The Yoga Pioneers - B.K.S Iyengar 1918-2014
BKS Iyengar on the Evolution of his practise.
I didn't get to meet B.K.S Iyengar. My last visit to India was in the early part of 1999. This was to watch Pakistan vs India in the cricket. The first meeting between these two giants of the game for many years. It was a birthday treat for myself. At that time aged 20 I had no interest in Yoga. If I had the maturity to appreciate the science of Yoga back then as I do now (the appreciation, not the maturity😏 ), I would have gladly walked the nearly 2000km from Eden Gardens, Kolkata (or Calcutta as it was known back then) to Pune to visit him.
Over the last 5 years as I have become more and more hypnotised by asana (the physical aspect of yoga) and the inner machinations of the human body, I made it a goal of mine to go to Pune, India and learn from the master. Sadly I was too late as Iyengar passed away in 2014. I still plan to visit Pune next year to study at his Institute (lovingly named after his wife) - visa pending. It wont be the same without him but will still be a wonderful experience to learn at the institute where the yoga we all do today was pioneered.
In my opinion some people take guru worship too far. They put their gurus and/or teachers too high on a pedestal. They bow at their feet and give them all sorts of offerings and prayers. This is partly cultural, it was the great Swami Vivekananda who said; “Find the teacher, serve him as a child, open your heart to his influence, see in him God manifested”. This all seemed too much for me personally. I was never going to take my interest in Iyengar and turn this into devotion, this isn't how I was raised. But I was hugely intrigued by his work. The more and more I have read about him and studied him the more captivated I became. My continued interest in learning from Iyengar and the work he has left behind is because he was the master of his craft. It's like a rookie football manager wanting to learn from Alex Ferguson, or a fledgling actor wanting to learn from Denzel Washington. But Iyengar was more than the master. He was also a pioneer. Who better to learn from than the man who more or less developed and refined what we all do today?
My treasured early version of Iyengar's Light on Yoga. I had this book for many years before I was interested in Asana. I used this as a reference to teach 'stretches' to clients to improve their health and performance. Once I fell in love with Yoga, it became my constant source of reference. In the 2nd image you can see the pages falling apart from years of examination.
Below: Iyengar's influence reaches further than he could have ever imagined.
The biography below isn’t short, but a short biography wouldn't do justice to such an inspiring man. Much that I have written has been taken from the various books he has published. I have included various images capturing Iyengar in his youth as well as his various yoga demonstration videos. You will see from reading his story why Iyengar calls Hatha Yoga the Yoga of WILL. His own childhood was extremely difficult and by his own admission he questioned if life was really worth living. It was through his will alone that he was able to "ferry himself across the great river of ignorance to the shore of knowledge and wisdom".
Iyengar was not privileged. He dragged, scratched and clawed himself towards success. Not just a man of success however, but a man of true value. He fought his illnesses with sheer strength of character. The character that developed through suffering. The inspiring Helen Keller once said; "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved." This is a perfect summary of Iyengar's life.
Iyengar fought distress, poverty, illness, racism and loneliness. Through his continuous effort and struggle, he grew in stature and strength. Like a true artist he used only grace and his faith to lift himself to the point where in 2004, Time magazine named him one of the most 100 influential people in the world. B.K.S Iyengar learnt to smile in his troubles. He came from the gutters of Karnataka in India and rose to the prominence of world renowned yoga master. All through his hard work ethic and will. My gravitation towards Iyengar and his teaching is not based on devotion but based on appreciation and gratitude. If it wasn't for this “grumpy-looking man with bushy eyebrows”, it is possible that none of us would be practising yoga today. In some way we all owe a debt of gratitude to Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar. The great western philosopher Nietzsche once said; “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude." B.K.S Iyengar was a true artist.
The Early Years
Iyengar was born 14 December 1918 into a family of 13 children, only 10 of whom survived. His father came from the village of Bellur, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Iyengar's father died from untreated appendicitis in 1927. Iyengar was 9. This left his family in absolute poverty. “There was a time when we couldn’t pay the school fees and I was not allowed to sit the exams. My brother took me begging for money”, he recalls. Iyengar did poorly in school and he failed a key English-language examination. The exam result brought his schooling to an end, and Iyengar's family began to wonder how the still frail young man might make a living.
