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Excerpts from an Interview: Martyn Jackson on studying with BKS Iyengar – Write on Yoga

Excerpts from an Interview: Martyn Jackson on studying with BKS Iyengar

This was part of an interview which I did in Sydney Australia with Martyn Jackson in 1988.  I will be posting more.  This portion will be published in the Iyengar publication of Yoga Vidya in December.  Stay tuned for more.

“For every student, there is one teacher who makes an impression, which ripples from that moment on to change and expand his or her experience. For me that was Martyn Jackson. His teaching is still alive within me and I hear his lyrical voice each time I practice. Martyn Jackson was a humble, brilliant, and generous teacher, and a sincere yogi.” – Shelley Piser.

Shelley Piser: What was your training when you first went there [to Pune], what regimen did he [B.K.S. Iyengar] have you on?

Martyn Jackson: For the first five weeks he had to break me. I was as hard as he was, you know, I was as arrogant. I thought I’d emptied myself because before you can put something into the vessel you must tip it out. I was a good gymnast. I could do most things with my body. The breathing was a little bit out of order, but I could breathe well. The first lesson, before he would take you as a private student (although he had accepted me for private tuition), in those days he insisted that you go to a general class. He had one general class a week, which was taught in the convent school in Pune city. I arrived on the Thursday morning and he instructed me to be at the public class that evening at five o’clock if I was interested. And naturally I was interested! I said, “Thank you very much.” I was there about half past four because I wanted to be early. When I arrived, there were one or two Indians beginning to arrive.

SP: Were there many westerners?

MJ: There was Dona Holleman—she had just arrived. There was Dona and there was a gentleman from Canada. He was very nervous. And Madam Schertz, a French lady, who came occasionally to general classes. One of them said, “Don’t do anything until he asks, just be there and don’t do anything.” I said, “OK, I will do everything you suggest, since you have already been here for a couple of weeks.”

Geeta arrived first and we went upstairs and waited, and when he arrived he just said “Sirsasana,” headstand, and they went up very regimentally in two and a half lines. There were quite a few people. I stood waiting and I knew I should be doing what they were doing, but I thought I would obey what the others told me. I don’t know if they said it to get me in trouble or not. So, he looked at me and after a few minutes he roared, “You’ve come eleven thousand miles just to stand there?” He said, “Why don’t you get working?” I said, “Yes Sir!” and I went behind the shortest line, measured pupil to pupil so I would be the same. I had my own yoga mat, put it down, folded it neatly and looked at everyone to see what they were doing. I knelt down, put my hands together, put my fontanel on the floor, straightened my legs, and I went up like a gymnast. He came up to me, kicked me in the kidneys, and said, “You’re showing off.” I said, “Yes Sir!” You know, I agreed with him. [Actually], I wasn’t showing off, it was my gymnastic training that gave me a lot of technique.

SP: So did you end up doing two lessons a day?

MJ: I started with that, yeah. At that first general class, he was at me every two or three minutes, he wouldn’t let me rest. I mean, for no reason at all. And I was really happy that he was kicking me, punching me, and grueling me because I thought, “Well, Martyn, if you went through this class and he didn’t see you or talk to you, you would think, gosh he doesn’t recognize me. And here he is at you like a dog with a bone and you should be satisfied that he is aware of you.”

So we went through the class, headstand, shoulder stand, Halasana, standing poses, just the normal general class and at the end Savasana, just for a few minutes. Then he disappeared somewhere. I thought I am not going to ask him, I am going to play it by ear when I should come for privates. I rolled up my mat and I had to go to the market for vegetables so I could have a meal. On the way to the market there was a “putt putt putt” of a scooter and he pulled up beside me and said, “Be at my place in the morning at seven o’clock.” “Yes Sir!”

I was so thrilled, I arrived just after six o’clock and I apologized for being early. “Why do you waste your breath by apologizing?” he said, “Can’t you sit down and observe, can’t you learn from observation?” I said, “Yes Sir!” It was only a little place, Savasasar. This was a small place about seven miles out of Pune city itself from MG road. Very nice spot. Lots of trees. I was watching these three fairly experienced Indian gentlemen. They were businessmen. He would take them into a pose until they would cry, “Baba!” They would just about keel out. And I thought, “This is going to be lovely!” Because I loved a challenge and I didn’t care how much I was hurt or stretched. When they finished, he put them in Savasana and went away to have a shower.

[When he came back] he went straight into Trikonasana, standing postures. He demonstrated and then I went into it and he said “You’re still showing off!” I said “OK Sir, so I’m still showing off.” But I told him that I had been a gymnast and I had been polished for years—I was being prepared for the Olympics in the early fifties. Iyengar said, “That doesn’t matter now! Forget all about it, you are with me!” “Yes Sir!” But, I said I found it difficult to let go of something I had been grounded into for so long.

