Sunday, May 19, 2019

Learning the Secrets of Yoga with Guruji BNS Iyengar in Mysore

Studying Philosophy and Pranayama with BNS Iyengar

This February I was very fortunate to join a yoga philosophy and pranayama course with the living legend, BNS Iyengar, in Mysore. It was a priceless experience and I'm really excited to share it with you. Studying with Guruji felt like traveling back in time to learn the secrets of this traditional and authentic yoga, old-school style.


Who is BNS Iyengar?


If you follow me on social media you probably know that I always call BNS Iyengar a living legend. Well, that's because he is.

BNS Iyengar

BNS Iyengar is a yoga teacher based in Mysore. He is a direct disciple of one of the greatest Indian yogis, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is known as the father of modern yoga.

Krishnamacharya was also the guru of BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, and Indra Devi. They were some of the most influential teachers who helped to spread yoga in the West.

BNS Iyengar is probably Krishnamacharya's last living disciple, a direct link to the tradition, who continues teaching yoga today.

He is now 92 years old and has been teaching yoga since 1984. Almost 40 years!

“I started yoga at the age of 13. I met then many great scholars and yoga teachers. Finally, at the age of 28, I found Krishnamacharya, the guru for this Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system.

Krishnamacharya was a professor at the Sanskrit College of Mysore, under the sponsorship of His Highness the Maharaja. He accepted my application and he taught me all the secrets of this system of yoga.

It was a homestay learning, not a school. There were no timings, no schedules. Whenever he had time during the 24 hours of the day he would teach me, according to Patanjali Yoga System.”

BNS Iyengar is well versed in the whole system of yoga, teaching not only asanas but also pranayama, mudras and yoga philosophy. He has an in-depth knowledge of the scriptures.

“I teach all the branches of yoga: asana, pranayama, hatha yoga kriya, neti, dhauti, kapalabhati, meditation and different types of realization according to darshana.

Dharshana, the six schools of thought, includes Vaisheshika, Nyaya, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta.

According to these systems of philosophy I teach, classically as well as systematically, with the help of Sanskrit books, which were revealed to the great rishis 5 lakhs years back. Not the commercial books that people use to learn asanas these days. Those books lack authority.”

If you would like to know more about Guruji you can visit the interview with BNS Iyengar. That's the interview I did to him back in April 2015, when I met him for the first time.

Before you study with BNS Iyengar


I remember once I watched, together with a friend, a very popular video of Pattabhi Jois teaching ashtanga yoga.

My friend was in shock. She was like, “How could he teach like that? Where are all the yoga love, beautiful kind words, detailed explanations...?”

You know, the way most western yoga teachers talk in class.

I laughed at her comment.

Have you heard BKS Iyengar telling the story of how Krishnamacharya taught him to do hanumanasana, the splits?

“One leg forward, one leg back. Do it!” And he did, tearing his hamstrings in the process. That was a big lesson for BKS Iyengar.

That is old-school teaching, and that's one thing that I like about studying with BNS Iyengar.

Well, of course, it is not that bad.  Don't worry, but you do have to be very attentive in class and you need to follow his instructions carefully.

If you make a mistake he might get upset, and if you make the wrong questions he might even kick you out of class. And any question can be the wrong question. Lol.

“Why do you ask illegal questions!” He might say.

You really need to leave your ego outside of the shala if you ever decide to study with BNS Iyengar.

He often says though, “Please ask me anything if you have doubts. I will answer your questions.”

If you do ask questions keep it as simple as possible, and crystal clear. You need to remember that he is 92 years old, his English is very basic and he doesn't hear very well.

The best is to write your questions on paper, or on the blackboard, and even better is not to ask questions at all. Lol.

If you ever see him losing his temper on you, don't take it personally. He might shout out you and he might appear very intimidating, but often he says after scolding someone, “Don't fear me. I do it out of love.”

Planning to study with BNS Iyengar


I met BNS Iyengar for the second time in February 2017 when I joined his pranayama course. That was my first time taking classes with Guruji.

Now, in February 2019, exactly two years later, I decided to take once more that same pranayama course. Of course, I didn't have to, I already know the sequence, but I really wanted to study with Guruji again.

