Usha Devi is the resident instructor at Patanjala Yoga Kendra. She also manages the center and organizes the center's on-going cultural and spiritual activities. In addition to teaching yoga, Usha Devi manages a pre-primary school with 240 children, which has made a place for itself within a short period of time on the educational map of Uttarakhand: Omkarananda Preparatory School.
She is also involved in supporting Omkarananda Educational Society schools in the remote Himalayan hill areas of Uttarakhand: Omkarananda Hillschools.
Usha Devi has been living in India since 1985, serving at Omkarananda Ashram Himalayas. In 1993, she began to study yoga with the world famous Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar "Guruji". She continues to study with her renowned Yoga Guru and his daughter Gitaji. She spends several months each year at the Iyengar Institute in Pune.
In her teaching, Usha Devi is very precise and strict. As a result, her students are often astonished by the level of personal application and awareness that they are able to achieve during her classes. For many, the first impression is of a hard, demanding teacher; this is true, but students quickly realize that Usha Devi's disciplined approach arises from a genuine love for others and a natural selflessness which enables her to form quite a unique relationship with the students in her classes. Under her continual guidance, students are allowed to achieve depths of yoga practice that they had no conception of before. Most students who work with Usha Devi come to feel that her instruction has given them a true understanding of the important aspects of Yoga which in turn, gives a lifelong improvement to their practice. Her ironic sense of humor and her forthright common sense contribute to making her something of a legend in the Yoga community.
In 1998, Usha Devi was involved in a serious road accident in which she suffered severe injuries. After six months in the hospital, many operations, and over a year confined to bed; she spent the following two years in plaster casts, undergoing constant medical treatment. In March 2001, Usha Devi slowly returned to limited normal activities; and then in September of that year, she was fit enough to travel to Pune to study with B.K.S. Iyengar personally at his Yoga Institute. Five years later, while on the way to recovery, a second car accident fractured both her femurs, putting her back into the hospital for yet more operations. The full story of her experiences can be found on the page Yoga Rahasya. Usha Devi has no doubt that her recovery has occurred only with the help of Guruji, his yoga instruction, and his blessings.
In Usha Devi's own words: "These accidents taught me to go into my yoga practice in a very different way; and that Yoga can work for every body. The young, the old, the extremely aged, even the sick, the infirm, and the disabled can obtain perfection in Yoga by constant practice. My goal is to let people know about this." Clearly, the process of personal recovery through Yoga has given Usha Devi a unique understanding of Yoga, and a deep empathy with her students. As a result, she has established herself as a very successful Iyengar Yoga Teacher in Rishikesh (India), the world capital of Yoga. Usha Devi recently traveled to Israel to teach classes there; also conducting a workshop at the Indian Embassy of Tel Aviv.
Usha Devi credits her recovery from her accidents to Shri B.K.S. Iyengar "Guruji", whose personal awareness and medical classes testify to Yoga's healing power.In the words of a recent article in Saga Health News:
Swiss-born Usha Devi is clear that it was only Shri Iyengar's strict Yoga regimes that prevented her from being long-term bedridden and permanently handicapped... after two serious road accidents."
Saga Health Magazine: December 2005
23 surgeries, then yoga
Usha Devi walks with a noticeable limp but it is her pleasant smile that is distracting. You will find no outward evidence of the two road accidents that nearly destroyed her. She can now squat on her haunches, something her doctors told her would never be possible. She can even do the headstand, with a little help. You suggest miracle, she quickly corrects you. "Hard work and yoga."
The stocky, lively 54-year-old was born Lisolotte Horenberg in Switzerland. For the last 30 years she has lived in India and has integrated herself into the Indian way of life. In 1998 and again in 2003, she met with two terrible accidents. The second accident fractured both her thigh bones and bent the implanted metal supports meant to heal the previous injury. The knee which had been smashed in the first accident was dislocated again. Doctors performed 23 operations after which she was in bed for eight months. But, she says, "Minutes after I had opened my eyes, I knew I was going to be fine. I knew Guruji would help me get back on my feet."
Guruji, the 89-year-old yoga maestro B. K. S. Iyengar, was the person to whom she turned. When Usha hobbled up to Iyengar's institute in Pune on crutches, not even senior teachers believed Guruji could do much to help. Many months later, Gita Iyengar, Iyengar's daughter who is also a teacher and author of several books on yoga, admitted to Usha that she herself was sceptical about whether they could really help.
Usha had to go through her 18-month recovery alone. Her husband, a scholar who is blind, could not travel easily from their Rishikesh ashram, and their son could not leave his studies. "Initially, everything was painful. I had to be helped even to raise a leg. Just letting the leg drop back by the force of gravity was unbearable. There were no asanas, just pain, pain and pain," she says. But the ashramites soon realised that beneath that soft exterior was a steely determination that had not been ground down.
Iyengar is known for the wonders he has worked on those whose bodies cannot perform even simple functions like squatting on the floor. People with fibroids, menstrual problems, slipped discs and dislocated waists all wash up here, many of them after trying other methods that have failed. Not only is Iyengar's institute shockingly reasonable - medical classes for Indian students at the ashram cost Rs 50 a month until a year ago - it also spares one from expensive, painful surgery.
Unlike other popular forms, where yoga is often confused with higher mental planes, Iyengar Yoga focuses on intensely working the body. Breathing techniques come later when the student has perfected his postures, quite unlike the common perception that one begins with pranayam.
Unconventional ways were used to get Usha's body going. One day Guruji would use a huge red Swiss ball, on another, he would hang Usha by a rope to get her body parts to move. He made her use an elaborate set of props made of wooden bricks and pillows to raise her leg only to change the focus to her hip bone the next minute. Just when Usha felt she was getting comfortable in a pose, he would move the goal post or suggest something more painful.
Even as Usha slowly recovered, scores of other students from around the world also moved back to health at the medical class at the institute. There was a student practising a specially designed sequence of forward bending poses to correct the compression of the spine, another wanted to get rid of her vertigo. Not everyone can do yogic poses even if their body allows it. For example, a nervous person cannot do headstands as it will increase his nervous energy further. Instead, forward-bending poses are recommended to restore calmness to the head.
Usha is back home now at her ashram by the Ganga. She says it is difficult for the lay person to accept that yoga can come without spiritual benefits. Foreign students who come to her institute often stray to gurus who promise spiritual development. "Then after months of experimenting, they come back to find that it takes mental strength to pursue physical endurance through yoga,'' she says. "That is the hard truth."
New Delhi, January 6, 2008