“At the time of my birth, in December 1918, India, like so many countries, was devastated by major world epidemic of influenza. My mother was herself in the grip of the disease at the time when she was pregnant with me, and as a result, I was born very sickly. My arms where thin, my legs were spindly and my stomach protruded in an ungainly manner. So frail was I, in fact, that it was not expected to survive. My head used to hang down and I had to lift it with great effort. My head was disproportionately large to the rest of my body, and my brothers and sisters often teased me. This frailty and sickliness remained with me throughout my early years, As a boy, I suffered from numerous ailments, including frequent bouts of malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis. My poor health was mated, as it often is when one is sick, by my poor mood. A deep melancholy often overtook me, and at times I asked myself whether life was worth the trouble of living”.
The young Iyengar was introduced to yoga by one of his brothers-in-law, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (pictured with Iyengar below) who was 30 years older than him. Krishnamacharya ran a yoga school supported by the maharaja of Mysore. Krishnamarcharya was married to Iyengar's sister and was a real taskmaster. “I don’t think he saw any real potential in me. He told me to practise asanas to improve my health”, Iyengar says. “I jumped at the offer. Health had been a perennial problem for me since I was born.” It took three years of practising yoga before Iyengar noticed a distinct change in his health and this encouraged him. “My Guruji (Krishnamarcharya) barely paid me any attention during this time. Later, he taught me just the outline for the basic asanas – the classic yoga postures. I grasped the rudiments of each asana and practised on my own. I learnt the difficult postures, such as Vrschikasana (Scorpion pose) and hand balancing, during the public performances we used to participate in! I don’t know what Guruji really saw in me, but I think he recognised that I had guts.”
At one point Krishnamacharya forced him to do a split-leg exercise (Hanumanasana or the Great Split) for which he was unprepared, and he tore a ligament and was unable to walk for some time. “I had no knowledge of this asana. My Guru described the pose and I realized it was difficult. I told Guruji that my shorts were too tight. It would be difficult to stretch my legs. He asked one of his senior pupils to cut the shorts on each side with a pair of scissors. Then he told me to do the asana." Iyengar explains that all Krishnamacharya said was "right leg forward, left leg back, 180 degrees". That was all the instruction the young Iyengar received. Iyengar amusingly recalls that Krishnamacharya's hands were as if they where made from Iron. So through fear of being scolded (it was of course ok to hit the students back then!), Iyengar did the pose as best he could. "Guruji's hand where made from Iron. If he hit you it would take you days to recover. So I did it, but it resulted in a tear in my hamstring that took over 2 years to heal."
One of Krishnamacharya's top students disappeared just days before the royalty of the area were due in Mysore for an important yoga demonstration, and Iyengar was tapped as a replacement. Iyengar says this was common practice as Krishnamacharya was such a taskmaster. The other students just didn't have the character that Iyengar did and would often leave without notice and never return. Iyengar was told in 2 months, he must be able to perform certain asanas. He was given a list and that was all. No instruction. Come demonstration day, the tenacious Iyengar did so well, he was able to join his teacher on the road for other classes and demonstrations.
“I learnt a valuable lesson that day (tearing his hamstring). I realised that attempting certain asanas suddenly, without preparation, could harm the body and the mind. I started evolving the asana sequences scientifically. I developed a progressive approach from simple to difficult asanas. I categorised them by their effects, as being purifying, pacifying, stimulative, nourishing, or cleansing. Guruji lit the fire of yoga within me but I did not learn it in the form that it is today. I struggled with and traced the missing links of refinement and precision. I evolved my Guru’s method, so that a set of asanas could be practised followed by another set, using the alignment of the intelligence in the asanas”.
