The last weekend of April in Ibiza. Residents and visitors were boogying the nights away at big name club openings: Ushuaïa, Hï, Pacha. Elite athletes from 61 nations could be seen around the island competing in the 2023 World Triathlon Multisport Championships. And in the cavernous studio of San Jose’s Cercle de Consciencia grunts and groans could be heard as 45 men and women gathered for 13 hours’ challenge of exhausting pain, shaking with agony, pushing bodies and minds to their limits. About 1/3 of the group had previously studied with Usha Devi in India. Others knowing her reputation had registered immediately to participate. Some teach yoga, some (like myself) had practiced yoga for many years but never before experienced the demanding intensity, precision and detailing of an Iyengar workshop.
If there is such a thing as yoga royalty, Usha Devi is it. Followers see her as one of the last disciples, the last direct transmission from B.K.S. Iyengar. Iyengar, one of the foremost yoga gurus in the world, is credited with popularising yoga globally as exercise and founding the style that carries his name. Iyengar stopped teaching in 1984 and died in 2014. Usha remains one of the last of his pupils still alive and teaching.
A native of Switzerland, Usha Devi remembers fondly her first visit aged 18 to Ibiza in 1970. She chose to return to Ibiza for her first teaching experience in Spain to support members of her devoted global community of students, as some build their own teaching careers on the island. In the mid 1970s after reading a lot of Indian philosophy Usha moved to India. She studied Sanskrit rituals, classical Indian music and singing, and set up an Ashram/school in spiritual center Rishikesh, the ‘capital’ of yoga. Usha didn’t begin her yoga practice until age 39, inspired by meeting Iyengar and the manner in which he delivered his lectures. Two car accidents followed and years of rehab yoga with Iyengar, whom she credits with saving her from life in a wheelchair. Fully healed, Usha Devi began teaching in 2002 as Iyengar insisted she had too much knowledge not to share it.
‘Empty your mind by exhausting your body. One needs to move the body faster so the mind can rest. All instruction is meant to bring you to the present moment. So detailed, so mindful. Longer and longer. Taller and taller.’ Mantras of Usha Devi.
Workshop organiser Luisa Geraldes explains: ‘With Usha you develop your willpower, your strength which empowers and inspires you to go the extra mile. She is a very authentic teacher, her teaching being the result of her own practice and struggles after 2 devestating car accidents. She shares all.’ At the same time- Usha is so tough. So demanding. Sarcastic. Ridiculing. Doesn’t hesitate to humiliate students. During each session I plotted not to return, to cancel this interview. Yet, I did return, and interviewed her after. Because the results… the results … the posture, the back strength, the clarity, the loose neck, holding my head so high… after just 13 hours… it’s astonishing.
Usha Devi believes it’s important for all ages to practice Iyengar yoga. Students who do ashtanga or vinyasa yoga come to her with injuries. She doesn’t scold them but tries to help as her teacher Iyengar helped her. Usha’s message: Keep on practicing, it will help you in your daily life, in your future, to be healthy, happy, and to learn to be a little bit yourself.