Firooza Ali Razvi, one of the most inspiring Iyengar Yoga teachers, had been invited to teach the German Iyengar Yoga Convention in June 2020 in Munich before the event had to be postponed because to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Firooza, who has studied intensively with BKS Iyengar since 1977 and Geeta and Prashant Iyengar from 1979, illuminates her yoga teaching providing deep connection between the philosophy and practice of yoga in this interview, that was meant to accompany the german convention.
When we did this interview in March 2020 shortly after the worlwide lock-down, Firooza added this message, which I found most reasuring and comforting in a moment, where - from one day to the other - our lifes were turned upside down or even worse, in danger. Therefore I chose to start this interview with Firooza's wish:
'I would like to tell all my friends to be careful, vigilant and safe.
Lie low and hybernate so that you can emerge into a wonderfully clean word later.
It is a good time to catch up with pending jobs at home, practice yoga and meditation.
Don't loose heart, be patient and you will remain safe.'
Claudia Lamas Cornejo: Dear Firooza, you gave as title to the up-coming German Iyengar Yoga Convention (now postponed to 2021) “The language of Yoga” (in German: Die Sprache des Yoga) – what does it mean to you and what is your personal definition of the language of yoga?
Firooza Ali Razvi: A Language is formed when meanings are assigned to specific words, signs, symbols or gestures. Yoga is a form of ancient wisdom and as dear Guruji described it, it is an art, a science as well as a philosophy. It is an expression of human endeavor towards knowing the ‘self’, towards knowing perfection. Hence it must have a language.
The language of yoga lies in its definition;
The language of yoga lies in its practical practices of āsana and prānāyāma;
The language of yoga lies in the sutras of Maharishi Patāñjali;
The language of yoga lies in the thoughts of humankind.
The language of yoga lies in the silent sounds of meditation and dhyāna;
The language of yoga lies in the tattva-prāna-cakra kriyas.
The language of yoga lies in the drawing of breath through the channels of Idā, pingalā and sus̍umnā as prāna is regulated in prānāyāma.
Generally, for me, language of yoga means all of the above. It is a very profound topic.
Specifically, for me, language of yoga means the processing of my learning and practice which forms expression in my teachings. Which gives expressions to my thoughts and values.
CLC: So, the language of yoga is as diverse as is our individual learning and practicing? As diverse as the crowd, that attends a Yoga Convention - students from 1-3 years to 45 years of yoga practice, young and senior practitioners and so on… what is in your opinion the biggest challenge to teach such a Convention?
FAR: The beauty lies in the subject of yoga. It is a great levelizer. It does not see age, gender, nationality status, nor, the years of practice. When knowledge is shared, each individual will receive it as per their level of understanding. That does not change the subject.
My responsibility would be to teach in such a manner that all can understand and connect with me, as well as each one can have something to ponder over for further enhancing their learning.
The beauty lies in the subject of yoga.
It is a great levelizer.
I enjoy teaching all levels of students because when I think I am giving, I am actually receiving a lot. I can equate the process of teaching a diverse group, to swimming in the ocean. Sometimes I dive deep and sometimes I swim on the surface. This process can be joyful to the one who knows how to swim well. I enjoy it! (laughs)
CLC: Have you been traveling with Guruji and Geetaji to international Conventions and workshops a lot – how was that? What do you remember in particular from those travels and teaching events with Guruji and Geetaji?
FAR: I have participated with revered Guruji only in India and with respected Geetaji in South Africa and China besides in India.
I will recall a particular memory with Guruji here:
I had the good fortune to participate as one of the demonstrators in the breakfast TV serial on National TV in India in the early 1980s where Guruji was invited to present the subject of yoga. In those days there we no private TV channels and there was a growing awareness about health and fitness. So Guruji was called to Mumbai for the recordings of a few episodes to be aired in the early morning slot. The four young Mumbai students of Guruji had an exciting time, spending hours with Guruji, first for preparations and then for the actual shooting of the episodes. My memories tell me of how proud I felt that my dear Guruji was selected for this presentation. Age wise, we were in our 20s and Guruji in his 60s, but we got along fabulously, eating together, travelling together, and we four had some wonderful personal lessons from him about how our practices can improve. Needless to say, it helped in our presentations. Guruji was protective about his young students and wanted to present the best. But I am not sure whether he was more protective of us, or, we of him! We were very vigilant that our Guruji should not be presented in any negative way whatsoever. I remember giving him suggestions as to what he should do and say!! Naive that I was! And Guruji just smiled indulgently and nodded! What an understanding and magnanimous man he was! He never once made us feel that we were young and ignorant and should quietly keep to our place. I remember him offering us tea and breakfast in his humble hotel room. Tea, I politely refused since I don’t like it, but still remember the taste of the fresh Khari (salty savouries) biscuits straight from the bakery! With Guruji there, they seemed to have a special favour! Even today I think of that day and can smell and taste that manna! The recording kept us in the studio for many hours and as was Guruji’s style, he not only presented his subject but educated all who were around and the Director of the show was so convinced that he became a longstanding admirer of B. K. S. Iyengar and kept touch with him. I particularly remember episodes where he taught digital pranayama and even while demonstrating, we learned much about the placement of the digits of our fingers, not to forget the long sirsasana which I learned to do without the eyes fluctuating at all!
'I have been truly blessed to find my Guruji at a young age and receive treasures of knowledge from him.'
