Early days of Iyengar yoga in Brighton

Jenny Deadman outlines the way in which yoga arrived in Brighton. B.K.S. Iyengar, a regular visitor to Brighton, dedicated the first Iyengar yoga centre which was opened by Helena Thomas in Bristol Gardens, Kemptown in 1969. A talk recorded at the Brighton Yoga Festival in 2017 describes these early days.

Jenny talked about the introduction of yoga to Brighton, providing a bit of background to the yoga we now know. She outlined the way in which Iyengar yoga arrived as it did in Brighton, the forces that helped it on its way, and the possible future path of yoga. Speaking personally as a follower of Iyengar yoga rather for the official body, she is part of Iyengar Yoga Sussex, a network of teachers and students of Iyengar yoga.

Jenny Deadman

According to an early volume of ‘Yoga and Health’ a magazine available in the British Library, in London, prior to Mr Iyengar’s visits, the style of yoga exercises taught here in Britain was taught through The League of Health and Beauty and as the name suggests, comprised gentle stretches taught to women who dressed in leotards and tights, i.e. not a very challenging practice where they kept their socks on.  

Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the decade when yoga first really made an impact here, it was an extraordinary and revolutionary ten years, a time of change and upheaval. In America, there were the anti-Vietnam protests, and the civil rights struggle, the Summer of love and the moon landing. 

In Europe, there were the French student and workers riots in May 1968. In England, George Harrison of the Beatles studied the Sitar with Ravi Shankar and the Beatles brought out the psychedelic Sergeant Pepper album. 

Everywhere the times they were a changing, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan. India had gained its independence in 1947 and was beginning to spread its wings culturally.

India had gained its independence after a long struggle and Indian culture arts and music were becoming celebrated over here. Not only were Indian musicians such as Ravi Shankar becoming famous by collaborating with the Beatles, but in 1971 there was an art exhibition at the Haywood gallery in London displaying some of the amazing imagery of Tantra.

The images in the Tantra exhibition and similar related transcendental imagery found elsewhere introduced a new and extraordinary portrayal of the world, the cosmos and the human body. The Naths for example, acted as if the whole world was represented in the body of the perfected yogi. The Naths were a religious order who practiced yoga like postures, and it was their belief that they could gain immortality and insight into the true nature of reality  through their practice of hatha yoga.

To quote from a Nath text called the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati, “Within this body exists Mount Meru, the seven continents, lakes, oceans mountains, plains ….all beings embodied in the three worlds exist in the body together with all their activities. He who knows all this is a yogin.”  

So the body is seen as a homologue of the world and a microcosm of the world.   

And on a more contemporary note, perhaps this understanding of the interrelatedness of everything and everyone, this identification with the whole world, is one of the links between the yoga world and the present day ecological movement and green consciousness.

However, when Iyengar yoga was taught in Britain, none of this mystical material was included in the teaching. Some of Iyengar’s kind and practical attitude can be summed up in his now famous quote that, “yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what can not be cured.”

Indeed two of the significant early British teachers, Silva Mehta, and here in Brighton, Helena Thomas, had both been drawn to Mr Iyengar because of intense physical pain.  

In Silva’s case this resulted from a severe spinal injury and Helena suffered with severe arthritis.

Mr Iyegar adapted his teaching to the needs and capacity of the contemporary European student. He taught physical postures which made people feel better but inevitably lead his students to experience peace and relief from pain. He was advised not including philosophical theory or his own Hinduism and any mystical teaching, and building on that firm basis took people on a journey of exploration

In the words of Silva Mehta, “He taught us to be aware of and analyse each movement in the asanas. He called this meditation in action.” It was Silva Mehta, one of his first European students, who went on to teach yoga for the ILEA, that is the Inner London Education Authority, leading large classes for yoga teacher training, preparing them to teach yoga in the adult education system. Silva started training Iyengar yoga teachers in 1969.

