Remembering B.K.S. Iyengar

September 12, 2014    BY Kat Heagberg

Even if you’ve never set foot in an Iyengar Yoga class, if you practice asana today, it’s a pretty safe bet that BKS Iyengar has influenced your yoga in some way. If you’ve ever experienced a pose more fully because of a prop, skillful assist, or alignment cue, you likely have Mr. Iyengar to thank. And on an even more basic level, the simple fact that public asana classes are now so widely available is largely the result of his work and impact. "If people love their yoga practice," says Yoga International teacher Shari Friedrichsen, "at some time it was touched by Iyengar. Somewhere along the way, if you’re doing yoga asana in a classroom, it’s in part because of his influence that they have that yoga class."

If you’ve ever experienced a pose more fully because of a prop, skillful assist, or alignment cue, you likely have Mr. Iyengar to thank.

Mr. Iyengar died on August 20th, 2014 in Pune, India at the age of 95. Since then, yoga-related publications, blogs, and social media have been filled with an outpouring of gratitude from practitioners all over the world. Many students who have never studied with or even met Iyengar in person, including practitioners of other (and often very different) styles of yoga, have expressed a deep indebtedness, and even a personal sense of connection to him.

"His personality was so intense," says certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and research scientist Roger Cole, "that he literally kind of reached across the world and touched people who he never met. He was completely, 100 percent, into yoga. That dedication came directly from him to the people who studied with him, but it also came indirectly to everyone else. Even though he didn't teach every style [of yoga], he’s influenced every style."   

Iyengar maintained that yoga should be accessible to all, and as a master teacher, author, and—perhaps most importantly—a completely devoted practitioner for over eight decades, his life and work have long inspired students of all ages and abilities. "He was a personal example," explains Cole. "He insisted that you know what you’re teaching from the inside out, and he certainly did that himself. There’s a real unspoken resonance that people have with someone who’s teaching something authentic like that."

"Everyone realized that he walked his talk," says Gabriel Halpern, director of the Yoga Circle in Chicago, IL, and dedicated student of Mr. Iyengar since 1976. "His poses [were] impeccable, his ability to transmit what he knew was second to none, and the quality of the teachers who came out of his stable stands as living proof that the man knew what he was doing. He has impacted us all in a world where charlatans, con men, and phony-holy beings abound."

The eleventh of thirteen children, Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja (BKS) Iyengar was born in Bellur, India on December 14th, 1918. A self-described weak and sickly child, Iyengar found the earliest years of his life marked by poverty and illness, including tuberculosis, malaria, and typhoid. As a teenager, he was sent to Mysore to live with his brother-in-law, the renowned yoga teacher and scholar, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. Under the tutelage of Krishnamacharya, Iyengar regained his health and became proficient in asana, often performing yoga demonstrations and, eventually, teaching.

Over time, he developed a reputation as a skilled teacher and healer in his own right, and his expertise was soon sought by many, perhaps most notably the famed violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, whose gratitude and accolades caused the Western world to take notice of Iyengar Yoga.

Over the past several decades, the reach of Iyengar Yoga has been extraordinary. It is currently one of the most recognizable styles of hatha in the world, with Iyengar teachers, studios, trainings, associations, and institutes found across the globe.

Iyengar’s bestselling books on practice and philosophy have introduced yoga to countless individuals. His most notable book was his 1966 Light on Yoga, an international bestseller and staple in many teacher trainings, which has never been out of print. He has received numerous awards and honors, including the Padma Vibhushan (the second-highest civilian award in India), and a spot on Timemagazine’s "The 100 Most Influential People in the World." There was even a recent campaign to nominate Iyengar for the Nobel Peace Prize.

An Extraordinary Life of Simplicity

Certainly, BKS Iyengar’s global influence was remarkable, and his name recognizable to nearly anyone who’s ever rolled out a yoga mat, but what Iyengar’s students, who lovingly refer to him as "Guruji," remember most, is his unshakable devotion to the practice and study of yoga.

What Iyengar’s students, who lovingly refer to him as "Guruji," remember most, is his unshakable devotion to the practice and study of yoga.

