Sunday Times of India: 23 surgeries, then yoga
Usha Devi walks with a noticeable limp but it is her pleasant smile that is distracting. You will find no outward evidence of the two road accidents that nearly destroyed her. She can now squat on her haunches, something her doctors told her would never be possible. She can even do the headstand, with a little help. You suggest miracle, she quickly corrects you. "Hard work and yoga."
The stocky, lively 54-year-old was born Lisolotte Horenberg in Switzerland. For the last 30 years she has lived in India and has integrated herself into the Indian way of life. In 1998 and again in 2003, she met with two terrible accidents. The second accident fractured both her thigh bones and bent the implanted metal supports meant to heal the previous injury. The knee which had been smashed in the first accident was dislocated again. Doctors performed 23 operations after which she was in bed for eight months. But, she says, "Minutes after I had opened my eyes, I knew I was going to be fine. I knew Guruji would help me get back on my feet."
Guruji, the 89-year-old yoga maestro B. K. S. Iyengar, was the person to whom she turned. When Usha hobbled up to Iyengar's institute in Pune on crutches, not even senior teachers believed Guruji could do much to help. Many months later, Gita Iyengar, Iyengar's daughter who is also a teacher and author of several books on yoga, admitted to Usha that she herself was sceptical about whether they could really help.
Usha had to go through her 18-month recovery alone. Her husband, a scholar who is blind, could not travel easily from their Rishikesh ashram, and their son could not leave his studies. "Initially, everything was painful. I had to be helped even to raise a leg. Just letting the leg drop back by the force of gravity was unbearable. There were no asanas, just pain, pain and pain," she says. But the ashramites soon realised that beneath that soft exterior was a steely determination that had not been ground down.
Iyengar is known for the wonders he has worked on those whose bodies cannot perform even simple functions like squatting on the floor. People with fibroids, menstrual problems, slipped discs and dislocated waists all wash up here, many of them after trying other methods that have failed. Not only is Iyengar's institute shockingly reasonable - medical classes for Indian students at the ashram cost Rs 50 a month until a year ago - it also spares one from expensive, painful surgery.
Unlike other popular forms, where yoga is often confused with higher mental planes, Iyengar Yoga focuses on intensely working the body. Breathing techniques come later when the student has perfected his postures, quite unlike the common perception that one begins with pranayam.
Unconventional ways were used to get Usha's body going. One day Guruji would use a huge red Swiss ball, on another, he would hang Usha by a rope to get her body parts to move. He made her use an elaborate set of props made of wooden bricks and pillows to raise her leg only to change the focus to her hip bone the next minute. Just when Usha felt she was getting comfortable in a pose, he would move the goal post or suggest something more painful.
Even as Usha slowly recovered, scores of other students from around the world also moved back to health at the medical class at the institute. There was a student practising a specially designed sequence of forward bending poses to correct the compression of the spine, another wanted to get rid of her vertigo. Not everyone can do yogic poses even if their body allows it. For example, a nervous person cannot do headstands as it will increase his nervous energy further. Instead, forward-bending poses are recommended to restore calmness to the head.
Usha is back home now at her ashram by the Ganga. She says it is difficult for the lay person to accept that yoga can come without spiritual benefits. Foreign students who come to her institute often stray to gurus who promise spiritual development. "Then after months of experimenting, they come back to find that it takes mental strength to pursue physical endurance through yoga,'' she says. "That is the hard truth."
New Delhi, January 6, 2008