A life’s journey through yoga

2008-02-14 00:00

Joyce Stuart has been described as the “grandmother of Iyengar yoga in South Africa” — the method of yoga developed by B. K. S. Iyengar which she was instrumental in introducing to this country in the early seventies. This month she will be leaving Pietermaritzburg as well as the custom-built B. K. S. Iyengar Yoga Institute in Trelawney Road, Pentrich, where Stuart, and her late husband Ron, owned the old farmhouse Trelawney.

“The incredible teachings of BKS have taught me so much about life,” says Stuart. “Yoga makes life so much easier to accept as it is. We have a body, we are born and we die. The space in-between birth and death needs to be occupied with awareness and understanding.”

Although her sight is failing due to aged-related macular degeneration, the 84-year-old Stuart credits yoga for her continued physical and mental wellbeing: maintaining a daily practice regime, teaching a morning class and leading the occasional yoga weekend.

Stuart is also a keen sports fan, especially of cricket and rugby, and is a devotee of the sports channels. “Now I’m virtually retired, that’s how I like to spend my time,” she says. “These days the commentators are so good they give greater interest.”

There’s certainly nothing esoteric about the down-to-Earth and practical Stuart. That’s what’s interesting about her, this no-nonsense woman who found her vocation in the practice and teaching of the Eastern discipline of yoga.

Stuart was born in Britain’s Liverpool in 1923 and came to South Africa as a teenager. “My father, Henry Prescott, worked with cables throughout his life and in 1937 he joined African Cables in Vereeniging. That’s where my South African history started.”

And that history began with a course in shorthand and book-keeping which saw Stuart land a job at a clothing shop doing the books. In Vereeniging, she met Ron Stuart and they married in 1941. Ron’s specialist skills —“he was a roll turner with Union Steel” — took them to Rhodesia when African Cables opened a factory in Salisbury. In 1949, after two years in Rhodesia, the Stuart family — now plus two sons Geoff and Ken — settled in Pietermaritzburg and Ron got a job at Scottish Cables in Mkondeni (now Aberdare) where his father-in-law was the managing director. The Stuarts’ third son, Ross, was born the same year. Today Stuart has nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

The Stuarts were nominally Christian but not churchgoers, and in the early fifties Ron became interested in Eastern philosophy. Stuart remembers him buying a book on yogic breathing disciplines known as pranayama. “That’s how it all started,” she says. Ron subsequently became involved with the Divine Life Society (DLS) and regularly attended services. “I didn’t,” says Stuart. “At that time I had no interest in the philosophy. It just didn’t fit with my English background. The songs, the kirtans, the mantras — they simply didn’t appeal.”

However, the physical exercises associated with yoga did appeal to her and Stuart got a book on the asanas (postures) which she and Ron then took up together.

“We more or less competed between ourselves: seeing how long we could stand on our heads,” she laughs. When they had gained sufficient confidence to run asana classes, they held a three-month evening course in the conference room at the city hall. “We started with 40 people and it just kept growing,” says Stuart. “Eventually we had 80 people and had to move into the Supper Room. Ron did the teaching and I demonstrated the postures.”

Initially, Stuart taught only when Ron couldn’t; a car accident had left him with a spinal problem. Eventually, Stuart did 90% of the teaching and then branched out on her own, giving daytime classes. “They were aimed at middle-aged women whose children had left home — I was hoping to serve a purpose in that way.”

In the late sixties, a friend recommended that Stuart read Light on Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar which had just been published. “I read it and realised how incredible it was,” she says. “What made an impact was that it taught one how to hold poses rather than move in and out of them. Only then can you get the full internal benefits. There it was — the physical, mental, spiritual aspects of the practice.”

By now Stuart had become receptive to such ideas. “I was fortunate that prior to this I had been involved with Swami Venkatesananda (the celebrated DLS guru) when he came to visit South Africa. Not only was he a terrific lecturer but he was also a warm, spiritual person — very much in touch with the world despite being ‘away from the world’. That’s when my interest in yoga went beyond purely doing the asanas.”

“Both Ron and me travelled a lot with him, driving him around during his visit to Pietermaritzburg. The day before he left he gave a special prayer of thanks for Ron and I, and suddenly I had no option but to place my head on his feet. I had been so anti — but my whole state of being had changed.”