"I would describe [Iyengar’s] life as a life of simplicity, practice, and devotion," says senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Patricia Walden. "Every morning by 9:30, he would come out of his home and walk up the stairs to the practice hall at the [Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga] Institute. He had a particular place where he practiced every day—anywhere from two-and-a-half to three hours. He often taught while he was practicing," she adds, "and I’ve been fortunate enough to receive his teachings in that way for many, many years. Everything he taught and wrote about was from his own experience, and that’s rare."

According to Walden, Mr. Iyengar’s afternoons were spent in the library, reading or writing. "Patanjali was his beloved," she says, "and he was constantly reading different commentaries on the Yoga Sutra and, of course, he wrote his own commentary, too. When he wasn’t reading or studying, he would answer letters, and as you can imagine, he received many, many letters, every day. Up until the last two years [of his life], he would answer every letter and record the first sentence of every letter in a log book. He had boxes of log books with the first line of every letter he’s ever written. That’s quite extraordinary."

When it comes to describing the life of Iyengar, “extraordinary” is surely a fitting adjective. To bridge the gap between yoga and the Western world, and to innovate and expand the practice of asana was nothing less than extraordinary. "His work was the underlying linchpin," says Friedrichsen. "He set the foundation, he brought [yoga] to the West, and he made it accessible. He broke through the doors and said to the Western world, ‘Practice this, and your life will change.’ I don’t think there was anyone who was strong enough to spread [yoga] and to open all of those doors the way he did."

"I think that a lot of people were ready for a door to open to a spiritual practice," explains certified Iyengar Yoga teacher, author, and licensed physical therapist Julie Gudmestad, "and sitting in more traditional forms of meditation was not something that they would or could do. Practicing asana with a constant stream of instructions keeps bringing your consciousness back to the present moment, and that enables you to be attentive. [Iyengar Yoga] allowed active westerners to be active and practice being present at the same time."

Up until nearly the end of his life, Iyengar continued to travel and teach around the world, including recent visits to the United States, Russia, and China. "He was very giving and tireless," extols Cole. "He went around and spread yoga—that’s partially why he was so popular; he was physically there."

"I remember [in 2005], his book Light on Life came out,” says Walden, "and he came to the United States and did a tour. His first stop was Estes Park, Colorado, at the Yoga Journal conference. One night we went into this big hall, and he gave darshan to every single person there. It was one of the most extraordinary nights of my life, feeling him give darshan to a thousand people over a three-hour period. When he was finished, we all got into the car. We were driving back to the place where we were staying, and I said, ‘Guruji, that was just incredible,' and he turned around and said, ‘that was then.’ So in other words, that happened, but now he’s in the present. He was really good at being in the present."

The Gift of Alignment

Headline after headline lauds Iyengar’s key role in popularizing yoga in the West, but he did so much more than merely promote; he helped to shape the way the world views yoga. "He didn’t just spread yoga," explains Cole, "he brought yoga forward, to a new place it had never been before. He innovated, but with enormous respect for tradition."

He did so much more than merely promote; he helped to shape the way the world views yoga.

One of Iyengar’s most significant contributions to yoga has been his work with, and teachings on, alignment and form. In fact, for many teachers and practitioners, Iyengar Yoga has become pretty much synonymous with alignment. "That is one of his greatest gifts—bringing awareness to alignment," says Gudmestad. "I’ve spent my whole professional life trying to translate his instructions into anatomical language to help myself and others understand why they make so much sense in terms of the structure of the body and the health of the joints."

Recently, scientific studies have begun to confirm the benefits of Iyengar Yoga. Recent NIH research studies, for example, demonstrate the efficacy of Iyengar Yoga in alleviating chronic lower back pain, increasing brain GABA levels (a neurotransmitter related to decreased depression and anxiety), treating the symptoms of osteoarthritis, and alleviating pediatric chronic pain (more studies can be found at the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States Yoga Research Committee’s website).

Iyengar didn’t hold any advanced degrees in anatomy and physiology, but his teachings were rooted in experience, from a life dedicated to practice. "[That was] his genius," says Gudmestad, "As a physical therapist, I had to go to school and learn, from the microscopic up to the bigger structures—to study and learn healthy joint alignment, how the joints function, what’s the best alignment for joints and muscles to stay healthy, and all of this technical knowledge—but [Iyengar] could see things at a glance that, even with all of my expertise, might take me a few minutes. His cues virtually always fit with what is the anatomical norm."