I also wanted to study yoga philosophy with him. That was even more exciting for me. Ever since I heard him talking during a small conference in 2017 I've been dreaming to study philosophy with Guruji.



Several months ahead, my friend Marie and I contacted the Mysore Krishnamachar Yoga Foundation to sign up for the course. We both were eager to study with Guruji.

They told us that we could join his pranayama class. That was not a problem, but they also told us that it was not possible to study philosophy with Guruji anymore.

We were told repeatedly that because of his age he sometimes forget stuff, or he repeats the same things again and again. Sometimes he would even end the course way too early.

But we didn't care. We wanted to study philosophy with him no matter what. We just wanted to be in his presence. Even if the course would have lasted one day we would have still paid for it.

But it was not possible to confirm anything in advance.

We had to wait till the day we would start the pranayama course. Then we could talk directly with Guruji and ask him if he would like to teach philosophy.

Finally, that day arrived.

Very excited we asked Guruji if he would teach us philosophy. Unfortunately, he said no. For some reason he didn't want to teach, maybe because we were only two students. He did apologize and gave us a good excuse.

That was very disappointing. I wanted to ask him again but I didn't want to push it. I know he had his reasons.

BNS Iyengar old-time students joined the cause

About a week later Marie told me that her friend, Joey Paz of worldwideyogatribe, an old-time student of BNS Iyengar, also wanted to study philosophy with him.

Joey was actually organizing a group of eight other students who also wanted to study with Guruji. 

Bryce Delbridge, of ashtangakrama.com, another old-time student of Guruji, was also in that group.

Both, Joey and Bryce, were part of the team led by Andrew Eppler (owner of ashtangayogastudio) who put together the documentary Mysore Yoga Traditions.

They are all serious and dedicated students of Guruji. Their original intention was to make a documentary about the life of BNS Iyengar, but last minute Guruji changed his mind and decided not to be interviewed.

It seems that he didn't want the documentary to be all about him. When the documentary included other teachers and was given a bigger scope he accepted to be interviewed.

If you are interested in Ashtanga vinyasa yoga then I can definitely recommend you to watch the documentary.  It includes interviews with different teachers and scholars of Mysore.

“The film is an intimate glimpse into the yoga of Mysore as the elders, scholars, philosophers, yogis and spiritual leaders of the community express their views on what yoga is, its original intention, and how they feel about the way it is being taught and practiced around the world.” 

Ok, back to my story.

So, it was really good news that Joey was organizing a group to study with Guruji.

Nothing was confirmed though.

We had to wait for a few days until Joey had everything arranged before he could approach Guruji to ask for the philosophy classes.

Of course, in the end, Guruji said yes.

Pranayama with BNS Iyengar


Guruji asked me to leave the course

The first day of the pranayama course, BNS Iyengar started asking each student, “Why do you want to study pranayama?”

We were only five students in the class, and I was the fourth. So I was ready with an answer but when my turn came he asked instead, “Have you practiced pranayama before.”

That took me by surprise. I didn't know what to answer. I mean, I didn't know what was the right answer.

I nervously said, “Yes, Guruji.”

Then he asked me, “With whom?” I should have answered, “With you Guruji,” which is true, but instead, I said, “With Vinay Kumar.”

That was a big mistake. Face palm. Lol.

For the next fifteen minutes, he scolded me for not sticking with the same teacher.

I know, I know.  He is absolutely right.

Guruji said, “Why are you here? Go back to your teacher!”

He was a bit upset and made it very clear that this is not appropriate on the path of yoga. He said something like, “Yoga is not window shopping. You gotta stick to one teacher!”

He kept repeating again and again, “Why are you here? Go back to your teacher!”

I was a bit worried. It seemed that he was about to kick me out of the shala. I know he has done that with other students in the past.

Fortunately, after maybe ten or fifteen minutes, he moved on to the next person and forgot about me.

Then the course began. I was still in!

BNS Iyengar pranayama style

During my yoga journey, I've had the opportunity to practice pranayama with several different teachers and also at different ashrams in India.

My first pranayama experience was at the Sivananda Ashram in Kerala where I did my yoga teacher training course.