Above: One of the most famous pictures showing the early years of Krishnamacharya's teaching. The young men where taught a vigorous style of Yoga to enhance their speed and strength according to Krishnamacharya's children. The yellow arrow above is pointing at a youthful Pathabi Jois. Jois was one of Krishnamacharya's star pupils. Jois or "Guruji" as he would affectionately become known as later in his life, was primarily responsible for the popularisation of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system.
Images above & below: A re-enactment of Krishnamacharya in the 1930's overlooking a number of yoga demonstrations.
In 1936 Krishnamacharya sent the 18 year old Iyengar to the Deccan Gymkhana Club in Pune, to teach yoga. On this experience, Iyengar says; “I suffered from an inferiority complex because of my shendi (tuft of hair, typical of orthodox Hindu Brahmins). But I decided I would not be dejected. I worked hard to prove yoga’s worth.” Iyengar’s term at the Club was extended every six months for a period of three years. The years that followed would prove to be the darkest period in Iyengar’s life. He lost his job at the Deccan Gymkhana Club and with the exception of two or three students, his teaching had practically come to a full stop. “It was a testing time of tears, failures, and anxieties. In hindsight, it seems that this was the darkest hour before the dawn of prosperity. An inner voice urged me to persist and carry on. My will alone held on. I practised intensely and taught yoga to whoever was interested. I cycled miles to reach students’ houses. There were days when I survived on tap water, as everything else was unaffordable. I had no guarantees, no help, and no support from my family. Failures gave me determination and showed me a new light and a fresh way to progress. I used the tool of disappointment as an appointment for a new assignment. Failures, stalemates, and disappointments strengthened my will to pursue this path of yoga with determination, and God graced me in my path.”
Below: A short demonstration video of BKS Iyengar from 1938.
Below: BKS Iyengar in the 1940's.
Amidst this struggle for sustenance and recognition, Iyengar married Ramaamani in 1943 aged 25. “My financial position was dire, but family pressure prevailed and we were married against my better judgement. We celebrated our marriage on borrowed money”, he says. Ramaamani was unfamiliar with yoga in the beginning, but she soon became a dedicated student. “She was quick to help me in my practice. She developed sensitivity and a healing touch. Without Ramaa it is possible that my method of yoga and myself would not be what we are today”, he says. “I used to tell Ramaa to observe my posture while I practised yoga, and to correct me. She was my mirror to achieve accurate form.” There is no doubt, Iyengar says, that Ramaa sacrificed her dreams so that he could pursue his art. “When I left my family to teach in Europe and the US, she faced many problems. For example, there were massive floods in Pune in 1962, and people rushed to their terraces with their possessions. But Ramaa’s sole concern was to keep safe the manuscript for my book Light on Yoga.”
Sadly Ramamani died aged 46 in 1973. Iyengar says; "We lived without conflict as if our two souls were one."
Above left: Iyengar with his wife Ramamani. Above right: With his daughters Savita and Suchita at the building site of what would become the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI). Named after his late wife.
Above left: The Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) is the heart and soul of Iyengar Yoga and is located in Pune, Maharashtra. The institute was established on January 19, 1975 and is dedicated to Smt. Ramamani Iyengar, the wife of B.K.S. Iyengar. Since the demise of Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar in August 2014, the directors of the Institute are his daughter Geeta S. Iyengar (pictured above right with her father) and his son Prashant S. Iyengar.
Below: Geeta looks on lovingly at her father. Right: An early manuscript at the Iyengar Institute.
Above left: Iyengar practising handstands. Above right: With his guru Krishnamacharya.
The Big Break
The break that transformed Iyengar from a comparatively obscure Indian yoga teacher into an international guru came in 1952, when famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin visited India. Because Iyengar had taught the famous philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, he was asked to go to Bombay to meet Menuhin, who was known to be interested in yoga. Menuhin said he was very tired and could spare only five minutes. Iyengar told him to adopt a relaxing asana, and he fell asleep. After one hour, Menuhin woke refreshed and spent another two hours with Iyengar. Gradually, the number of students who wanted to learn from Iyengar increased. After he helped a young girl recover from polio of the spinal column, word of B.K.S Iyengar’s healing touch spread, both locally and within the medical community.
