(Above): Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyenger [Photo: Mutt Lunker | Wikimedia Commons]
Yogacharya Bellur Krishanamachar Sundarareja Iyengar was the foremost yoga guru and educator to have taken yoga to the West. A devout practitioner of the art and science of “Iyengar school of Yoga” (as famously referred to by all except Iyengar himself) for close to eighty years his life’s journey lasted from 1918 to August 20 of this year.
Born in a poor Hebbar Iyengar (priestly Brahmin class) family, he was the 11th of 13 children of Sri Krishnamachar, a school teacher, and mother Sheshamma, residing in Bellur, Kolar district of Karnataka in southern India. Till the age of 22, the guru was an extremely unfit child, afflicted with influenza, malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis, which reduced him to bed and doctors gave him just about seven years to live.
His health worries attracted the attention of his elder brother-in-law, Professor T. Krishnamacharya who was the Yoga teacher for the Maharaja of Mysore, and Iyengar went to live and learn yoga as a possible means of bettering his health from this great master. Seven years of commitment and sincerity bore fruit and he was cured of all diseases. This was when he realized that he wanted to intensely pursue the discipline and in 1937 on the insistence of his guru he left for Pune to teach the subject.
Only time would tell that his stay in this city would stretch into a lifetime and by 1975 he had his own institute, the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Memorial Yoga Institute which gradually expanded into many more branches in India and abroad.
His props were ropes and mats with which he taught the wisdom of yoga sutras (rules) that he gained from practical search and regular practice of yoga. His performance of each asana (posture) marked beauty and perfection and he looked at the discipline as an artist out to integrate mind, body and emotions. He laid emphasis on the art of precise alignment or equanimity that required expansion and spreading of cosmic energy through body that acts as an energy channel.
According to Guruji, the aim of yoga is for the mind and body to attain ultimate freedom and experience breaking of all barriers and establishing a direct contact between instinct and intuition which would in turn free one’s dormant and infinite qualities within their being.
In his institutions, yoga classes begin with the invocation of Sage Patanjali, chief compiler of yoga philosophy of ancient times, to honor the tradition and lineage of yoga as well as to generate the feeling of sanctification within oneself. He believed that through right and regular practice of asanas it was possible to achieve atman darshan (look at the soul).
Guruji has authored fourteen books on Yoga, and his “Light on Yoga” has been translated into 19 languages and has sold more than three million copies. Almost a treatise in its own way, it contains all information on 200 poses and was adjudged as the “Bible of the Art of Yoga” by Time magazine. Thoughts on philosophy of yoga practice are encapsulated in other works — Light on Pranayama and Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The Iyengar School of Yoga differed from other styles of this art, ashtanga vinyasa yoga – while the latter is more acrobatic or fast-paced in nature, the former is based on channelizing energy in an aligned manner and staying in a particular pose.
An undisputed father of modern Yoga, Iyengar holds a record for demonstrating asanas in headstand position, more than ten thousand times and each lasting for three hours without a single break. Also regarded as the “Michelangelo of Yoga,” Guruji remained active till the last decade of his life, and regularly practiced five hours of asanas and pranayam (control of life force energies) and used his “maturity in finding out new ways of the science.”
In the initial years it was a challenge for the young Guruji to spread yoga far and wide not only because of extreme unawareness of this body of knowledge but also due to prejudices of race and color in the West of those times. But eventually his intensity, focus, dedication, passion and mastery of yoga won recognition and admiration of his followers, enthusiasts and respect for himself and Indians.
His list of popular students included Jiddu Krishnamurti, Jayaprakash Narayan, violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin and Elisabeth, Queen of Belgium who learnt the sirsasana (head stand asana) when she was 80. Guruji credited Menuhin for enabling his first successful leap into the Western world and bringing him in contact with global luminaries. After a phase of teaching the discipline to the elite of the world he decided to focus on teaching common people.
Interestingly, though India is the birth place of Yoga, it was the West that embraced Yoga with open arms and this centuries old Eastern philosophy became the fitness soul mate of workout enthusiasts and image conscious Hollywood stars and prominent athletes, as they included it in their daily regimen. The Westerners were first drawn towards it to achieve a sleek physique but the healing and balancing in a disciplined manner got the practitioners to achieve clarity of mind and a greater connection with their pure and essential nature. But it took several decades for the wind of Yoga to blow Eastward and then commenced an age of intermingling of Western feelings and Eastern minds.
Guruji’s interest was not relegated to Yoga alone but extended to supporting efforts of conservation of birds and animals, and promotion of awareness of multiple sclerosis. For his unbelievable and untiring contribution in furthering the health of people though his understanding of this ancient wisdom Iyengar was awarded by the International Biographical Centre at Cambridge, UK with the ‘1998 International Man of the Year’ and as one of the top 100 educators in the 21st century.
Besides the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honor, various Indian governments have acknowledged him with the Padma Shri in 1991 and then in 2002 with the Padma Bhushan. He was also hailed by Time magazine in 2004 as one of the world’s most influential living people and recognized for bringing Yoga to the West, by the New York Times in a 2002 profile.
Shortly before his demise, Guruji conveyed to his daughter Geeta and other family members, “My time has come. My soul is deeply satisfied with the work that has been done, now my body is in your hands.’’ A life well lived he very beautifully managed to live up to the philosophy he taught others: “Live happily, die majestically.” Guruji’s death is deeply mourned by distinguished luminaries, eminent personalities and common citizens who benefitted from his yoga culture.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted on a social networking site: “I am deeply saddened to know about Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar’s demise and offer my condolences to his followers all over the world.”
Married to late Ramamani, Iyengar is survived by six children, five daughters and a son of whom Geeta and Prashant very ably look after the yoga institutions he established in his lifetime.