Yoga's Greatest Guru Deserves Nobel Peace Prize
On Feb. 1, the Nobel Committee will close nominations for the 2014 Peace Prize. The list of eligible nominees (there were 259 last year) will be huge, partly because the question of what constitutes enduring work for peace allows for so many convincing answers. The Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai was strongly tipped last year, and will have many backers again. The names of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden will be considered. Even Vladimir Putin appears to have become a contender.
Curiously, although India is often associated with ideas of peace and tolerance, no Indian has ever been awarded the Peace Prize. (Mahatma Gandhi remains the most prominent of those denied it.) Is there an Indian today who deserves it? There certainly is, and it’s curious that his claim on it has apparently never been taken with the seriousness it merits, when one might say he hasn't just advanced the cause of peace in the world, but considerably enlarged its meaning.
After all, although the Nobel Prize tends to be associated with a political interpretation, the arts of peace certainly go beyond conflict resolution or resistance to state power. As the Dalai Lama, the winner of the Peace Prize in 1989, has said, “World peace must develop from inner peace.” And there’s perhaps no man alive who has taught humanity as much about inner peace and its many dimensions -- peace as a physical science, peace as a state of self-awareness and power -- as the great Indian yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar.
This would be a good year to award the prize to Iyengar. He turned 95 in December. Remarkably, he continues to keep up an exhausting schedule, radiating the positive effects of yoga practice for both body and mind. Two years ago, he travelled to China to start an Iyengar yoga institute there. “He can still do the sirsasana, or head stand, for half an hour at a go,” the Indian journalist Sanjukta Sharma wrote in a profile last month. “This is the longest a yoga guru has sustained his or her practice to perfect more and more.” To millions of practitioners who have passed through Iyengar yoga schools in 72 countries, or have deepened their understanding of yoga poses through one of his books (most notably the 1966 classic “Light on Yoga,”) Iyengar is the face of yoga.
More than any other yoga teacher in the last century, it’s Iyengar who has taken the practice both forward and outward, developing his own version of the art while also making it accessible for millions without any sacrifice in depth or rigor. Even Indians previously conversant with the nuances of yoga acknowledge his leading role in the systematization and conceptual advancement of an ancient spiritual discipline, and it was on his watch that the yoga movement became a revolution in the U.S. and Europe. If yoga is ubiquitous in the U.S. today, much of that can be attributed to Iyengar’s remarkable efforts over a lifetime. (The advance of yoga in the U.S. from fringe movement to multibillion dollar industry is told well by Stefanie Syman in her 2010 book "The Subtle Body.")
What’s the connection, though, between yoga practice and peace?
To be sure, for millions of yoga practitioners today, it is valuable for its fitness and wellness benefits or as a source of relief from stress. But no one who has ever practiced seriously and reflected on its experience of dynamic stillness cannot have seen a glimmer of what the ancient Indian sage Patanjali asserted about 2,500 years ago in the opening sentences of the "Yoga Sutra," a set of penetrating aphorisms (a sutra is literally a thread) about yoga and the human condition. Patanjali’s wide-ranging treatise remains the classic exposition on yoga as a science of the mind and the body as a pathway into self-awareness. It is a book that can be read profitably by anyone, even if you never get close to doing a warrior pose or headstand.
Patanjali's deeply challenging opening sentences are (I quote from the late American scholar Barbara Stoler Miller’s 1996 translation of the "Yoga Sutra"): “This is the teaching of yoga. Yoga is the cessation of the turnings of thought. When thought ceases, the spirit stands in its true identity as observer to the world. Otherwise, the observer identifies with the turnings of thought.”
As Iyengar, who has written an acute commentary on Patanjali’s text, explained in an interview: "When you cannot hold the body still, you cannot hold the brain still. If you do not know the silence of the body, you cannot understand the silence of the mind. Action and silence have to go together. If there is action, there must also be silence. If there is silence, there can be conscious action and not just motion."
These words contain a powerful argument about the ascent to a higher form of selfhood and equipoise, through a detachment that isn't a turning away from the world, but rather a renewed engagement, only cleansed of the distorting lens of egotism and the instinct for violence. In our distracted age, flooded with sense stimulation and frenetic, unfocussed activity, the practice of yoga (as many already know) can lead to a radically renewed awareness of the self as an agent that controls its own experience of the world.
For this reason, Iyengar’s trilogy, "Light on Yoga," "Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali," and "Light on Life," are among the greatest self-help books. They take a line contrary to the world’s major religions, which hold that the body is inferior to the invisible (and hypothetical) soul, and is a transient vessel that breeds selfishness and egotism that can only be transcended by submission to God.
Iyengar demonstrates instead that the body can itself serve as an instrument of transcendence through hatha yoga, or the disciplined practice of physical postures. Body and mind typically hold human beings captive in a net of illusions, desires, appetites and memories, but even by momentarily detaching ourselves from what Patanjali calls “chitta-vritti,” or the turnings of thought or “mind chatter,” we can achieve a disinterested, compassionate point of view upon ourselves and the world -- a revelatory state with enormous ramifications for the way we pursue our lives.
As Iyengar writes in "Light on Life," “Yoga does not just change the way we see things; it transforms the person who sees.”
By turning a daunting and often rarefied philosophical system with many divergent internal strands and arguments into a universal program of education available to anyone who seeks it out, Iyengar has ensured that yoga has become India’s greatest export to the world, the brightest example of its abundant soft power. To be sure, many others have merit as Peace Prize candidates, with work involving courageous resistance to power, which Iyengar’s doesn’t. But I can’t help thinking that Iyengar stands for a much more foundational notion of peace, one greatly relevant to our times.
Followers of Iyengar like to quote his saying, “Before peace between the nations, we have to find peace inside that small nation which is our own being.” Perhaps the Norwegian Nobel Committee should look more closely this year at the astounding work of a man who has over the course of 80 years forged for himself and millions of others a durable peace inside that "small nation” of the self.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)
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