The violinist Menuhin came to believe that practising yoga improved his playing, and in 1954 invited Iyengar to Switzerland. At the end of that visit, he presented his yoga teacher with a watch on the back of which was inscribed, "To my best violin teacher, BKS Iyengar".
David Attenborough (left) meets BKS Iyengar (centre) and Yehudi Menuhin (right) for a 1963 BBC programme.
From then on Iyengar visited the west regularly, and schools teaching his system of yoga sprang up all over the world. There are now hundreds of Iyengar yoga centres. During his early travels, he had to face misunderstanding and racism. British immigration officers thought he was some sort of magician and asked him whether he could walk on fire, chew glass or swallow razor blades.
A London hotel once refused to accept him as a guest until Menuhin intervened. Even then, Iyengar was told he could not eat in the dining room, and his meals were sent to his room.
One of Mr Iyengar’s key encounters took place in 1958 when he met and taught Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. The Queen was 84 when she invited Iyengar to teach her yoga. “I began with simple standing poses and the Halasana (Plough Pose). She was not willing to stop. She wanted me to teach her Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand). She was frail and I knew by looking at her that she had problems with her heart. When I asked for her medical reports, she said, ‘Sir, if you have faith in yoga, why do you want my medical reports? If you are afraid of teaching me the head balance, then you can take the next train to Gstaad, and join your friend Yehudi who recommended you!’ I appreciated her courage and persistence. I told her, "If you have the courage to do the head balance, I have the courage to teach you". Iyengar continued to teach the Queen until her death in 1965.
In 1966 Iyengar’s book 'Light on Yoga' was first published. It was an instant classic, drawing people to the art of yoga. Menuhin wrote in the foreword, “Whoever has had the privilege of receiving Mr Iyengar’s attention, or of witnessing the precision, refinement, and beauty of his art, is introduced to that vision of perfection and innocence which is man as first created”. The book became an international bestseller and has since been translated into 18 languages. It is often called “the bible of yoga”.
Iyengar appeared daunting with his leonine head, mane of hair and formidable eyebrows, which, as he used to say, went in two directions. He had a reputation as a stern teacher, and would insist on his pupils copying his asanas with absolute accuracy, achieving perfect balance. But he also patiently helped those who were having difficulty with their asanas and designed special exercises and equipment for pupils with physical problems. He studied anatomy, psychology and physiology to pioneer modern therapeutic yoga.
Like his Guru Krishnamacharya, Iyengar was often criticised of being stern and too strict. Ummm, that rings a bell! 😏. He often joked that people thought that his initials BKS (Bellur Krishnamacarya Sunderaja) actually stood for Beat, Kick and Shout because of his hands-on teaching method.
"Often people say that I have a temper because I will shout at people in class when I see that they are putting themselves at risk or conversely not doing their best. For this reason people have said that I am a severe teacher. I am strict, but I am not harsh. I use my anger to free a student from his pattern. One student kept talking about his fear in Sirsasana (headstand), and I finally shouted, “Forget about fear. You may only fall on the floor, not beyond. In the future there is fear. In the present there is no fear.” He was startled, but he got the point. A commander in the army who is heading into battle can not always speak softly to his soldiers. Sometimes he must shout at them to motivate them quickly, and sometimes he must speak gently to give them courage."
In this footage from 1976 (0.59 mins long) Iyengar can be seen demonstrating at the Ann Arbour Y in Michigan aged 58.
In 1988 Iyengar released the 'Tree of Yoga'. In 1996 he released 'Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali'.
India recognised Iyengar’s outstanding contribution to India by awarding him the Padmashri Award (1991), the Padmabhushan (2002) and in 2012 the prestigious IMC Juran Quality Medal, an award given to ‘individuals who have contributed as a role model – in spreading awareness and quality focus in their walk of life’. Iyengar is one of only two non-industrialists to receive this award.
In 2004, Time named him one of the most 100 influential people in the world.
In 2005, Iyengar visited the United States to promote the book, 'Light on Life', and to teach a special workshop at the Yoga Journal conference in Estes Park, Colorado.
