Culture

B.K.S. Iyengar: The guruji who brought yoga to the masses

The famed yoga teacher who revitalized the ancient Indian discipline has inspired tens of millions around the world

B.K.S. Iyengar seen during the celebration of his 94th birthday in November 2012 in Bellur, India.
Dominik Ketz / Getty Images

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar cut a mean figure in his old age, sporting a mane of white hair and wild eyebrows that fanned his forehead between the stiff line that was always drawn down the middle (a marking to denote his sect within Hinduism). But the father of modern yoga, as he was often called, is remembered with an outpouring of fondness and grief the world over after his death from kidney failure on Wednesday. The 95-year-old was largely responsible for putting yoga on the global map, making the ancient Indian discipline more accessible to people of all ages.

Yoga’s widespread popularity has made it a multibillion-dollar industry, with people paying top dollar for branded apparel, luxurious yoga retreats and classes; the commercialization of yoga even saw a copyright lawsuit being filed in 2011 by Bikram Choudhury, the face behind Bikram yoga, characterized by a sequence of poses and performed in rooms heated to a high temperature. All this runs counter to the spiritual basis of yoga, which seeks to increase the practitioner’s physical and spiritual well-being by uniting the body, mind, emotions and intellect. In a 2002 interview, Iyengar (fondly known as guruji, or respected spiritual teacher, by his students) addressed this shift: “I think many of my students have followed the advice I gave years ago, to give more than you take,” he said. “The commercialism may wash off sometime later.”

 “I would call him a practical philosopher who, being a very divine person, had the unique ability to come down to the level of the most mundane, teaching methodologies for us to uplift ourselves,” said Dr. Rajvi Mehta, who studied with Iyengar for more than 35 years and teaches at Iyengar Yogashraya, an official Iyengar institute in Mumbai, India; she is also the editor of Yoga Rahasya, the quarterly journal of Iyengar’s headquarters in Pune.

B.K.S. Iyengar drew on the earliest accounts of yoga practices, most notably the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (a foundational text on eight-step yoga from roughly A.D. 400), breaking them down into digestible chunks with an emphasis on props such as ropes, blankets, blocks, bolsters and belts to achieve proper alignment and physical rigor. His style relies on classical yoga, branded as Iyengar yoga by others. “Some people say he practiced a type of Hatha yoga; others say Ashtanga. Yoga is one, he often said. Like God is one, yoga is one. Different people call it by different names,” said Mehta.

Iyengar was born into an impoverished rural family, the 11th of 13 children (three died young) in the village of Bellur, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. He was a sickly child; riddled with diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid and influenza, he was told he would not live past the age of 20. “I was an anti-advertisement for yoga,” he would later joke. In 1936, Iyengar found respite — and, subsequently, his life’s calling — from his ailments with the practice of yoga, which he learned under the tutelage of his brother-in-law Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, a revered yogi, Vedic scholar and ayurvedic healer, at the palace of the maharaja of Mysore, where Krishnamacharya taught the royal family. Iyengar rose to the top of the class and was sent to Pune to teach.  

During Iyengar's early travels to Europe, when he identified himself as a yoga teacher, people would ask if he walked on glass and searched him suspiciously.

Rajvi Mehta

Yoga teacher and longtime student of Iyengar

He spent years eking out a living as a yoga teacher, sometimes subsisting on a single plate of rice every few days. But his persistence paid off: Over 16 years, his reputation steadily grew after he taught at an elite Pune sports club and then, independently, leading to a meeting in 1952 with the violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin, who had been experiencing muscle pain. What was meant to be a five-minute interaction ballooned into three and a half hours as Iyengar led Menuhin through a series of relaxing poses, or asanas, focusing on precise alignment and prolonged postures — the hallmark of his brand of yoga. With his bow arm loosening up, Menuhin was so impressed that two years later he invited Iyengar to teach in Switzerland, where he was introduced to Menuhin’s students, other artists and royalty. Fame followed, both at home and abroad, as Iyengar’s repute spread, and the yogi taught classes in cities across the United States and in Europe. Soon, his list of celebrity clientele included writer Aldous Huxley, actor Annette Bening, philosopher J. Krishnamurti, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, Belgium’s queen mother Elisabeth and Indian activist Jayaprakash Narayan, among others.

“In the ’40s and ’50s, when people spoke about yoga, it would be esoteric,” said Mehta. “During Iyengar’s early travels to Europe, when he identified himself as a yoga teacher, people would ask if he walked on glass and searched him suspiciously. That was the impression of yoga; [it was] thought to be practiced by madmen and eccentrics. From that he brought yoga to a respectable level.”

Iyengar’s rising popularity led to the opening of hundreds of Iyengar yoga schools (currently spread over 72 countries) and his 1966 book, Light on Yoga, highlighting more than 200 asanas was translated into 17 languages and became an international bestseller. Numerous accolades followed, including an entry on his style of yoga in the Oxford Dictionary and his inclusion in Time magazine’s 2004 list of the 100 most influential people in the world, as well as three of the top civilian awards in India, the most prestigious just this summer. But he remained seemingly unchanged by the fame, living by his words in Light on Yoga: “Stay inspired but not proud.”

Dedicating himself fully to his craft, he lived a simple life in a house behind his school, the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, named for his late wife. They had six children, two of whom, Geeta and Prashant, are directors at the institute, while his granddaughter Abhijata Sridhar-Iyengar continues his tradition by teaching at the institute, having watched him work over the years.

“Guruji imparted knowledge about yoga impartially,” she said in an interview with The Times of India. “He was like a great tree and his students, saplings growing around it.”

We are going to miss his guidance, his very presence and personality, which was so radiant, like the sun. The world at large will miss him being there for the light that he could throw.

Firooza Ali

Yoga teacher and longtime student of Iyengar

Iyengar’s strict teaching style — he often barked instructions and jabbed his students when their asanas failed to live up to his standards — attracted some critics, such as author and veteran yoga practitioner Elizabeth Kadetsky, who wrote a not-very-flattering account of him in her memoir First There Is a Mountain after spending a year studying with Iyengar. But his longtime students like Mehta and Firooza Ali think this criticism is unwarranted. “He was just a very serious and sincere teacher who wanted to give the best to his students, even if it meant he had to be a little hard on you, much like a parent. If his corrections or adjustments appeared rough to the onlooker, for the person who got corrected it was blissful, because when he put you in the right position you experienced the right thing,” said Ali, a well-known yoga teacher who has studied with Iyengar for 37 years. 

He followed his own strictures, attempting perfect postures for two to three hours a day throughout his life, even after suffering his second heart attack at the age of 80. “Practice is my feast,” he told The New York Times when he turned 84. Well into his 90s, he could maintain a headstand for a full half hour. Health is “a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit,” he wrote in another book, Light on Life. And thanks to his emphasis on props such as ropes, blankets, blocks, bolsters and belts to achieve proper alignment, he ensured that anyone could be healthy, no matter what age or physical constitution.

The guru also emphasized centering the body first, before turning to look inward, unlike the Sivananda school of yoga, which stresses meditation alongside asanas. “It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity,” he wrote in Light on Life. And countless followers thought that of him. “He was a man ahead of his time. His body of work and energy was amazing,” said Ali, adding, “We are going to miss his guidance, his very presence and personality, which was so radiant, like the sun. The world at large will miss him being there for the light that he could throw.”

Iyengar is survived by his children, Prashant Geeta, Vinita, Suchita, Sunita and Savitha; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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