After studying Iyengar yoga with Helena Thomas in her Iyengar yoga institute Brighton, I got my teaching certificate at Silva Mehta’s teacher training course for the ILEA in Paddington, London. This was in 1977 and it was the start of the teaching certification system which is now employed in the Iyengar movement.  

Thanks to Silva Mehta who introduced Iyengar yoga teaching into the adult education system, there have been adult ed Iyengar yoga classes for many years here in the Brighton area and I have taught in the LEA system here in the Brighton since 1977, as have many colleagues.

Yoga arriving in Brighton is like the story of the tree of yoga taking root, and it is because a tree has roots and branches it is a fitting image to use when speaking about yoga. The ethical guidelines are known as the yamas and niyamas, and they are, as it were, the roots of the tree.

When these roots are healthy enough to sustain us, the trunk and branches, that is the asanas and breath control pranayama, can develop and flourish. We are able start to develop and deepen a regular asana and pranayama practice.

The leaves and fruits of the practices are then developed, namely the ability to quieten the body and the breath, to calm and stabilize the mind, to become mindful, to restrain the fluctuations of the mind and develop concentration, and perhaps have glimpses of Samadhi.

On a lighter note, another image Mr Iyengar once used is this, “Yoga is like music, the rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind and the harmony of the soul create the symphony of life.”  And music played a pivotal role in the introduction of Iyengar yoga to Britain and to Brighton.

So, to return to the history. A young man named Ayana Angadi came from the Indian subcontinent to Britain in 1924 to prepare to study at university. Apparently while walking along the street in Hampstead, he was approached by a young English painter named Patricia Fell-Clarke who asked if she might paint his portrait. Their relationship blossomed and they eventually married.

Some years later, hoping to further appreciation of Indian music and culture in Britain, Ayana and Patricia founded the Asian Music Circle. It was 1946 and India was on the cusp of achieving its independence from Britain and was fizzing with excitement and growing self-confidence.

This post war decade was a time which saw the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin perform all over the world; he was an internationally renowned musician with an appreciation of Indian music and when in 1952 Ayana Angadi invited Yehudi Mehuhin to become the president of the Asian Music Circle, he accepted the honour.

In the same year while Menuhin was touring in India, one of Mr Iyengar’s students was in Menuhin’s welcoming party. Knowing the great musician was in pain and exhausted by insomnia, he wanted to introduce Mehuhin to Iyengar whom he knew would be able to help.

The great violinist was short of time and rather unwilling to meet the relatively unknown Yogi, but to quote Mr Iyengar “ I understood the state of his mind and persuaded him to give me five minutes.” Mr Iyengar was so effective in soothing his nerves that Menuhin achieved a restorative and healing sleep.

Thereafter Menuhin and Mr Iyengar developed a long lasting and significant relationship. And most significantly, it was through violinist Yehudi Mehuhin and the Asian Music circle that Mr Iyengar accepted an invitation to come to England to introduce yoga. 

Guruji thus began his annual teaching visits to London and later Brighton, subsequently coming to England for a month at a time until 1973. His growing group of students gathered for his classes wherever they were held.

The Angadi’s other claim to fame was the introduction of the now famous Indian musician Ravi Shankar to George Harrison of the Beatles. Ravi Shankar went on to teach George the sitar which became the sound of 1965 with Norwegian Wood.

It was during one of Mr Iyengar’s annual visits to London that a woman from Brighton named Helena Thomas was introduced to Mr Iyengar by Yehudi Menuhin. Helena had been invalided out of the civil service due to her severe arthritis and was in severe pain.

The year was 1960 and Helena was attending a lecture where Menuhin introduced BKS Iyengar as his yoga teacher guru. Helena went on to open and run the first dedicated Iyengar yoga institute in Britain, in Bristol Gardens, Kemptown.