I also joined their Sadhana Intensive course which is basically a fifteen days pranayama retreat. It is amazing!

I've also participated in a pranayama retreat at the Swami Rama Sadhaka Grama ashram in Rishikesh, and I've also learned from the Bihar School of Yoga.

In Mysore, I have taken some classes with Vijay Kumar, but my favorite is Vinay Kumar pranayama course. It is awesome!

Although every pranayama approach and sequence is different, I find BNS pranayama sequence very unique. It is also somehow the most intense.

I actually struggle a bit with it sometimes. There is a lot of breath retention, but no bandhas.

I wouldn't recommend it for a beginner.

He does give different levels so you can adjust your practice according to your capacity, but once you've learned the full practice it is a bit difficult to go back. Well, that's probably just my ego.

Like every other pranayama sequence I've learned before, the whole sequence takes about one hour, depending on how slow or how fast you breathe.

During the course, Guruji gradually introduces one pranayama technique at a time.

BNS Iyengar teaching pranayama
Guruji writing Nadi Shodhana Pranayama on the blackboard

Every day he increases the intensity of the technique by increasing the length of the retention. Once the maximum level is reached he then introduces the next technique.

Each pranayama starts by emptying the lungs with an exhalation through the left nostril. If you are very familiar with pranayama I think you'll find that interesting.

He also teaches the philosophy of pranayama and the benefits or purpose of each pranayama technique.

The course is supposed to be for one month but it usually lasts a couple of weeks.

After teaching the whole sequence Guruji asks you to continue coming to the shala for practice, so if you have any difficulties you can still ask him any questions. After a few more days he tells you to continue your practice at home.

Guruji's pranayama course has always the same structure but it seems that sometimes he changes it a bit.

The first time he gave me a small thread with ten beads to use for counting. This occasion he gave us an eight beads thread. The order of the sequence was also slightly different.

I can't explain the details of the practice here, it is something that you need to learn directly from a teacher.

But for those who have already practiced pranayama with BNS Iyengar and would like to remember the sequence, here it is:

  • Vishama vritti pranayama. 5 to 10 rounds. 12 - 30 -12
  • Nadi Shodhana. 5 to 10 rounds. 12 - 30 -12
  • Bhastrika. 10 rounds.
  • Shakti Chalana. 10 rounds. 10 - 40 -20

Shakti Chalana is my favorite one.  Guruji says that the other pranayamas are simply bodily exercises, but Shakti Chalana is “Divine exercise.” Its purpose is to awaken the kundalini.


Yoga Philosophy with BNS Iyengar


Guruji loves teaching philosophy

Like I mentioned before, when trying to register for the philosophy classes I was told that BNS Iyengar was having trouble teaching philosophy.

He would supposedly forget many things or constantly repeat the same things over and over again.

That was not my experience. At his 92 years of age, he couldn't have been more clear and lucid about what he was talking about.

BNS Iyengar teaching philosophy

At the beginning of every class, he knew exactly where he had left the previous day, and he knew exactly what he wanted to cover that day.

It was also remarkable for me to see Guruji teaching with so much energy and enthusiasm, even after having taught two other classes right before.

Somedays he would even teach for two hours straight, without showing the slightest fatigue.

Actually, we were the ones who would feel a bit tired and hungry. The class was at midday and it was supposed to last one hour.

It seems to me that BNS Iyengar loves to teach yoga philosophy. During the pranayama classes sometimes he can lose his temper.

That was not the case at all with philosophy. He was always in a good mood. Sometimes he would even make jokes.

Perhaps he was feeling so enthusiastic because his old students were in the group, and he also knew that we were all absolutely eager to learn from him.

What we studied in the philosophy course

I also find Guruji's philosophy classes completely different from whatever I have heard before. Perhaps that is because he is a Vaishnava (follower of God Vishnu) and other teachers I have learned from are Shaivites (followers of Shiva).

He mentions frequently during his classes, Lord Narayana, God, heaven and hell. Some people find this confusing and think that he is too religious.

That is absolutely not the case.

He talks at different levels so that everybody can understand him. He actually says that you have to reach God, at Ajna chakra, rising from hell at mooladhara chakra through the central channel, shushumna.

