Korinna_portraitBy Korinna Pilafidis-Williams

Korinna has been teaching at IYL since 1995. She teaches a bespoke class for people with neurological issues and is a teaching mentor and trainer. For many years Korinna has been the editor of Dipika (the centre’s magazine), one of the oldest yoga magazines in the UK.

A blue plaque for a house in London?

In a quiet, leafy street in North London there stands an Edwardian house where BKS Iyengar taught his first public classes in the UK. They did not take place in a grand sports hall or dedicated studio but in the sitting room and the garden of a family house in Finchley, London N3 in the early 1960s. (Some of you may have heard of Finchley as it was the constituency of a certain Margaret Thatcher.) As I live within walking distance of Fitzalan Road, I was keen to find the exact house. I knew it had been the headquarters of the Asian Music Circle (AMC), which was founded by Indian-born Ayana Angadi and his wife, Patricia Angadi (née Fell-Clark) in 1946, but all available information on the exact house number turned out to be wrong.

Over the next four years I searched for the house number extensively and even tried old census publications, but to no avail. The breakthrough came when I was chatting to a friend and fellow yoga teacher, Ginny Owen, in Bristol. Cleverly, she took an indirect route, looking not for the owner’s name but for some of the well-known musicians who visited the AMC, specifically in a biography of the world-famous Indian musician Ravi Shankar. Finally, I had found it – the house number!!! I used one of my ‘lockdown’ walks for a recce. There it was: a house with a largish garden at the back and a fence that looked exactly the same as in the old photos we have.

”It was a cold ‘lockdown’ Sunday but I was overjoyed. It felt like meeting a long-lost relative or solving a mystery.”

What next? Well, rather than ring the bell, I decided to write a letter to the current owners explaining that I was working on an article for Dipika and giving them my email address. Lo and behold, I received a reply on the same afternoon. It was a cold ‘lockdown’ Sunday but I was overjoyed. It felt like meeting a long-lost relative or solving a mystery. It turned out that the house was now occupied by a young family, who had only moved in a few years ago. I was also delighted to hear that they were of Indian heritage. From the title deeds of the house, they were aware that it had been the seat of the AMC but had no idea about its yoga background.

Let me tell you a bit more about this house and its history…

Certainly for us, the fact that Guruji taught there has the greatest significance but famous Indian musicians like the above-mentioned sitar player Ravi Shankar, and the sarod player (a lute-like instrument) Ustad Ali Akbar Khan, played there when they were still relatively unknown in the West. We all know the sweet sound of The Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’, in which George Harrison plays the sitar. The story goes that when Harrison broke a sitar string, he was told to contact Mr Angadi to get a replacement. According to the Angadis’ eldest son, Shankara, the whole family delivered the new string to EMI’s Abbey Road studios. Harrison went on to become a regular visitor to the AMC and indeed he and Patti Boyd, his wife, had their portrait painted by Patricia Fell-Angadi, the owner of the house.


Clockwise from left: BKS Iyengar, Ayana Angadi, Chandrika Angadi, Robert Masters, Patricia Angadi, Yehudi Menuhin, Angela Marris, Dominic Angadi

You may ask what the connection is to Guruji? Let us go back to the most influential supporter of BKS Iyengar, Yehudi Menuhin. In an interview conducted by BBC producer Vanessa Harrison, Angela Marris, the secretary of the AMC and one of Guruji’s first students, recounts how Guruji met Menuhin (Dipika vol. 40, 2008, pp.15-19). It was 1952, Menuhin was visiting India and he showed Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s prime minister) that he could do a headstand. The father of Indian Independence was not impressed and told Menuhin that he needed to have lessons with the ‘‘best yoga teacher in India, BKS Iyengar’’. So began a legendary friendship between the musician and the yogi. Menuhin invited Guruji to teach him in Switzerland and London and then, as a patron of the AMC, he suggested that Guruji should teach a group of students at the Angadi family home. In the same interview, Angela Marris recounts that she was asked to organise the first class and to invite some students. It was mainly students from the AMC “who came because you only had to mention Yehudi’s name to them and, well, they’d come”.