Encouraged by Mehuhin, Helena Thomas went to Iyengar’s lecture demonstration and was even offered a place in his class. Feeling that in one class she could not achieve much, she declined, but she left her name and address and in the intervening year she started to practice what she had learned in his lecture. She said, “I learned to breathe and set about getting my ribs off my spine where they were stuck.”

Next year Mr Iyengar returned and she attended his class. He spotted her in the group, called her over and took her up into sirsasana. “There I was, straightaway up into a head balance, but when I came down again, I felt completely recharged and the agony had gone out of my spine.”

Helena is quoted as saying that she was so fired up with enthusiasm by what yoga had done for her that she wanted to impart the knowledge to others, and she began to gather a small group of students around her, through the network of the Asian Music Circle in London. She said, ”I started with just a dozen students who guaranteed to come to me for a year.” Helena’s first classes in Brighton were held in various halls and gymnasiums, some at the Friends Centre in Brighton, others at nearby convents.

Helena had been retired early from the civil service due to crippling arthritis, and she first encountered Mr Iyengar in 1960. Such was her determination that in 1969 she was able to open the Iyengar yoga centre in Bristol Gardens, Kemptown. This was in large part thanks to the very generous financial assistance of a well-known and successful actor named Nigel Green, himself a student of B.K.S. Iyengar and subsequently of Helena Thomas.

This benefactor, actor Nigel Green, who like Helena Thomas lived in Brighton, looked for a suitable property and found a rather dilapidated building, with potential. Builders were brought in to clear the building which had been lying empty, and together they created a beautiful purpose-built yoga centre.

About one year after the building work started, Mr Iyengar himself came to Brighton to open and dedicate the centre. This event is reported and illustrated in an article titled ‘A Place of One’s Own,’ in the yoga magazine Yoga and Health. It is no longer in circulation but can be consulted in the files at the British Library in London. Photos show Mr Iyengar dedicating the new centre.

The purpose designed centre occupied three floors; the main yoga hall had a cork floor and large sliding glass doors let in light and air. There was a mirrored wall which was normally covered by a curtain. Yoga mats were unknown at that time as were yoga blocks and belts (all of which Mr Iyengar introduced gradually as the need emerged, to assist students in the performance of poses). People sat on the floor, used blankets for lifts and short wooden poles to assist in twisting poses.

The walls displayed photographs of Mr Iyengar holding beautiful asanas, and a framed photograph of him stood in a little niche in the wall of the entrance hall, alongside a pair of his sandals. In this building which was used exclusively for the teaching of Iyengar yoga, there was also a library where talks and lectures were sometimes held, a changing area and a meditation room.

Helena was a charismatic and impressive teacher who had a commanding will and a quality of attention that was exceptional. Helena seemed to accurately observe and understand people. Student teachers demonstrated the poses while Helena would lead the class giving verbal instructions and adjusting her students.  

Helena sent two or three of her carefully trained teachers to teach yoga classes across Sussex and introduced a system of recording each student’s progress in a book. At her centre, there were lectures on aspects of yoga, and booklets were published and distributed in which she laid out important aspects of the teaching, booklets with titles such as ‘the Aims and Methods of the Work’, ‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’, and ‘The Body, our Vehicle, its Maintenance and use on the Journey’. She also wrote “Notes on Rheumatism’. 

And It is certainly thanks to the work of Helena Thomas, one of Iyengar’s first British students, that Iyengar yoga put down such powerful roots in Brighton 50 years ago.

Mr Iyengar himself came to teach in Brighton on a number of occasions, twice in the mid-seventies at the Wagner Hall. Mr Iyengar also taught a few times at the Brighton Centre and would charmingly demonstrate eye watering postures with ease and grace.

He was a very commanding and charismatic teacher, and woe betide anybody who was not giving of their very best as he demanded absolute commitment from his students. His English was very hard to follow at times, so you had to keep an open mind and open ears too. You would never forget one of his adjustments, if he focused on you in class, as he had a very deep understanding and ability to observe and did not mince his words but conveyed his deep understanding and perception very clearly and helpfully.

