Usha Devi: "Nobody wants to be a student, everybody just wants to be a teacher"
Usha Devi is a living legend in Rishikesh. A Swiss woman who has lived in India for 40 years, she has suffered two terrible accidents in 1998 and 2003 that crashed her legs. After 23 surgeries, there was little hope that she could walk again, but the guidance of her Guru B K S Iyengar and Usha Devi’s strong will and hard work resulted in a miracle. She is walking, doing asanas, and teaching in Rishikesh, with hundreds of students coming to her every year to learn about their own bodies and advance themselves to the level of bodily understanding and control they never thought possible. Usha Devi has a reputation of a strict and demanding teacher with an amazing knowledge of human body mechanics. She requires a lot of her students, sometimes getting them to experience their limits, but she knows how to do it in a safe way. Students have great trust and respect for her because she is a living example of the healing power of Iyengar yoga. Knowing the value of hard work and determination, she can make her students reach their full potential.
Usha Devi shared with us her insights on the meaning of yoga practice and the current situation with yoga in Rishikesh.
TopYogis: Usha Ji, you are one of the most recognizable and respected names in the yoga scene in Rishikesh. How come you don’t conduct teacher training courses?
Usha Devi: Because I’m against this. I think it’s completely wrong. We never asked Guruji to become a teacher. Why I learned yoga with Guruji - because for me it was my sadhana. It was purely sadhana, and I practiced seven years with Guruji till he told me: “Now you have to start teaching”. And I told him: “Guruji, I’m not learning yoga to become a teacher, it’s just for my sadhana”. And he said: “You have the knowledge, now you should start teaching and pass it”.
You know, now nobody wants to learn, everybody just wants to be a teacher, nobody wants to be a good student. So I would never go into this (teacher training business). I think it’s a wrong thing. And see what’s going on here? Because all these yoga teachers are not getting students on a regular basis, so they are just going for teachers training, and they earn a lot of money.
And in some places, you don’t even have to be present, you just pay and you get a certificate.
TopYogis: Usha Ji, do you think one month is enough to become a yoga teacher?
Usha Devi: Not at all! You see, we are learning for years, years, and still every year I am going to learn in Pune, every year I’m going for three months, three and a half months to learn more and more, and still I feel I don’t know anything. I know so little. And even Ekta, my student, started conducting the beginner class since two years, and I felt she’s ready to go to Pune, and she is also learning there, for one month, two months, this year she was there for three months.
TopYogis: So it’s a neverending process.
Usha Devi: No, not at all. How can it be?
I think you need to continually learn in every profession. Whatever you do. Everything is moving so fast, so you have to keep yourself moving, learning, that is my opinion. In every profession, you have to learn. And who is learning here? See, all these yoga schools here, they just came out like mushrooms, and I don’t know from where they got certification. They learn here, there a little, and they teach, and lots of rubbish is happening.
TopYogis: Usha Ji, what do you think is the purpose of yoga practice?
Usha Devi: For me, it’s my sadhana...
TopYogis: So everybody will have a different purpose?
Usha Devi: Of course. You will see it when you ask it. Of course, many will just want to be a teacher (laughs). But for me, it’s my practice. I’m living in an ashram also. I have sacrificed my life for the ashram life. So for me, maybe, the purpose it completely different (than for other people), but normally I would say, why people practice yoga now in these days, if they are a little serious - just to be healthy, happy and healthy - emotionally, mentally, and physically.
TopYogis: Now, in your experience, does one have to follow Iyengar approach to have a balanced and safe yoga practice?
Usha Devi: I don’t like when you say “They HAVE to” (smiles). You know what attracted me when I met Guruji? You could really feel that he has so much experience. Ht had so many people, and I saw during all these years, how he could help so many people. How he put me on my legs again. And I think nobody else was there who could do this thing. I think he has really lots of experience, and for me, he was a Guru Master. What we learned from Guruji is to help the students not to get injured.
Because you see, our body is not a yogic body, not at all. When you think how the yogis lived in the past, and how we are living. We are coming from such different countries, sitting on a chair, sitting in a car, completely away from the ancient way, so much under stress, so our body is different in many respects. And Guruji understood this. I personally feel sometimes like I’m in a hospital.
TopYogis: Do you see particular injuries that prevail?
Usha Devi: Mostly, these are knees and shoulders. And also, girls not having menstruation, and lower back problems.
TopYogis: Do your students tell you that some practices or asanas are prone more than others to create injuries?
Usha Devi: It’s not asana per se, but the way how they do it. Sometimes practitioners come here with some injuries, and their practice is restricted, which they don’t like. And also, sometimes we are strict with them, and they don’t want it, and they are going back to their previous practice. And then, after some time, they come again. And what I’m doing now, if somebody has a problem, of course, I take care in the class, I tell them what to do and what not to do, but sometimes they don’t listen. And if they really need help, I ask them to come to practice (self-practice daily in the morning in the yoga hall). And then I will help. If somebody does not come to practice and just goes here and there, I’m not going to help. Why should I waste my energy? And to those people who come to self-practice, we are helping, me and my students who have knowledge of particular problems.
TopYogis: Iyengar yoga and your approach, in particular, is famous in Rishikesh for being efficient in dealing with injuries. So many people told us that they came with injuries to your class and then with persistent work and practice they’ve got healed.
Usha Devi: Yes, they get healed, but I don’t know how and why they go back again to their previous practices (laughs). I remember Paramahamsa Yogananda, he cured people who had certain problems, and the first thing he asked them was to be a vegetarian. They gave up meat, and they really got healed, and once the problem was solved, they started eating meat again. So here it’s a little like that.
TopYogis: So yoga is not a short-term solution, quick fix, it’s a lifestyle.