”Menuhin was visiting India and he showed Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s prime minister) that he could do a headstand. The father of Indian Independence was not impressed and told Menuhin that he needed to have lessons with the ‘‘best yoga teacher in India, BKS Iyengar’’.”

The first class took place in the sitting room of the Finchley house on the evening of Monday June 19th, 1961 (Dipika vol. 43, 2011, p.19). It can be called the birthday of Iyengar Yoga in Britain. One of his first students at the class was the late Diana Clifton (1919-2015), who was also interviewed by Vanessa Harrison (in 1999, manuscript in the archives of IYL). Asked how she came to be at this first class she said: “I found out that Mr Iyengar was in the country and teaching at the AMC in Finchley. I rung through feeling rather nervous because I didn’t think I would be especially selected as I had only been practising from a book. The President of the AMC, Mr Angadi, said I should come as he had also only practised from a book…. When my husband dropped me at the house, he sat outside in the car. He said to me: “If there is any trouble, wave a handkerchief out of the window and I will come.’”


Guruji adjusting Jacueline du Pré. Left: Beatrice Harthan

In the first class there were just three students, Silva Mehta (one of the founders of the Iyengar Yoga Institute, London), Angela Marris and Diana Clifton. In Vanessa Harrison’s interview, Diana continues her memories of this first class: “I found him [BKS Iyengar] charming, really, he was quite firm with the way we were taught. He asked whether I could stand on my head and when I said that I can, he asked me to do it there. No blankets? So, he just threw a cushion on the floor. When I said that I could only do it to the wall, he replied: ‘I am better than the wall, I’ve got hands, I’ve got arms, do it here!’ So, I did.”


Chandrika in Sirsasana

At the next class there were more students, including the pianist Clifford Curzon, the violinist Robert Masters, the cellist Jacueline du Pré and Beatrice Harthan, who helped to get Light on Yoga published in the UK (see Dipika, vol. 48, 2016, p.1ff). Daphne Pick, another yoga teacher who was at the early classes and also lived on Fitzalan Road, explained in a written account (kindly provided to me by Lorna Walker, former editor of Dipika) how she came to attend the class. Chandrika, the Angadis’ daughter, was friends with her son. One day the eight-year-old skipped into Daphne’s house and said: “Mr. Yogi man’s coming on Saturday, the charge is 50p per lesson.”

The number of students increased over the following weeks, until the classes had to take place in the garden for lack of space inside. BKS Iyengar stayed with the Angadi family and often conducted two classes: one in the morning when musicians attended as they had to perform in the evening and another class in the evening. The ‘regular’ students consisted of Diana Clifton, Angela Marris, Silva Mehta, Eilean Moon and Daphne Pick, who all practised regularly once a week. They paid half a crown until they got 60 pounds together to buy an air ticket for Mr Iyengar to return the following year. In 1962, Guruji authorised these students to teach others, as long as they taught in pairs to support each other. They were therefore his first ‘qualified’ teachers (from the above-mentioned unpublished interview of Diana Clifton by Vanessa Harrison).

Sixty years later almost to the month, the current owners of the house have asked me for some private yoga lessons. I am extremely moved by the prospect that yoga will once more be taught there. It makes a perfect cycle. I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not the house should have a blue plaque.


60th Anniversary class, 19 June 2021

It has been a real detective story and I have asked many people for information so am grateful to all of them. I am indebted to Bhavna and Sam, the current owners of the house. They opened their garden at 11am on 19 June 2021 for Penny Chaplin, the UK’s most senior teacher and early pupil of BKS Iyengar, to teach a class to a few local students. The rain stopped and we recreated the 1961 photo in colour, with and without mats on the wet grass. It was a most moving experience.

I have also managed to contact two of the children of the Angadi family, Shankara and Chandrika. They generously helped me with the identification of some of the people in the garden photo and also named the AMC resident photographer, Jack Blake, who possibly took the original image. Shankara was sixteen in the original photo and can be seen standing at the back. We included him in the new photo too, standing against the new extension, which was added to the building in recent years. His wife Marina kindly took most of the photos of the day.

This article is taken from Dipika, The Iyengar Yoga London Maida Vale Journal, Issue No. 53,
July 2021. 

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