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The housewife who shone light on American yoga

Also published at Elephant Journal, and in Yoga Rahasya.

Last year, I met one of B.K.S. Iyengar’s earliest pupils. She attended his first class in London, and was certified as a teacher on the spot. Now in her 90s, like Iyengar, she maintains a daily practice, and gives classes.

It might seem odd that Iyengar accredited a housewife, but when Diana Clifton started, hardly anyone taught asana. To learn about yoga, you’d have to study in an ashram, or read an esoteric book, as she did.

The tome that led her to her guru was also written by a woman, who’d learned from Iyengar’s teacher, Krishnamacharya. Like Diana, she was once exhausted and frustrated, but wrote about how yoga changed her life.

Their stories still have resonance today.

*****

A yogic pensioner’s progress: from mid-life crisis to guru

By Daniel Simpson

LONDON – It’s a platitude that life begins at 40, but every cliché holds a grain of truth, as Diana Clifton realised 50 years ago.

An anxious mother of two, and harassed housewife, she felt constantly fatigued and unsure why – until staring out the window one Monday, something changed.

“I didn’t want to do the housework,” she reflects, from the same north London living room as then, only now aged 91, and looking radiant. “So I was just sitting here trying to make myself do things when I found this book.”

Her teenage son had borrowed it from the library, impressed by its title: Forever Young, Forever Healthy. As Diana recalls, “he thought that could help my mum.” She on the other hand thought: “it sounded gimmicky”. So she’d ignored it. “But I picked it up rather than do the washing, and it was so compelling.”

Like her, the author once felt sick and weary, but said yoga had “transformed” her. In 1961, this sounded alien. And yet Diana sensed it wasn’t mumbo jumbo.

“I started doing some of these poses,” she says, “like she showed in the pictures.” And sure enough, she felt completely different: her constipation vanished, along with her headaches.

“I remember saying to people I feel reborn,” she laughs. “Of course, now everybody assumes that’s born again, so I don’t say that any more, but it’s how I felt. Yoga has really given me my life.”

Within a few weeks, she was standing on her head. Then, on June 16th, she opened a newspaper, and saw a famous violinist perched upside down.

Beside this inverted shot of Yehudi Menuhin, an article explained he was a pupil of “India’s foremost teacher of yoga”, B.K.S. Iyengar. And his guru was coming to London to teach public classes.

The following morning’s paper had more details, in a letter from the organiser. Diana phoned him on the spot. “I said do you think I could come, I’ve only been doing it from a book so far.” This wouldn’t be a problem, she was told. When the first class began two days later, there were three students, all of them middle-aged women like Diana. She immediately asked Iyengar to train her to teach.

“How did I have the nerve?” she wonders now. “I’d always thought I wanted to, so I did. And he just said ‘Oh, yes’, and that was that.”

The classes continued all summer, interspersed with demonstrations, at which Iyengar showed off postures in theatres, from the simplest gymnastic extensions to twisted contortions. When people approached him afterwards, and asked where they might be taught such yogic feats, he turned to Diana.

“I was so surprised,” she says, but there she was: the first Iyengar-accredited teacher ever. Although daunted, she remained enthusiastic. “To me, yoga was precious as a jewel. I wanted everyone to do it.”

After proselytising put her friends off, she learned instead to let students seek her out. Gradually more came, including the musicians Clifford Curzon and Jacqueline du Pre. Once Iyengar went home to India, the classes continued, overseen by Diana.

“I was very conscious of the responsibility,” she says, so she sent photos of herself in poses to Iyengar, who returned them with written comments on the back, which she shared with her students. A year on, they all chipped in to fly him over. This became an annual event, and played a pivotal role in bringing yoga to the masses.

Diana Clifton in 1961 and 1992 (photos collated by Elaine Liffchak)

Though yogis had been venturing west since the nineteenth century, they’d tended to be greeted with suspicion, written off like circus freaks or psychic conmen. But by the time Iyengar published Light on Yoga, in 1966, the public mood was more receptive.

His practical manual was christened the yoga “Bible”, and the BBC declared him its Michelangelo. With photos and exhaustive instructions, the postures were all laid out in progressive sequence – the way he’d taught them to Diana.

“The first year or two it was pretty simple,” she says, “but then he saw I was getting on and he put me in more difficult poses, either before the class or when the rest of them were doing something else. I wasn’t expecting that. I thought I was doing all right.”

But not quite well enough for the master. “I got ticked off quite a lot and my students got upset the way he shouted,” she says. They quipped that his initials must stand for Bang, Kick and Slap. “He knocked me down every year when he came, and I was grateful for that really, because it stopped me getting too big for my boots.”

To her amazement, he eventually praised her. “He said I’d be a better teacher than some of these people coming over from India. I thought, my God, from Mr Iyengar? I felt all hot.”

She went as his personal proxy to California, where yoga had been eagerly embraced, but not with Iyengar’s trademark precision. As an American senior teacher put it later, “if it wasn’t for her, none of us would be here now.”

Before its reincarnation as a lifestyle guide with glossy adverts, Yoga Journal ran an earnest seven-page profile, paying tribute to “her joyful attitude” and “the fact that while being completely devoted to yoga, she remains very much a Western woman.”

Although enlightened by all that she’s learned, she’s areligious. “Yoga is here to serve man,” she says, and not vice versa. “It’s an assistant to help us in the art of living,” a practice that cultivates beneficial habits. She only alludes to transcendence in rational terms.

“A beginner, if properly taught, will taste the whole essence of yoga in their first pose,” she explains. “The most important thing is to introduce relaxation in the stretch.” Effectively, this teaches meditation, by concentrating awareness throughout the body. Rather than clinging to tension, you observe it, and dissolve it with detachment.

The older Diana becomes, the more this applied philosophy makes sense. She recently suffered a stroke, which stopped her teaching, and limits the range of postures she can do. Her body might be frail but not her voice. It’s as sparkling as her eyes in curling photographs, which depict her pretzled up, legs round her head.

“Death is such a natural thing,” she smiles. “I think you have to die while you’re still alive.” Renouncing attachments isn’t easy, but “yoga can teach you how to let go.”

Having already outlived two husbands, Diana maintains she hangs on for the sake of her third. “I don’t like leaving people. Adrian says if I die, he’ll die soon after.”

She’s not so sure. At 83, her partner does handstands every morning, and his spine appears as upright as a sentry’s. “He’ll be alright,” she nods at him. “I know he will.”

Photos collated by Elaine Liffchak

In any case, she still looks strong herself, as does her mentor back in India. Though 92, Iyengar practises daily, for hours at a stretch. And even so, he’s slowly winding down. June 19th will be his final foreign class, 50 years to the day after meeting Diana. But like his teacher did before him, he could live to 100.

So could she. “Trouble is,” she laughs, “we’re all too healthy.”

2 comments
  1. Hi Nice job of your website and article about MY TEACHER. It would have been polite to ask my permission to use the collages I created of Diana’s photos for MY WEBSITE, don’t you think?????

    • A reply sent earlier this month, via email:

      Hello Elaine,

      I wasn’t aware you created the collages. It was remiss of me not to enquire, or to ask your permission to use the photos. I apologise. I’ve amended the posting to give you credit, including a link. Would you like your comment to remain?

      Best wishes,
      Daniel

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