Ok, maybe not exactly like that.  I can't remember his exacts words, but the point is that when he is talking about God or hell he doesn't have in mind the typical religious definition, but rather a more esoteric understanding.

The philosophy course was only twelve days long.

Guruji first talked about the six systems of Indian philosophy, and then he gave an introduction to the different types of yoga.

Then, day by day, he explained in detail each of the different yogas, especially the eight limbs of Patanjali, and Kundalini Yoga.

We had to take lots of notes during the course. He also gave us a few sheets of paper with additional information that we had to copy into our notebooks.

Luckily not so much note taking as in his mudra classes. Lol (BNS students insight joke).



He seems to have a very clear structure of what to teach in his philosophy classes, so he can make the course as long or as short as required.

I was invited to the Mysore Yoga Traditions conference the day that Guruji was giving a talk. He explained the same philosophy course in just a couple of hours. It was very impressive.

Remembering Paramahansa Yogananda

One thing that surprised me was that when Guruji was talking about the different path of yoga he included Babaji's Kriya Yoga path. He briefly talked about it, with reverence.

With a bit of excitement, he told us that he was there when Paramahansa Yogananda visited Mysore. But he was too young at that time. He had not yet discovered his interest in yoga.

Quotes by BNS Iyengar


These are some of my favorite quotes by Guruji that I was able to write down during the course:

“Conquer death. That is the purpose of yoga.”

“You can lift 15 kgs but a yogi can lift a mountain.”

“Asana purifies the body. Asana converts iron into gold.”

“First purpose of asana, to change the body like a yogi.”

“Do not think of the number of asanas. Primary and intermediate are enough. You have to learn pranayama to go to the higher stages.”

“With asana, sthira sukham, body becomes gold. Then pranayama. Asana is the goldsmith.”

“Pranayama is required to heat the body, then the soul is separated.”

“Air and fire are two faces of the same coin.”

“If flame goes up you become divine. If it stays in heart, there is life. If it goes down there is dead. That's why mind it is important on the land. On the heaven it is not important.”

“If jivatma goes up to ajña chakra you become divine.”

Authentic and traditional yoga


If you've been following my blog for a while you already know what I think about Mysore. In my opinion, although I really like it, it doesn't feel like a very spiritual place, especially around Gokulam.

Gokulam is an area where most yoga practitioners stay. It feels a bit too western for me, particularly during the high season when the main shala opens.

That's why every time that I visit Mysore I stay in Lakshmipuram. It feels a bit more authentic to me, and it's also cheaper. Lol.

This time however I had to stay in Gokulam.

My teacher Vijay Kumar moved his shala there, and I didn't want to drive my scooter every day at 5 am from Lakshmipuram to Gokulam.

So going to Guruji classes, near Lakshmipuram, was very refreshing for me.

Studying and practicing yoga at this small-old shala, with a handful of other dedicated students, felt as if I was traveling back in time, every day, to the India of the ancient yogis.

Learning this very authentic and traditional yoga, at the feet of BNS Iyengar, was one of the best experiences I had during my recent six months yoga journey in India.

I can't wait to do it again.

Receiving Pranayama Course Certificate

BNS Iyengar Contact Details


BNS Iyengar recently announced that starting May 2019 he will be teaching pranayama, mudra, and philosophy only at Mysore Mandala Yoga Shala. If you would like to study with Guruji you'll need to contact them directly:

Mysore Mandala Yogashala
#897/1, Narayan Shastry Road,
Lakshmipuram,
Mysore 570004
Landmark : Near Vatsalya Hospital
Between 10 am and 6 pm
Phone: +91 821 425 6277
email: mysoremandala@gmail.com


I hope you've enjoyed reading about my experiences learning yoga with BNS Iyengar. Please don't hesitate to share this article with your friends, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comment sections below.

If you would like to know more about Guruji you can visit the interview with BNS Iyengar.

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3 comments:

  1. Thank you once again from London, really enjoy reading your blog with my morning tea and toast.

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    Replies
    1. Oh that's sounds so zen, reading my blog while drinking tea 😉. Thank you for taking the time to read it and happy to know you enjoyed it 😊🙏.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your experience. Love going through your blogs. Eagerly waiting for the next

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