In the following series of blog posts, I am researching the history of Hindu Modern Yoga, engraved around three figures: Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois & Sri B.K.S. Iyengar, summarizing their life, teachings and controversies evolved over time.
In the fourth blog post, we’ll look into B.K.S Iyengar’s life and teaching.
B.K.S Iyengar: Life & Yoga
Iyengar was born in the village of Bellur, the 11th of 13 children. His father Sri Krishnamachar was a school teacher, and his mother Sheshamma a homemaker. The conditions at the time of his birth were especially difficult. His family was poor, and his mother contracted influenza while pregnant with him. Indeed, India was in the grip of the deadly world influenza pandemic of 1918.
Iyengar was a sickly child who suffered from tuberculosis, typhus, malaria and malnutrition as a child. During his initial practice period, he was instructed only in the asanas – the poses and postures of yoga which contribute to the strength and maintain the health of the body. “Perfection in asana” was the only guru mantra (Sri Krishnamcharya) he received. Although it might be also be remembered, Iyengar received teachings from Krishnamcharya as Guru by destiny (as Iyengar sister turned out to be Krishnamcharya wife. In his 2005 book “Light on Life”, he describes his weak physical condition: “my arms where thin, my legs were spindly, and my stomach protruded in an ungainly manner. So frail was I, in fact, that I was not expected to survive.”
In his autobiography, Iyengar mentioned that when instructed to lean forward, he could barely touch his knees, much less his feet. Krishnamacharya’s harsh teaching regime did not endear him to his students, who often sneaked away from their classes, and Iyengar at first was as unenthusiastic as the others. At one point Krishamacharya forced him to do a split-leg exercise for which he was unprepared, and he tore a ligament and was unable to walk for some time. But Iyengar noticed that, for the first time in his life, he was growing stronger, and he persisted in his training. One of Krishnamacharya’s top students disappeared just days before the royalty of the area were due in Mysore for an important yoga demonstration, and Iyengar was tapped as a replacement. He did so well that he was able to join his teacher on the road for other classes and demonstrations (reference –https://www.notablebiographies.com//supp//Supplement-Fl-Ka//Iyengar-B-K-S.html)
Tutor to Female Groups & beginning of his career
On one of Krishnamcharya tours, a group of women became amused with the art of yoga and asked for lessons. Iyengar was chosen to be their teacher because, at 18, he was Krishnamacharya’s youngest disciple, and it was thought to be less improper for the women to be taught by a man who had not yet reached full adulthood. Iyengar did well at this assignment and was sent on to a bigger one: Krishnamacharya named him to fill a teaching post at the Deccan Gymkhana Club, an upper class sports club in the city of Pune, in India’s Maharashtra state.
The yoga students at the Gymkhana were older than Iyengar and in better condition, sometimes more advanced in yoga than he was. Iyengar, fearful of having to return in disgrace to his fearsome teacher in Mysore, embarked on a regime of practice that could last up to ten hours a day. Neighbors in Pune, most of them still unfamiliar with yoga, questioned his sanity, but Iyengar’s knowledge and strength deepened. He cycled great distances to teach yoga to anyone who was interested and often subsisted only on water a few days a week as everything else was affordable. Despite these hardships Iyengar continued his intense practice.
Under these circumstances, what would have gone through Iyengar’s mind?
Should I leave Pune, should I look for other means of earning money? Enough of Yoga?”
“Every occurrence has a reason. Sometime it is evident, sometimes it is not.”
“After many strides forward, when one looks back, things seem to fit.”
“Unknown place, unknown people, unknown language… Mere survival was uncertainty magnified.”
It was during this period that the systematic discipline later known as Iyengar Yoga was developed.
Iyengar yoga is founded upon “eight petals or limbs” which serve as the pathway of guiding practices and principles leading us to a healthy life. It is a form of Hatha Yoga that has an emphasis on detail, precision and alignment in the performance of posture (asana) and breath control (pranayama). The development of strength, mobility and stability is gained through the asanas.
B.K.S. Iyengar has systematised over 200 classical yoga poses and 14 different types of Pranayama (with variations of many of them) ranging from the basic to advanced. All these teachings are self learned as Iyengar didnt stay much longer with his teacher to attain knowledge.
Foundation of Iyengar Practice : In 1973, Iyengar began the construction of a Yoga Institute in Pune. Sadly, his wife Ramamani passed away and Iyengar dedicated the Institue in her memory. The Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, which opened its doors in 1975, has been the heart and soul of Iyengar Yoga ever since.
Iyengar Family Life
Iyengar’s family, anxious to see him in a more settled existence, arranged his marriage to a 16-year-old girl named Ramamani. At first he refused to do more than meet her briefly, but the relationship flowered into marriage on July 13, 1943. Ramamani became a strong backer of Iyengar’s enthusiasm for yoga, and the marriage was a long and happy one that produced six children. His wife was one of his first students, and an able assistant. They were blessed with five daughters and one son.