He once said, “illuminated emancipation, freedom unalloyed and untainted bliss await you, but you have to choose, to embark on the inward journey to discover it.”

Helena Thomas trained a number of future yoga teachers including Ramanand Patel whose yoga centre is in San Francisco and who teaches around the world, Cath Lloyd, Paquita Claridge, Rayner Curtis, Rowena Cager and many others.

Researching into the History of yoga through the ages, there’s a winding road of human endeavour, and references to yoga philosophy and techniques are found in manuscripts dating back centuries. There seem to be two major motivators for taking up yoga, a search for health or relief from pain, and a search for meaning and emancipation. 

Having studied under his brother in law Krisnamacharya, Mr Iyengar went on to evolve a system of yoga suitable for instructing to the ordinary suffering man or woman of the 20thand 21stcentury.

He uncoupled the sequence of postures and restructured the flowing style in which he had been taught, and focused in intense detail on the individual poses, focusing on alignment, sensitive awareness and accuracy.

Historically, there are carvings showing yogis in meditation postures and there are descriptions of various poses and breathing techniques to further the aspirant on his path towards his desired goal. There are the ancient creation myths and legend of Gods and Goddesses, and there are the visual Mandalas and diagrams of Tantra. Yoga was a secret subject and was taught by a master to his student individually. Written material was not widely used, and the subject was transmitted orally and then not to women.

Early in the last century, the ideals of Hindu nationalism meant there was a need to build the strength and vitality of young men. Perhaps too in order to reclaim national pride and eventually resist the British. This may have spurred the Maharaja of Mysore to bring Krisnamacharya  a scholar and yogi to his palace, the plan being to start a school to train  young men in physical fitness and strength.

Among those students was B.K.S. Iyengar, as well as Patabi Jois who went on to perfect Ashtanga yoga and introduce it to America, and TKV Desicachar, Krisnamacharya’s fourth son who developed Viniyoga.

Gradually yoga was rescued from its previously bad reputation as a practice of ill repute, and achieved its position of dignity and respect, at first by being adopted by the maharaja and then famous personalities in the west.

Yoga has long been associated with the search for health and healing, longevity and vitality, and there are numerous claims made concerning the curative powers of yoga, many of which are now being investigated scientifically and current medical research reports seem to be supporting the claims of its health benefits.

There can also be injuries resulting from faulty teaching and practice, so although the future looks bright for yoga, it is essential that future teachers get appropriate training, before they are let loose on students and that they learn to teach safely and well.

To quote from Helena Thomas, “in the future I can see that we may have just one kind of yoga in the West, but it must incorporate Iyengar’s teaching. We have been so lucky to have this man to show us exactly what to do.”

The Brighton Natural Health Centre, The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order centre and Cathy Rogers’ yoga old and new yoga centres in Worthing and Lancing respectively have enabled the torch of Iyengar yoga to be held high, here in Brighton for many years, ever since Helena first established her yoga institute. The heart of Iyengar yoga beats strongly in Brighton and the wider area, thanks  to the enthusiasm of the local teachers  and their students.

In Sussex, as in other parts of the country, an association of Iyengar yoga teachers and students has formed to protect and promote the practice and study of the methods of Gurji B.K.S. Iyengar. Nationally as well as internationally there are institutes to oversee the rigorous training that is demanded of Iyengar yoga teachers, to watch over the continuation of their professional development of the teachers and preserve the purity of his legacy and insight.

In Sussex his legacy is preserved by the Institute of Iyengar yoga in Sussex, and nationally there’s the Iyengar Yoga institute UK.

Jenny expressed her gratitude to Suzanne Newcome for her helpful support and her scholarly accounts of the history and sociology of yoga. Suzanne teaches yoga studies at SOAS University in London. Articles of hers are available on the internet.