Usha Devi: Of course.
I mean, somehow you have to change your approach and understand. Sometimes there are people who follow the yogic path, and then they stop. Because it’s an effort. And I think it’s rubbish - you see on the TV how people talk that they got healed with yoga as it’s a one-time solution. I think you have to really be a practitioner.
TopYogis: Usha Ji, what is your personal practice? You certainly have a daily practice.
Usha Devi: (Laughs). I’m supposed to have. Sometimes there are too many things. Because I’m living in an ashram, and there certain work has to be done, I can’t just say: “No, I do my practice now”. But I really try. And then of course, sometimes when I’m not here (in the ashram), I practice early morning at home.
TopYogis: And what would that be, if you had for example just 15 minutes for your practice? The most important element?
Usha Devi: Normally, I don’t just practice for fifteen minutes. At least one hour, even two. I do my prayers, then I do some pranayama. Otherwise, I don’t leave the house.
TopYogis: So what would you say to a person who asked you for advice about 15 minutes daily practice?
Usha Devi: What would you do in fifteen minutes?
Usha’s student: if I had only fifteen minutes, I would do something else.
Usha Devi: Like go for a walk.
Usha’s student: Sometimes I just stretch, but I wouldn’t call it a practice, it’s just stretching.
Usha Devi: I think even one hour is difficult to fit your practice in. It’s a minimum. Because it takes time also, you know?
TopYogis: Absolutely, to integrate anything.
Usha Devi: You know, every morning when you get up, you feel different conditions. Sometimes you feel lazy, sometimes it takes one hour to remove this resistance and start practice, to find out what you really need.
TopYogis: Usha Ji, what is your approach to headstand? In the West, there are teachers who do not practice headstand and don’t teach it.
Usha Devi: In the general classes, I don’t teach headstand. And in the intensive courses, I teach it. It has to be done properly, otherwise, it can cause a lot of problems: eye problems, and all kinds of problems. That’s why I understand why even doctors sometimes deny shirshasana. According to Guruji, beginners in the preliminary course first have to learn sarvangasana - shoulder stand. That has to come, they have to get prepared. And then slowly, slowly, with understanding, they can do shirshasana. But I teach really it very little.
TopYogis: Yes. And it needs preparation.
Usha Devi: Of course, a lot of preparation. I just had a Chinese group here, and I asked them to do their shirshasana. I just had to stop it and say:”No, this is completely wrong”. And I teach them slowly how to do it properly, the way Guruji taught us.
TopYogis: Can you give some advice for people who come to Rishikesh for the first time to search for their yoga practice, and they can be a little bit lost. What would you advise them?
See, Guruji told to us: “When you search for a teacher, first find out if he’s practicing”. If he’s practicing daily, then you can try. And then, of course, you have to challenge the teacher by asking questions.
TopYogis: Have you been challenged?
Usha Devi: Yes, people are asking me questions. And of course, they come with problems. Of course, everyone has to find out for themselves where to go and what to do, but for me, I feel Iyengar yoga is safe, it’s really safe. Of course, it depends on what people want.
Usha Devi's student Mahesh: There are people who have that fear factor in them. Apprehensive about what yoga is, they don’t know. To remove that fear factor, the best thing is to try Iyengar.
Usha Devi: And everything is so clear, you know. And if you really follow, nothing can go wrong.
Usha Devi's student Mahesh: If something goes wrong, it’s not that Iyengar yoga is wrong, you might have understood something badly.
Usha Devi: You might be with an unqualified teacher. Iyengar yoga is really safe. This is what I see with my students.
TopYogis: Thank you so much for your time, it’s wonderful.
Students talk about Usha Devi
“With Usha Ji, the body learns to be strong as well as flexible. So it depends on the body type. My body tends toward the flexibility with no strength, so that gave me awareness. I would say that one of the major benefits for me was developing the strength and the resistance to actually be able to support the pose properly instead of just going into the pose in the way that might be injurious.”
“I’m quite flexible, so it’s easy for me to just jerk my body around in whatever kind of shape I need to be making, but I had absolutely no awareness at all of what I was doing, so Usha really helped me learn to have awareness, which I think is the very key. And then I can bring this awareness to my breath and my mental state, so in this way this practice really helped me a lot.”
“In Iyengar style, there is the capacity to develop the faculty of the mind to be aware. And not just the awareness, but the alignment as well. And thus we develop a faculty of the mind: the capacity to understand what is happening in the body, and capacity to correct the body. Iyengar yoga gives you the possibility to understand what you are doing, not just intellectually, but experientially. So it’s this kind of understanding that the practice with Usha Devi develops in our mind. Internalizing the concepts that she explains.”
“Usha Ji is one of the first students of Guruji Iyengar. So whatever she has learned, it’s directly from the guru.
The best in Usha Ji’s teaching is that she is very focused as a teacher and she makes sure that the student is also focused. She so much tries to make sure that we are aligning our body, and the precision is very important to her, and when we do that as she instructs, we ourselves try to think inwards, and make sure we are delivering to her what she is expecting of us. And what happens is, because of this, it’s not just our physical body, but our mind also gets aligned. You try to focus on your body, and automatically you are in the state of dhyana.”
“Usha Devi is able to push you to your maximum limit without hurting you. She understands when you’re being lazy, when your tamasic nature sets in, and she pushes you beyond that. Usha is able to see deep inside the students, see their potential, and push them to whatever that potential is. Usha is the best teacher I have ever experienced, and I had a lot of the senior Iyengar teachers. I say this because she has made me see my potential. You need to understand, Iyengar taught to such a broad spectrum, to so many students, in so many different places, in so many ages that, maybe there are ten or fifteen teachers in the world now that really can convey his teaching. And Usha Ji is one of those few.”
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