Travelling with Geetaji made me realize how particular she was of all details, be it travel details, or the comforts of her fellow students, or the clarity of instruction and communication so that there would be no confusion. I remember the joy of conversing with her on various other topics besides yoga. About family life, or information read from books, biographies of great persons, her interest in the history of the country/city we visited, to cooking of food and love of coffee.
Many memories come to my mind but I will narrate one here.
I was asked by Geetaji to accompany her to South Africa for the Convention which was to be held in Johannesburg. I remember the first asana session very clearly where I was one of the demonstrators on the stage which was set up. As Geetaji started teaching the standing poses, I got so engrossed in her teaching that I forgot I was the demonstrator and not a participant! I remember that session where she wove the philosophy of yoga in the practice of the asanas. It progressed beautifully and I found myself completely absorbed. This went on for a while till it suddenly came to an abrupt halt as Geetaji saw a need for correction in one of the participants. Those who knew Geetaji would know that her compassion for pain and suffering, and passion for perfection would not allow her to proceed till she got down to the root of the problem and helped the students overcome their limitations. There, I clearly learned from her as to how important it was to connect to the students while teaching with compassion as well as clarity. Of course, I had to change my mind-set from being a participant and go and help the persons who needed corrections.
CLC: Let`s go back even further: Why and when did you actually start to practice yoga and what do you recall from your own beginnings?
FAR: My introduction to yoga was by chance as one of my friend’s brother announced that the priest from their school was starting a free yoga class in the evenings on the school premises.
My friends joined the class but I did not. One day, at a loose end, I decided to go and watch what they did. What attracted me most was the savāsana at the end of the class. That is how I sought permission to join class with my first teacher, Fr. Joe Pereira. So, though I enjoyed many things, and many things were a challenge, I enjoyed Savāsana the most! And I remain eternally grateful to him for that. This was in the 1975 in Bombay which is now known as Mumbai.
CLC: When did you meet B.K.S Iyengar and started studying with him?
FAR: Sometime in 1979 my teacher Fr.Joe asked me to teach his classes in his absence. To support me and give me confidence, he suggested I should start learning weekend classes with his teacher B.K.S. Iyengar who came down to Bombay from Pune to teach on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. So, through his introduction, I joined Guruji’s classes in Bombay. Till then, B.K.S.Iyengar was an unknown entity for me. It was for the first time in my life that I met a lion-like personality like him!
CLC: What would you say, is the most important memory of studying with and learning from him?
FAR: This is a very difficult question! There are too many memories to quote any one as important. For me, every time he looked at me with his intense look from under his bushy eyebrows, it was special. Every time he skillfully showed me how to adjust in an asana, it was special. Every time he gave a talk on special occasions, I hung on to every word he said and each word was special. Every time he asked me to go and teach someone or to demonstrate while he lectured, it was special. Too many endlessly special memories…
CLC: You have been teaching philosophy at the university for a long time – what was first: Your yoga asana study or your philosophy study?
FAR: I started learning yoga when I was an undergraduate student. When it came to select my subject for graduation, I chose philosophy as I was inspired by the yoga philosophy and also my yoga teachers. So, yoga asana study was first and then philosophy followed. I consider that I was fortunate that I had no reading background of yoga when I started studying. The theory came alive for me as I could relate it to my practical experiences.
So, as I came to understand the philosophy of yoga, the theory and practice never appeared separate to me.
I taught philosophy, Logic and Psychology to undergraduate students for 36 years. I have retired from that job now. I used my contact with young students to impress and introduce them to yogic practices. Teaching philosophy as well as yogaasanas and pranayama made it very clear to me that both aspects are equally important even for a yoga student. Just knowing theory without practice is like sowing a seed which may never sprout because the soil in which it is planted is not suitable. Likewise, practices of asana and pranayama without knowing the theoretical background is like trying to make your plant grow without giving it any nourishment or direction. Both, theoretical as well as practical learning balance the growth of the student.
'Change and transition is the fact of our world.'
CLC: Having all the current changes/transitions in our yoga system and community in mind – what is your whish/idea/hope for the future of Iyengar Yoga?
FAR: Change and transition is the fact of our world. The Samkhya-yoga philosophy propounds the theory of prakṛti and puruṣa where prakrti is the material existence which by definition is always changing and in transition. Puruṣa is unchanging, eternal and perfect. To know the unchanging, it becomes necessary to know the truth of the changing prakṛti. Likewise, it is, with the progress of yoga as a study in the present times. To know it, one must explore and learn without having a dogmatic attitude of rigidity which may be falsely clad in the cloak of faithfulness. Guruji and Geetaji certainly taught us to know the truth from the untruth. Not for a moment did Guruji teach that we must follow him blindly. In fact, he always wanted that his students learn 'yoga' rather than ‘Iyengar yoga'’. He went to every length possible to explain the subject to us. No doubt, he taught in his own inimitable style which is what brought him the fame and the name of Iyengar Yoga. The future of yoga is very secure. It is an ancient science which has and will outlive each one of us.
My hope and wish is that more and more young people take an interest in this subject so that life styles become once again simple with lots of respect for nature and its elements. That every individual learns to thank the very air for letting us inhale it; thank water for giving us sustainance for life, and so on.
That is how rituals and prayers had developed for the so-called worship of the five tattvas or elements. Above all, I pray that as taught by Guruji, every individual will consider the body as a temple and respect one’s own temple to keep it pure and clean and so also respect every other temple with sincere reverence.
Claudia Lamas Cornejo: Thank you so much, dearest Firooza and see you in Munich for the German Convention 2021.
Firooza Ali Razvi: Thank you!