a student before becoming a teacher. You can’t just become a teacher by talking big. 

Sophia: When should one start teaching yoga?

Kobad: When you learn for many, many years and get that inner feeling to teach for the love of the practice. Don’t run after money. When you practice sincerely and teach the right way, money will run after you. That is the correct method. You have to practise before you teach. 

Sophia: What is the role of props in yoga?

Kobad: Many difficult asanas are sometimes not accessible to people without the use of props. Some people cannot do these poses without props. Props can also make a pose more challenging so it works both ways. But, if a person for any reason can’t do a pose on their own, props are used to ease that person into the pose so they can also get the benefits of the pose. Props also help with alignment. They are very useful to hold poses like sirsasana, sarvangasana, halasana, paschimottanasana…this use of props is exclusive to the Iyengar school and that is why this system works for everybody. It allows everyone to experience the benefits of a pose. 

Sophia: Why is alignment important?

Kobad: What else is there? Without proper alignment, you will not receive the full benefits of the posture. Alignment will restore balance and help you maintain balance and the correct physical structure, correct mental structure and correct emotional structure. Without alignment, there is no practice. Improper alignment can also lead to injuries. You have to practise with proper alignment. This is the correct method. When you practice regularly, your sense of alignment will also improve.

Headstand with prop -  Kobad Variava
Headstand with prop

Sophia: What is the significance of being able to hold a posture for a long period of time?

Kobad: That is the definition of a posture. Something that you must hold for a long time. You have to hold the posture for a long time in order to understand what it is doing to you. When you hold a pose for a long period of time, initially, it will  cause discomfort but you have to feel that discomfort in order to feel comfort later. Holding a posture for a long time puts your heart in a resting state. It slows down your brain and thoughts and most importantly, it slows down breathing. This reduces lactic acid in the body which causes sickness. Holding the posture for long enables your body to remain fresh and light and there is no tightness. The faster forms of practice are like gymnastics. There is too much wear and tear of the body and might cause injuries as well. So hold the pose. This is also exclusive to the Iyengar practice. Holding the pose for long will give you all of its physiological benefits.

Sophia: What is therapeutic yoga?

Kobad: When a person suffers from any illness or discomfort, I offer them yoga as therapy. Here again, props play a big role in helping people recover from ailments and injuries. This is also another reason why Iyengar yoga is accessible to everyone. It has the flexibility to adapt to the practitioner’s needs. Yoga is not just for hatta-katta, healthy people. It should be accessible to all people. 

Sophia: Do you think yoga has been commercialised? 

Kobad: It was always commercial. Even in ancient times, nobody taught for free. People have to earn a  living. Even BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois earned money from yoga. This is not wrong. What is wrong is when you cheat people and lie to your students. Iyengar and Jois practised for decades, then they started teaching. Everyone needs money to survive. But don’t become greedy. The greed for money and fame will take a bad toll on your practice and your spiritual path. Don’t become enslaved and entrapped by that. Be true to your practice and students. Earn what is necessary. But this is difficult. Being simple and living with what you need is very difficult. But you have to overcome greed to make progress on the spiritual path. 

Sophia: How is yoga beneficial for a modern, fast-paced lifestyle?

Kobad: It’s not. This modern, fast-paced lifestyle is a product of ego and desire. People who truly practise yoga and feel its benefits and understand its teachings will stop living a fast-paced lifestyle and choose simplicity. The practice will make you choose a simple, basic life and you will realise that is more than enough to be happy. Yeh fast-paced life ke jhamele me mat pado. Be simple, be happy. Do not institutionalise yoga. If you practise the practice the way it is supposed to be practised, you will leave this fast-paced lifestyle and choose peace. 

Sophia: What is your message to the younger generation of students and teachers?

Kobad: Just practise. Forget everything else. Find contentment in your practice. When you are content, you will have no desire. When you don’t have desire, you won’t become greedy. You will remain simple and happy, and your practice will remain pure. 

For further information on Kobad Variava’s classes, visit http://www.shivkripa.com/

January 18, 2021
Photo (lead image) Simon Meier

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