Iyengar yoga, the system of yoga devised by the renowned guru B.K.S. Iyengar, is the most widely practiced form of yoga today. Iyengar himself continues to write, teach, and practice yoga, remaining an inspiration to millions worldwide.
The story of B.K.S. Iyengar’s life and his path to yoga is a tale of success against overwhelming odds. Finding his vocation by chance, Iyengar was able to transform himself from a virtual invalid to a world-renowned yogi, becoming a living testament to the life-changing powers of yoga.
On December 14, 1918, near Bangalore, the eleventh child of Sri Krishnamachar and his wife Sheshamma was born, named Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar. A weak and sickly baby, he suffered a litany of diseases as a child: by thirteen he had been sick with malaria, tuberculosis, and typhoid. Iyengar described his physique as “sickly with thin arms and legs, a protruding stomach, and a heavy head. My appearance was not prepossessing.”
Iyengar’s father, a headmaster, died when the boy was just nine years old, leaving the family to bear financial hardship. The young Iyengar was sent to live with his brother in Bangalore. Here, his frail health was exacerbated by poverty and malnutrition and, as a result, his attendance at school was poor.
The Path To Yoga
Iyengar’s future as a great teacher of yoga was inadvertently secured when his sister, Namagiri, married Professor Tirumalai Krishnamarcharya, a well-known yogi. Krishnamarcharya was a gifted man with a great prowess for advanced yoga postures. In the summer of 1934, Iyengar was invited to stay with his sister and Krishnamarcharya to continue his studies and learn the yoga asanas.
Krishnamarcharya ran a yoga school at the Jaganmohan palace of his patron, the Maharaja of Mysore. Here, Iyengar received basic instruction in yoga “asanas,” or poses. However, years of incapacity had taken their toll and at first he struggled, finding the asanas difficult and painful. He recalls that “sometimes the body and at other times the mind refused to cooperate.” His guru, however, was a strict disciplinarian who drove him hard. This, together with Iyengar’s determination to progress, meant that gradually he mastered some of the postures. He was further motivated as his health steadily improved.
The Maharaja of Mysore often requested demonstrations at the yoga school. One time, Iyengar was the only pupil available to demonstrate the more advanced asanas. He practiced diligently and surprised Krishnamarcharya by performing exceptionally well. Iyengar continued to make rapid progress and began to accompany Krishnamarcharya on yoga demonstrations around the country.
The Emergence Of A Yoga Teacher
At the age of eighteen, Krishnamarcharya asked Iyengar to teach at the Deccan Gymkhana Club in Pune in Maharashtra. This was an isolating period for Iyengar since he had no knowledge of the local language, Marathi, or the culture, and no family nearby. Moreover, many of the people he taught were more accomplished than him at the asanas.
Iyengar also struggled because, although his teacher had been strict, he had never thoroughly explained the techniques for the asanas. Iyengar resolved to practice diligently to acquire an in-depth knowledge of each asana, observing the intricacies of the movement of each part of the body. The precision he developed was reflected in his teaching, and his students grew in number. He was now also conversant in Marathi and English, as well as Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil, and Kannada, enabling him to communicate with his students.
As Iyengar’s reputation grew, people of all ages and abilities sought instruction from him, including many with ailments. Yoga had helped to improve his health, so Iyengar was unwilling to turn anyone away. Instead he used his in-depth knowledge of the human body to modify and adapt the poses, making yoga accessible to all. He developed the use of props such as ropes, belts, wooden blocks, and bolsters to help the elderly, weak, and inflexible experience the therapeutic effects of yoga. The innovative system of Iyengar yoga was beginning to take shape.
In 1943, his brothers arranged for him to meet sixteen-year-old Ramamani. Iyengar was very taken with her, and they both consented to marriage.
Ramamani knew little about yoga at the start of their marriage, but she soon absorbed the essence of yoga and supported her husband. As well as fulfilling the traditional role of wife, caring for their five daughters and one son while Iyengar concentrated on his yoga, she also became Iyengar’s trusted critic and advisor.
As Iyengar’s reputation for excellence spread, he began to gain influential students, such as members of the Indian royalty and prominent business, sports, and entertainment personalities.
In March 1952, a fortuitous meeting with the famous violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin was the catalyst to Iyengar teaching abroad. At their first yoga session, Menuhin explained how he was constantly fatigued from lack of sleep, unable to relax, and suffering from a variety of aches and pains common to many musicians. Iyengar prescribed Menuhin a program of asanas and in a short time his muscular pains completely disappeared and a regular sleep pattern was restored. After this, Menuhin became a devoted student and arranged for Iyengar to teach abroad in London, Switzerland, Paris, and elsewhere, spreading his reputation across the globe. They enjoyed an extremely close friendship that endured for 47 years, until Menuhin’s death in 1999.
Iyengar made his first visit to the United States in 1956 and returned often in the 1970s, his distinct style of teaching helping to popularize yoga in the United States. His career continued to develop and in 1966, Iyengar‘s first book, Light on Yoga, was published. This became an international bestseller and went on to be translated into seventeen languages. Often called “the bible of yoga,” it helped yoga become an international phenomenon. His second book, Light on Pranayama, was published in 1981 and has been translated into 12 languages.
The Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute
In 1975, Iyengar opened the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, named in memory of his beloved wife. Initially, Iyengar personally conducted all the yoga classes in the very busy schedule and the Institute soon became an internationally renowned center of excellence. In 2003, Iyengar officially retired from teaching, reflecting that it was time to “let the next generation come through.” Today, the Institute continues to thrive. The classes, which are hugely popular and oversubscribed, are taught by his eldest daughter, Geeta, and his son Prashant, as well as by other senior teachers who trained under Iyengar’s strict tutelage. Iyengar himself continues to write and teach the Institute’s medical class.
Iyengar’s achievements are exceptional. He has toured 25 countries, published fourteen books, been bestowed with hundreds of awards, and is widely accredited with popularizing yoga. His artistic yoga performances have elicited epithets such as the “Michelangelo of Yoga.” Because of his dedication and commitment to yoga, millions worldwide are experiencing the benefits of the ancient art of yoga.
Yoga releases the creative potential in life.