"You look at the way he taught almost any posture," agrees Cole, "and you can find, by retrospective analysis, how all these little adjustments he introduced trigger specific physiological and neurological events that make the pose work better. Iyengar didn’t discover them by studying physiology, but by studying his own experience."

The Genius of Props

Along with alignment, props—the bolsters, blankets, blocks, and belts that are now standard offerings in nearly every yoga studio—are a hallmark of Iyengar Yoga. As with intricate alignment cues and hands-on adjustments, Iyengar’s innovative use of props stemmed from his own direct experience of what the fullest expression or "perfect" form of an asana should feel like. "The evolution of props followed from the core principle of observation in the moment," explains Cole, “and trying to reach a place—a feeling, a state of mind, a state of body, a state of quiet—that Iyengar himself had experienced and was transmitting to his students."

The use of props is also intrinsically related to Iyengar’s insistence that yoga is for everyone, and while a simple block, strap, or sandbag might not look like much, the normalization of props helped to shape our current perceptions of yoga asana—what it is, and who it's for.

"[Props] made yoga accessible for people who wouldn’t have even considered it," says Friedrichsen. "I watched Iyengar do therapeutic classes, and people would come in with disabilities and illness, and he was able to work with every single person through the use of props. No matter how young or old they were, he made yoga accessible. He looked at where they were, and he knew energetics well enough that he could prop them so that they could access that energetic. That's what made people come back; that’s what made people love him—he gave them something in working with their bodies that nobody else could. He never limited people; he encouraged people to move forward from where they were, into yoga."

More Than Just Asana

To the casual observer, Iyengar Yoga might appear to be all about the physical body—and certainly, the health-related benefits of practice are an excellent perk, but Iyengar's senior teachers and longtime students stress that the practice of Iyengar Yoga, and Mr. Iyengar’s intent, were something much deeper. "[He] made clear to us over and over again that his brilliant work in asana alignment [was] all in the service of spiritual awakening,” says Walden. “He would say the physical body is our first instrument, and we use this instrument to reach our own divinity. It’s like penetrating through the koshas, from the outer layer inward.”

"I remember him giving me an instruction on how to use the leg in trikonasana [triangle pose]," says Cole. "He pointed to the outer knee of the front leg, and he brushed it back and said, ‘move this back this way,’ and then he pointed to the inner thigh, and he brushed his fingers along and he said, 'move that back that way.’ When you move the outer knee back, it rotates the thigh outward, and when you move the inner thigh back, it rotates the thigh inward," Cole explains, "so he was giving two completely contradictory instructions, but what I finally came to realize is that by doing those two contradictory things, you end up in the middle. It created this tremendous stability—equal alignment, balanced alignment with heightened awareness and control. That to me," he says, "has really come over the years to exemplify his teachings, because what [Iyengar] was doing in that small physical act was taking the physical and elevating it to the level of the philosophical, by creating equanimity in movement."

Iyengar’s Life and Legacy

Though Iyengar has trained some of the world’s finest yoga teachers, they themselves are quick to remind that he was truly one of a kind. "This is where it’s kind of interesting as to what’s going to happen next," says, Cole. "No one can teach like [Iyengar], no one can do what he did. If we simply try to copy, we’ll fail, because his teachings didn’t come from a book or set of rules, they came from direct experience. The thing that’s really going to spread—his true influence—is the inspiration that people got when they studied with him."

"The thing that’s really going to spread—his true influence—is the inspiration that people got when they studied with him."

"His life was a very simple one, based on practice,” reminds Walden, “and in the last years of his life, his practice was a very devotional practice. He would share with us that through asana he would experience divinity, and that’s why he did asana. For those of us who have been studying with him for 35 or 40 years, when a teacher like Guruji transforms and reaches a deeper state of being, he unconsciously brings his students along with him. At this point in my life, I practice for the same reason [that he did], to experience that spark of divinity. That doesn’t happen every day, of course, but that’s what keeps me going with my practice."

Kat Heagberg
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!

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