Skip to content

Strength Through Adversity: Remembering B.K.S. Iyengar

It may appear quite simple and easy, but the moment one sits down to practice, one quickly realizes that it is a difficult art.

It would be hard to think of another figure in modern yoga as influential as B.K.S. Iyengar. From the outside, yoga appears to some like ‘just stretching’ and ‘doing nothing,’ as the famed instructor implies above. Yet Iyengar knew it was much more than that, and his persona and style, Iyengar Yoga, made one of the biggest impacts in spreading yoga across this planet.

During the first months of his life Iyengar suffered from influenza, and by adolescence he had been stricken with malaria, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and malnutrition. At age fifteen, six years after the death of his father, the young man moved from Belur to live in Mysore with his brother-in-law, the yogi Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.

There he learned self-healing techniques as prescribed by his elder, though the experience was anything but pleasant. Krishnamacharya was a disciplinarian responsible for helping to create a number of diverse forms of Hatha yoga. Being related to him, Iyengar often felt slighted; when strong enough to teach, he accepted a position in the far-off district of Pune, partly to escape the demanding attitude of his relative. And it is in Pune that he passed yesterday due to complications from kidney failure in a local hospital.

Iyengar met Krishnamacharya at a time when the latter was focused on using yoga therapeutically; later on he would teach K. Pattabhi Jois a much more rigorous form that eventually became known as Ashtanga. Once healed, Iyengar realized he could heal others, and thus began his journey as a teacher. He would have most likely remained in Pune had he not met the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Menuhin, renowned for his collaborations with Indian sitar player Ravi Shankar—the emergence of Indian classical music and yoga internationally both have him to thank—was exhausted from the rigors of international touring. During his first meeting with Iyengar, the teacher only had a few moments to spare before running to an appointment. He told Menuhin to lie down and touched a few points on his body, sending him into a deep sleep for over an hour.

Upon awakening, Menuhin described the experience of a trancelike state that he had known only when hearing a Bach interpretation, and quickly became a devotee. He invited the yogi to spend the summer as his personal teacher in Switzerland in 1954. Iyengar accepted. This journey, covered substantially by local media, opened the door for Hatha Yoga in the West.

Most students today know Iyengar thanks to his wildly popular asana book, Light on Yoga, first published in 1966. It is essentially the bible for yoga practitioners. While some of the science inside is suspect—Iyengar had a habit of calling things proven even though no actual scientific research had been conducted—it remains stacked on bookshelves worldwide. Follow-up books, such as Light on Pranayama and The Tree of Yoga, never sold as well, though offer great insights into the broad nature of this discipline.

Iyengar’s methodology was rigorous in its exactitude. Chairs, bolsters, blocks, straps, walls—all could be used to help heal the body. Early in my own practice I studied Iyengar, offering a different perspective on the practice than I was getting in more aerobic Vinyasa classes. I always appreciated the anatomical focus and the emphasis on breath before anything else.

Unfortunately Iyengar’s ego could be as big as his practice. He once wrote that the terms ‘Iyengar’ and ‘yoga’ were synonymous with one another; critics in India regularly accused him of blatant self-promotion. I once interviewed a longtime practitioner who admitted that he pushed her out of an inversion across the room for not performing the posture correctly. (She was not criticizing him; she merely said his methods would not work well in America.)

An enormous man sometimes requires an enormous appetite, however. Iynegar’s lifelong journey through yoga set a course for people around the world to chart. Instead of falling victim to continual injuries, he used them as a catalyst for inner and outer transformation, creating a method for countless practitioners to do just that with. As he writes in The Tree of Yoga,

You have to strengthen the other parts of your body before you touch the injured part directly.

I’ve seen a few comments online from people expressing their sadness upon learning of his passing. While understandable, perhaps a celebration is more in order. The man lived 95 long years sharing his passion with the world. You can’t ask for much more than that from this life. 

Image: Breath of the Gods


Up Next