One person has given to yoga what yoga itself gave him years ago: a new life. Today, if people speak of ‘Iyengar’ and ‘Yoga’ in the same breath, it is to acknowledge the inspiring life journey of Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, better known as B.K.S. Iyengar or, reverentially, Guruji.
Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar’s life story, in a way, is interconnected with the rise and spread of the ethos of Yoga across the world. If many countries now celebrate an International Yoga Day, it is mainly because of the seed of the idea planted by Guruji in a talk he once gave. To him goes the credit of making yoga respected as an art and a science, located within a rich philosophical framework.
In the beginning
But the wide recognition of Iyengar yoga as the global gold standard was preceded by a long and difficult journey for Guruji. When Sundararaja, then 16, started on the path of yoga, the odds were against him. He was a frail child during early years – over time, he had tuberculosis, bronchitis, malaria and breathing problems. This made him entirely dependent on others. The early death of his father and his family’s precarious economic condition made it difficult for him to complete his education.
Then providence introduced him to the yoga master, Sri T. Krishnamacharya (who married Iyengar’s elder sister). This changed the direction of Sundararaja’s life and placed him firmly on the path of yoga. Soon, he was doing 12 hours of yog sadhana every day – and in these long hours, he began to glimpse the hope of another life – one that could be full of health, wisdom and knowledge.
The young man’s determination to ‘sink or swim with yoga’ even in the face of debilitating circumstances like poverty, hunger and very little peer and family encouragement, saw him through this phase of his life. He started the next phase as a yoga teacher in Pune in the year 1938.
The birth of RIMYI
In Pune, the second key person after his teacher, entered Iyengar’s life – his wife Ramamani. She gave him critical support and inspired him to become an author. His landmark book, Light On Yoga, was published in 1964 after a gestation period of 10 years.
But shortly after she put in place the foundation stone for a yoga institute in Pune, Ramamani passed away in 1973. The flagship centre of Iyengar Yoga, the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI), is named in her memory. Generations of practitioners from around the world have come to RIMYI to learn, study and get inducted in the ethos of Yoga. RIMYI is the inspiration for more than 500 Iyengar Yoga centres all around the globe.
The guru-shishya parampara at RIMYI continues with Guruji’s eldest daughter Geeta and son Prashant, who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of yogic education. Both continue to keep the flame burning bright with their teachings.
What is Iyengar Yoga?
In the high speed era that we live in, it is difficult to imagine a time when ‘being still’ was the way to evolve oneself. In the midst of this high connectivity, Patanjali’s sutra ‘sthira sukham asanam’ becomes even more difficult to follow. But Guruji has shown us how to live the sutra through practice – he endeavoured to stay in all asans with perfect equanimity for great lengths of time.
In an Iyengar Yoga class, a student was taught to perform asanas with three signature points of focus – detailed adjustments, precision and alignment. Through these and other pedagogical innovations, arose an ‘Iyengar method’. This approach today guides millions in their quest for health and healing in the pancha koshas or the five sheaths of the human self – the physical, physiological, mental, intellectual and emotional.
Guruji’s practice evolved, he writes in Light On Life, from a quest to integrate the annamaya kosha (the physical layer) with the anandamaya kosha (the bliss-enriched body). He never differentiated between the sole and his soul. As he said, “How can you think of meditating on the big Self when you don’t even know what your little toe is doing?”
His insistence that we all learn to abide by Patanjali’s dictum ‘Tasmin sati’ for the practice of pranayama was rooted in this recognition – that a student should attempt pranayama only after achieving a degree of mastery in asana practice.
In that sense, he was a purist as well as a revolutionary. Guruji insisted that the astanga yoga (eight petals of yoga) that Patanjali mentioned were inclusive and integrated practices and not steps on an evolutionary ladder, as imagined by some commentators.
His uninterrupted sadhana became the touchstone for his teachings. As his fame spread across continents, Guruji developed a reputation as the ‘the last resort’ teacher for people with chronic medical problems and little or no option but surgical interventions.
Among the millions who benefitted was the renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who sought help for tired nerves. Guruji quickly gave him a practical experience of how to rest body and brain together with a deep shavasana. Menuhin became a committed student of yoga, and, after some years, gifted Guruji a wrist-watch with this inscription: “To my best violin teacher.”
Over 70-plus years now, Iyengar yoga has become the mainstay for millions of practitioners globally seeking a cure for various problems. Their transformation from patients to dedicated students responsible for their own bodies and minds has become a defining ethic of the Iyengar system.
The body is the first prop
Guruji adjusted millions with his hands and legs with surgical precision to give them the healing benefits of this yogic science. He also conceived of a wide range of props to position the body, mind and breath of the practitioner in the mould of the yogasana. But to achieve this positioning, he would consistently remind his students, the ‘body is the first prop.’ The props were not meant to lessen human effort, only refine it.
From his innovative props arose a new approach to traditional yoga practices, and the use of props consolidated the healing and therapeutic value of yoga.
Everyday items like bricks, belts, blankets, chairs, sticks, stools, tables and benches were incorporated into the yoga practice. Guruji designed these and other props using his deep experiential knowledge of the human body. He refused to patent these designs and gifted away the props to benefit humankind.
Seekers of yog knowledge will forever find inspiration through the 24 books he authored, his 10,000-plus lecture-demonstrations and his abiding message:
“Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never be dimmed;
The better your practice, the brighter the flame.”