3rd October 2005 was declared as "B.K.S.Iyengar Day" by San Francisco city's Board of Supervisors. Anthropologist Joseph S. Alter of the University of Pittsburgh stated that Iyengar "has by far had the most profound impact on the global spread of yoga."
In June 2011, he was presented with a commemorative stamp issued in his honour by the Beijing branch of China Post. There are now over thirty thousand Iyengar yoga students in 57 cities in China.
The noun "Iyengar" is defined by Oxford Dictionaries as "a type of Hatha yoga focusing on the correct alignment of the body, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids in achieving the correct postures."
“Yoga ferried me across the great river from the bank of ignorance to the shore of knowledge and wisdom. It is no extravagant claim to say that wisdom has come to me buy the practice of yoga, and the grace of god has lit the lamp of the inner core in me. This allows me to see that same light of the soul glowing in all other beings”.
In private, Iyengar was a conventionally conservative Indian, true to the culture and spiritual beliefs of his Brahmin heritage. As a yogi, however, he was a revolutionary. When he was a young man yoga was still very much an oriental mystery passed on from guru to sisya (pupil), a closely guarded secret kept only for a select group. That yoga came out of India, Iyengar was in no doubt, but he refused to believe that it belonged to any single country or culture. He vehemently and successfully opposed the attempt to patent yoga poses which took place in India in 2011. Yoga, he felt, should be available to any person, irrespective of sex, race, class or creed. It is a ‘practical philosophy to be experienced’, he maintained, not just “a matter to be described, discussed or debated.”
Below: Iyengar practiced headstand even in his 90's.
In 2014, Iyengar was admitted to a hospital in Pune following kidney problems. Sadly he passed away Wednesday morning, August 20th, 2014. He was 95.
Before he passed away, in his book 'Light On Life' he said this regarding death;
"I am old, and death inevitably approaches. But both birth and death are beyond the will of a human being. They are not my domain. I do not think about it. Yoga has taught me to think of only working to live a useful life. The complexity of the life of the mind comes to an end at death, with all its sadness and happiness. If one is already free from that complexity, death comes naturally and smoothly. If you live holistically at every moment, as yoga teaches, even though the ego is annihilated, I will not say, “Die before you die.” I would rather say, “Live before you die, so that death is also a lively celebration.”
On 14 December 2015, BKS Iyengar’s birthday, Google celebrated his achievements by featuring him as the Google Doodle on their home page
"When I set off in yoga, I also had no understanding of the greater glory of yoga. I too was seeking its physical benefits, and it was these that truly saved my life. When I say that yoga saved my life, I am not exaggerating. It was yoga that gave me a new birth with health from illness and firmness from infirmity."
In 2015 Delhi-based photographer Aditya Kapoor is credited with taking the final photos of BKS Iyengar's practice before he died. "When I reached his institute in Pune, I realised that everyone called him Guruji," remembered Kapoor who had been assigned the job to update a book by Iyengar (The Path to Holistic Health) out of the many he had already published. "And after a few days I started doing that too. Once he started performing his yoga asanas, it was unbelievable: I have not seen people my age do the exercises he was pulling off," said Kapoor. "And you could tell he was enjoying it: at certain times when people would applaud, he would crack a rare smile, and it was beautiful." Not many people know that this grumpy-looking man with bushy eyebrows actually had a good sense of humour.
Kapoor also revealed that Iyengar lived a very simple life. Apart from an elevator, Iyengar's home looked like a home from the 60's: old furniture, an old radio set, and he dressed simply and traditionally. "It was slightly surreal to see him in such simple surroundings when you consider the personalities he's trained, and his reach all over the world," said Kapoor.
Kapoor spent three-four days photographing Iyengar and his family. The pictures are below.
All pics: ADITYA KAPOOR FROM DK BOOKS IYENGAR INSTITUTE
Below, supposedly Iyengar's last interview.
Thank you Mr Iyengar for your genius and wisdom. May your soul rest in peace 🙏
Breath of the Gods [DVD]  [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC], 2014. [DVD] Jan Schmidt-Garre, Canada: NTSC.
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