We went through the whole of the standing postures, which I enjoyed. And several kicks and pats on the head and then we went into posterior stretches.   After three hours … my time was up; there was another Indian person there. I thanked him very much and I would see him in the afternoon at four. I went back at a quarter to four. He was resting so I just sat there. The first thing (no warm-ups at all) was Sirsasana, headstand. So I got myself ready and went up into it. Ten minutes was the minimum time standing still and he’d be around prodding me here, digging me there, and slapping my legs if I’d go dull. Then he took me through the variations. The lotus I couldn’t do upside down back then because of my knees. He knew about my knees, he just said, “Be quiet!” and put me in lotus, no trouble at all. I went through all the variations and then came down and stretched and then went into shoulder stand and Halasana. I think that the three would have taken about fifty minutes probably. And then we went on and finished off with other stretches and that was over. It went on like that for five weeks, just grounding into that.

He knew I was very keen, he knew I was into this and that I would be a “stayer.” So, although he was very hard, he was very encouraging also. He wanted to do everything to turn me against yoga, but it didn’t happen that way. It was one morning about five weeks later, Father Lobo was there, a great friend of Mr. Iyengar’s. He had been with Iyengar for about nine years. He would come occasionally just to watch Iyengar work me. So this morning he was there and it was backbends and I could do a backbend from the gymnastics style, but he didn’t want it that way, he wanted his method. Again it was difficult for me to break down many years of training. I was very happy that he was there assisting me and he stood in front of me and put a towel around my kidneys, I inhaled, raised my arms and just went back so nicely. He told me to do this and do that. The next one he was there but the towel wasn’t touching me quite so much but I was still depending on it. I went back and he had to let me back because I thought, “Well, if he wants me to do his method, I must learn to do it his way.” And then the third one, the towel was there but not touching me. I was waiting for him to touch me with the towel, but I went right back. The polished stone was very slippery and my hands slipped out and my head hit the floor and I was angry!

I learned a lot from that bump on the head. I talked to Father Lobo. I went home and did a lot of thinking. And I went in the afternoon not premeditating anything at all. He was sitting on the steps and he looked at me and said, “Ah, today we can start teaching you. From today you are not my pupil anymore, I am not going to teach you anymore.” And I felt so disillusioned. I thought, “Gosh, I flew all this way and he says he’s not going to take me anymore.” But he said, “Today you are my disciple, you are going to work with me and do everything that I do.” I felt so good.

SP: How long were you working with him?

MJ: I was working with him the whole time. Every time I went from then on. He made me go up into headstand with him, with a clock between us so he could tell the time. The headstand, free balance, and variations would be about forty-seven minutes.

I spent about fourteen or fifteen hours a day with him, but actual work out was about six hours a day: three in the morning and three in the afternoon.  After my six months was up, I would have loved to have stayed, but I had a business at home I had to attend to. So he said, “Go, practice what I have taught you, consolidate and come back next year.” I was back the next year. I stayed for five months not six. It took me about ten days to get back to the level that I left at, because when you are on your own you don’t work to that intensity unfortunately. I felt so close to him. We did a lot of things together. He would take me around on his bike and we would do some shopping. I used to call him Baba, just Brother, Baba.

SP: What do you think the qualities of a good teacher are?

MJ: I think you have got to really look at yourself to see thI think that he’s got to be very sincere to his calling and he has to make sure that before he or she becomes a teacher, you have got to really look at yourself to see that it is a calling that is coming from you, you must have that integrity. You must have an understanding that you want to find out what yoga is all about and why are you called to this path. Are you doing it because people have asked you to do it? Are you doing it because out of a pseudo sense, is it fashion to do something for a change, something new? I think that you have to have tremendous integrity; you’ve got to have a lot of devotion, because it is a thing that you can’t play with. If you abuse it, it is going to retaliate on you some way. You know you’re going to get backlashes. I basically started yoga for health reasons, because I was getting, like I said in the beginning, a lot of adhesions and the doctors insisted that I must do a lot of stretches that’s what I thought I must pursue. So when I got that book, (Theos Bernard, YOGA) I looked at the book and I enjoyed the movements that I started doing on my own, the stretches and I felt well, I felt good about it. After the first few lessons with Mr. Iyengar, well I mean, I was just flying high. It was just incredible.

Especially when he taught me the pranayama. That was the most elevating lesson, I think. Frightening, very frightening. But so wonderful, wonderful!

©shelley piser 2009

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