While teaching her, he cultivated the technique of deciphering and teaching an asana. It was at this time that Iyengar learnt the art of establishing a student in an asana and a seeker in yoga. Iyengar taught his children yoga from a young age. Iyengar’s eldest daughter Geeta and his son Prashant are internationally-renowned teachers of yoga.
Well renowed teacher
By 1950, Iyengar’s renown had spread. By this time, Iyengar had a very large number of students. Many of whom were famous Indians, he was little known outside of his home country.
Courtesy : Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, teaching Yehudi Menuhin
In 1952, Iyengar met and became friends with the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who had been invited by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, to give a series of concerts.Two years after meeting Iyengar, Yehudin invited him to Switzerland and from that time forward he began what was to become regular visits to Europe. It would prove to be another turning point in Iyengar’s life.Iyengar embarking on one of his trips abroad to deliver a workshop.In 1956 he visited the United States for the first time, to teach and deliver yoga demonstrations at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Many awards and honors followed. He received the Padma Shri in 1991 and the Padma Bhushan in 2002. In 2014, he was conferred with the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, by the President of India.
Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute}
His most popular books
His first book, Light on Yoga, was published in 1966. This was followed by Light on Pranayama which was published in 1981. Over the years, his books have been translated into dozens of languages.
Over the decades, Iyengar travelled extensively and gave lecture-demonstrations all over the world.
Light on Yoga
The book includes over 200 poses, with at least one photo per pose, and often more than one photo to show different stages of the poses. The first 50 pages or so of the book defines what yoga is, and gives a summary of the philosophy of Patanjali’s yoga, which is the basis of Iyengar yoga (and some of the other yoga methods).
According to Iyengar yoga practitioner :Light on Yoga is required reading for anyone looking to become certified in the Iyengar Yoga method.
The Tree of Yoga
This book gives in-depth insights into the therapeutic nature and spiritual value of yoga. On the first half of the book, Iyengar offers his thoughts on many practical and philosophical subjects including family, sexuality, meditation, health, aging, death and culture difference between the East and the West in terms of yoga. The following half is more about discovering the spiritual path of yoga, what is beyond the physical poses.
Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health
It detailed technique and explained the multiple variations of the poses and What Not To Do. The back of the book was especially helpful in that it pin pointed specific ailments (i.e. Migraine, Heart Attack, back pain, anorexia, you name it) and their specific treatment.
Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
BKS Iyengar’s translation and commentary on these ancient yoga sutras has been described as the “bible” of yoga.
Light on Pranayama
This isn’t a book for beginners though. In the Iyengar Yoga system, the formal practice of pranayama isn’t started until the student has a strong background in the physical poses, to build up the strength to sit well and to build greater awareness in the body and mind. Before formal instruction in pranayama we do some practice on breath awareness, and are reminded not to hold the breath, or to breathe heavily while in poses. Then when the body and mind are prepared, we’re taught more formal breathing techniques.
How traditional is Iyengar`s practise of Asana and Pranayama?
As for Asana and Pranayama, Iyengar places himself above all within the tradition of his teachers:
“You should know that many people were and are under the impression that my method of Yoga has nothing to do with the traditional form. This is imagination and not fact, as my Guru had a Guru, who had a Guru also. … I consider my Guru and my Guru`s Guru as the fathers of Yoga, who sowed the seed for thinking about analysing and developing the practical side of this art. The seed of Yoga may be the same, but the trees grow in different directions, bearing fruits of different tastes
In Pranayama, Iyengar had to rely even more on his own intuition than in the Asanas, because his Guru categorically refused to teach him breathing exercises, considering him unfit due to his poor
state of health. “When my Guru visited me in Pune 1940,” he tells, “I asked him about Pranayama; he just gave an outline. You know, what we call deep breathing. …Then he said to do deep inhalation, hold the breath and do deep exhalation. These are the only techniques my Guruji gave me to follow. …Though I did it, I did not succeed at all. … So I questioned him. … He said: ́Continue. It will come. ́ And it never came. Iyengar says that he had only once the opportunity of watching Krishnamachar for some minutes in Nadi Sodana Pranayama, and that, in secret. Thereby he learnt the erect sitting posture, the practise of which was very difficult for him for years because, due to his excessive practise of backbends, he had lost the ability to hold himself erect. As the Guru refused to help him, he tried with books on Yoga. But the very long breath retention that was recommended in these books to awaken the Kundalini Shakti resulted only in the feeling that his head was like a wooden block.
This is the last post of our blog series, and hope you have enjoyed reading series of blogs on “Founders of modern yoga: Their Life, Teachings, and Controversies” .