It was Venkatesananda who gave Stuart the name by which most people know her: Padma. “It means ‘lotus’— now the lotus rises up from the mud and becomes very pure,” she says laughing, clearly seeing the name as ironic in her case. “Every time someone calls me Padma it’s a proverbial kick up the pants.”

Out of the blue came an opportunity for Stuart to attend a course given by Iyengar in London. “We had no spare money at the time but we decided it would be a good thing to go.

“It was the first time I had been away from the family. It was the first time I’d flown. It was a first time for everything. The first time I had seen clouds from above — I can still remember thinking ‘Goodness me, isn’t God wonderful?’ ”

Her first class with Iyengar was equally memorable. “We started with head balances. I was very proud of my head balance. ‘How long do you stay up?’ BKS asked. ‘Seven minutes.’ ‘Seven minutes — why not 10?’ and then he grabbed me by the feet, picked me up and plonked me down in a different position. I obviously hadn’t had the right posture.”

“It was a two-week course and the first week he did nothing but pick me out — ‘this teacher from South Africa’.” Iyengar had planned to visit South Africa with his friend and supporter, the world famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, but had been refused a visa by the South African government. “So he didn’t have any time for South Africa. I got to the stage of ‘If you say that one more time, I’ll hit you’. He seemed to read my mind — that I’d got to breaking point — and after that he couldn’t have been kinder and more helpful.”

This “tough love” approach might sound familiar to some of Stuart’s own students, one of whom described her as a “benign regimental sergeant major who has your best interest at heart even if you don’t happen to think so at the time.”

After the London course, Stuart was given the option of going on to Gstaad in Switzerland with Iyengar. But back in South Africa Ron had gone into hospital. “He thought he wasn’t going to have an operation, so we decided I should stay as it was such an incredible opportunity to continue.”

“It was a real turning point, not only in my life but Ron’s. I remember one day looking out of the hotel window and seeing BKS walking down the village street. I have never seen anyone so vital in their walk — that’s when I thought ‘that’s what I want to be like’.”

As well as this epiphanic moment, Stuart had daily one-on-one sessions with Iyengar who taught her pranayama. “It was a great privilege. I am one of the few people who have had private pranayama lessons from BKS.”

On her return to South Africa, Stuart spread what she had learnt via workshops in Johannesburg and “that’s how the B. K. S. Iyengar Institute of Southern Africa started”.

Then began a nine-year battle to get Iyengar to visit South Africa. This time it was India who refused permission as they had no relations with apartheid South Africa. So BKS gave courses in Mauritius, Swaziland and Malawi, which were accessible for his South African students.

Eventually, Iyengar was given a visa to attend the opening of the yoga institute at Trelawney, a smaller version of Iyengar’s mother institute in Pune, India. “Ron and I had been to India three times. We were so inspired by BKS’s eight-sided institute that we decided to build one along similar lines. BKS gave us the plans.”

Iynegar was granted a visa expressly for the opening. “So this place is very special,” says Stuart. A question mark now hangs over the landmark building. A developer has bought the Trelawney property and already put up a town-house complex and conference centre, and intends demolishing the old farmhouse once Stuart has left. He’s said that as far he is concerned, the institute will remain but that its fate depends on the body corporate.

Stuart remains unperturbed, thanks to the yoga which, she says, has given her the knowledge that she is always looked after. “The aspect of acknowledgement of a greater power — call it ‘god’ or what you like — that is guiding one in one’s life to something; I don’t think you have to analyse what that something is.

“Yoga is the union with that inner divine form that gives you the capacity to balance your life,” says Stuart. “You need to be aware that you are something more than just a physical body, that there is a ... ‘soul’ if you like. By the practice of yoga you gain further knowledge and the eventual wisdom and understanding of how life itself is to be lived.”

What is yoga?

Yoga is a Sanskrit word literally meaning “yoke” but often translated as “union”. In Hinduism, the term is used in the sense of harnessing oneself to God or seeking union with God. The name is attached to a number of ancient spiritual practices from India such as karma-yoga, selfless action; bhakti-yoga, devout love of God and raja-yoga, the “royal yoga” which was formulated by the sage Patanjali who wrote the Yoga Sutras. Hatha yoga, with its emphasis on the body through asana (postures) and prana-yama (breathing) practice, was originally a technique of raja-yoga as taught by Patanjali.

Many people do yoga purely because of its health benefits, sidestepping other aspects of the teachings.

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