A tribute to B.K.S. Iyengar, a lifelong student of yoga, teacher exemplar, and one of the earliest ambassadors of Indian soft power
On a visit to China in 2011, where B.K.S. Iyengar found himself surrounded by crowds of followers he did not know he had in that country, one young student told him: “I’ve been practising for seven years, but feel I can’t improve.”
The yoga guru’s reply was a succinct summing up of his belief that the discipline of bringing mind and body together was a constant journey. “I’ve been practising yoga for 76 years,” he told her. “And I’m still learning.”
A lifelong student of yoga as he was, Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, who died on Wednesday at the age of 95, will be remembered by his disciples foremost as teacher exemplar, who shared with his disciples the gift of his own knowledge without holding anything back, imposing only these conditions: sustained practice, discipline and rigour.
With these, anyone could attain the goal of self-realisation, he encouraged students in his celebrated work Light on Life. For, ultimately, that inner journey is what yoga is about. But even before achieving that, he promised, there would be “an incremental experience of greater freedom as we discover ever more self-control, sensitivity and awareness that permit us to live the life we aspire to, one of decency; clean, honest human relations, goodwill and fellowship; trust; self-reliance; joy in the fortune of others; and equanimity in the face of our own misfortunes.”
In his own life he had been through several ups and downs. Born in 1918 in Bellur village near Kolar in Karnataka in a family of modest means, Iyengar lost his father, a schoolteacher, when he was nine. The family had moved to Bangalore a few years earlier. Iyengar was a sickly child, his ill health compounded by the loss of a parent, and he did not fare too well at school. It was only when he was 14 years old that a sojourn at the Mysore ashram of his brother-in-law, T. Krishnamacharya, would lead to a life in yoga for Iyengar.
Krishnamacharya was a Sanskrit scholar who had learnt yoga at the feet of a master in the Tibetan Himalayas, after which he set up a school under the patronage of the Maharaja of Mysore. He had summoned Iyengar to Mysore initially to look after his sister while he was away travelling. Decades later, in an interview to CNN-IBN in 2010, Iyengar recalled that his brother-in-law and guru had taken him on as a pupil only because his “pet” student had left the ashram. Even then, he said, he created a “fear complex” in him, sometimes also threatening to starve him. As a fatherless boy, Iyengar said, he was treated like a kulak.
“I pushed myself to the limits in my practice in order to do my duty to my teacher and guardian and to satisfy his demanding expectations,” he wrote in Light on Life.
After four years at the Mysore ashram, he was sent off to Pune to teach yoga. He recalls in the book that he had nothing — no family or community to help him in a new city, no local language skills and no guarantee that he would find students — except his knowledge of asanas, but still clueless about the philosophy of yoga, its ancient texts, and about one of its most important aspects, pranayama, or breathing techniques.
All this he would discover on his own only in the coming years, and in that way he was self-taught. “[My] body became my first instrument to know what yoga is. The slow process of refinement started then and continues in my practice to this day. In the process yogasana brought tremendous physical benefits,” he wrote, “but I could already see that yoga could have as many as benefits for my head and heart as it did for my body.”
Iyengar’s own approach to teaching — his reputation was that of a disciplinarian, but a kind one — was perhaps influenced by his experience of learning from a man who offered no answers to curious questions, no step-by-step guidance, but “would simply demand a posture and leave it to me or his other students to figure out how it could be realised.” After a scooter accident left him with a dislocated spine, he also pioneered the use of props in yoga, making it easier and acceptable for students to achieve postures with the help of ropes, blocks, benches and suchlike.
His generosity as a guru who gave freely everything he knew, training more and more people to teach what they had learnt, was perhaps why disciples have continued to flock from all over the globe to his Pune institute, named after his wife Ramamani who died in 1973. The institute charges a modest Rs 1,100 a year. The students went away and set up schools all over the world, and his teachings are now a global brand — “Iyengar school of yoga” — with no marketing or advertising effort or hype by him. Nor did he ever put down any other kind, especially modern versions such as “power yoga”, or “flow yoga” that are aimed more at perfecting the body than the mind.
His influence was recognised by the Oxford dictionary under the entry “Iyengar: noun — a type of hatha yoga focusing on the correct alignment of the body, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids to achieving the correct postures.”
Iyengar’s visit to China, as the star guest at a yoga ‘summit’ in Guangzhou in 2011 was his first to that country, and he went with few expectations. Certainly, he did not imagine that he had some 30,000 followers in that country, and that translated versions of all his books were widely available and read. There is even a Chinese postage stamp in his honour. The enthusiastic reception he got bowled him over, and he told The Hindu: “I will not be surprised if China even overtakes India in yoga.”
China was the most recent addition to his overseas conquests. India’s community of hard-nosed strategic analysts could well celebrate him as one of the earliest and most enduring ambassadors of Indian soft power, decades before the Harvard academic Joseph Nye coined that term, his reach in the early decades of the Cold War far more pervasive than Bollywood’s popularity in Soviet bloc countries.
In archival photographs, he can be seen holding yoga demos, or instructing huge classes in various Western capitals, dressed unself-consciously in his trademark briefs, his long locks already an iconic style. In the 1950s, a host of American celebs were already eating out of his hands after he was introduced to the U.S. by Yehudi Menuhin. But the most often told story is about how Menuhin himself became Iyengar’s sishya after meeting him during a concert tour of India in 1951. The violin maestro already knew some yoga, but a meeting with Iyengar convinced him that here was the teacher he had been waiting for. Later, Menuhin would say that Iyengar was his “best violin teacher” because he had helped him become aware of the “mechanics” of playing the instrument such that his aches and pains disappeared forever.
Age should not deter practice was Iyengar’s belief, and he continued to practice asanas and pranayama until almost the end. In Light on Life, he wrote that death was inevitable, but that he did not think about it. “[B]oth birth and death are beyond the will of a human being. They are not my domain…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.” A true practitioner of yoga would not die before he died, Iyengar believed. His own life was a testament to that.