The Art of Yoga

Published in Spectrum Magazine, Summer 2021 p24–28. A short reflection on my dual heritage, my interest in painting and the background to the my watercolour series of Krishnacharya practising āsana

I have an English mother and an Indian father. Dual heritage is jewel heritage (as my wife Lindy says) – they reflect and refract each other, and I am forever grateful to both my parents. My mother lived in India for many years – me, my twin brother Sanjoy, and younger sister Anita, were all born there and came to the UK when we were very young. My father was a civil engineer and he instilled in us all a great love of India, our Indian family and a feeling for the country’s heritage (and cuisine). I also have very strong memories of my dad’s enthusiasm for maths, particularly vectors, and differential calculus. And also, equations – he loves a good equation! Many fellow children of Indian parents will recognise the desire of their parents for them to pursue careers in engineering, or medicine, or possibly even law. And failing any of those, you could always become the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Sanjeev Bhaskar tells a story of announcing to his dad that he wanted to become an actor. A look of incomprehension spread across his father’s face. “What?” he asked. “I want to become an actor.” And then his father’s face broke into a smile of recognition: “Oh! You want to become a doctor!”

Of the three of us, only Sanjoy went on to do a science degree. But then he swerved rather abruptly into writing about dance and has been a dance critic for the Guardian (amongst other things) for many years. Anita went straight into publishing and editing and has written books for children as well as books on nature and the natural world. She helped edit the book I wrote with Dave Charlton (who was also an engineer), ‘Embodying the Yoga Sūtra: Support, Direction, Space’. Strangely enough, she is just about to start a regular column for the Guardian too!

And I studied English and Fine Art, became an art therapist for many years and then a yoga teacher and trainer. It was rather a long way from engineering. However, when I first met Desikachar in November 1990, he reminded me of my father. They were physically quite similar – same stature, same glasses, same haircut. Desikachar had also been an engineer and like my father he had an impish sense of humour. He used to call me “50-50” – I know it sounds politically incorrect now, but it was meant with great affection and I knew that.

Desikachar will be remembered for many things. Along with his contemporaries, Ramaswami and Mohan, he took the teachings of his father and became like a bridge connecting ancient India and the modern world. He experimented, he explored, he provoked, and he innovated. One of his innovations was the ‘stick figure’ representation of āsana. These were technical drawings, void of gender, age and clothes. In this sense, they were timeless and became the pictograms which teachers could use to transmit practices. They were an engineer’s drawings.

When I was at art school, I became interested in the abstract expressionists. I loved the freedom of the splash, the (controlled) anarchy of letting colour dribble and mix and evolve. I painted big – and a bit wild. Out of this period I painted a set of seated figures in 1990 which (I hope) evoked something both of the freedom of the abstract expressionists combined with the discipline of seated breathing practices. Here are a few of examples (even then, I was painting seated figures practising pranayama or meditation):

Fast forward nearly thirty years to Embodying the Yoga Sūtra, the book that Dave Charlton and I wrote together. One of the challenges was how to illustrate the practices. Looking at older yoga books, it was clear that nothing ages them as much as photographs of people practicing āsana. Very quickly, hairstyles and clothes look dated. We hoped that our book would have a long shelf-life, so decided against photos or even line drawings of real people. We liked the simplicity and clarity of stick figures, but wanted them to have more of a feeling of movement and space – to use markings more like those of a calligrapher’s brush than the technical drawings of earlier books.

Having not painted very much for some time, lockdown in 2020 stimulated me to get my art materials out again. I played with watercolours. I had always enjoyed life drawing – and in fact I see many similarities between life drawing and teaching yoga.

Both require observation, and a sort of neutrality of view, just seeing what is there, without presuming. They are both forms of meditation.

A photo of a figure practicing āsana usually portrays the flesh – we most readily see the annamāyā (material) level. The beauty of painting is that it has the possibility of going below the surface to evoke something of the energy, the prāṇamāyā (energetic) level. I used old photos of Krishnamacharya, from the 1930s and the 1980s to express something of how I saw the energetics of the form. I wanted the paintings to be light, filled with space and direction. Using watercolours enabled both a translucence and also a quickness – I let my brush dance as if it were a calligrapher’s tool. Sometimes the paint was wet, other times the dryness of the brush indicated a movement or a direction. Here are a few examples (alongside the original photos, which many of you may recognise). 

Parśva trikonāsana 

Parivṛtti trikonāsana 




You can also see all of the paintings on our website   The prints are all from photos of the original paintings taken by Rupert Mardon, whose website is

And finally, here is a picture of my mum (who taught yoga as a BWY teacher for many years) and dad taken in 2021 in front of a large dribbly abstract expressionist-influenced painting I did for my mum for her 50th birthday. And that was a fair while back!

Mihir and Hilary Roy, February 2021

Ranju Roy 

February 2021

Co-Author (with Dave Charlton) of Embodying the Yoga Sūtra: Support, Direction, Space (2019)