A student of T. Krisnamacharya, B.K.S Iyengar’s innovations set his style apart

The Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI) at Pune is holding a two-week long-intensive camp beginning December 3, ending with centenary celebrations of the late Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar. Getting to participate in this event is no mean task. The 1,300-odd students permitted to attend have at least three years of experience and an endorsement by a senior teacher. Such is the rigour expected and maintained under the Iyengar yoga tradition, even four years after he passed away.

But the recognition of Iyengar yoga as the global gold standard was preceded by a long and challenging journey of Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, better known as B.K.S. Iyengar or Guruji to his pupils. His life story, in a way, is interconnected with the rise and spread of the ethos of yoga across the world.

Countries now celebrate an International Yoga Day mainly because of the seed of the idea he planted worldwide. He gave to yoga what yoga itself gave him years ago — a new life.

Today, IY has teachers in 82 countries across six continents. As far as organised international yoga entities go, it is the biggest one and deservedly so. Students claim to have a similar experience no matter which IY class they walk into. Teacher certification is a serious process with aspirants necessarily having to take yearly gaps between beginner and advanced levels, to progress in their personal practice. They are tested, among other things, for clarity and depth of instruction, which is imbibed in an almost guru-shishya fashion from Guruji’s time. Equal diligence is conducted before allowing a centre to carry the Iyengar banner.

When Sundararaja, then 16, started on the path of yoga, the odds were against him. He was a frail child during the 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 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.

What is Iyengar Yoga?

In the high speed era that we live in, it is difficult to imagine a time when ‘being still’ in an asana was the way to evolve oneself. In this midst of high connectivity, Patanjali’s sutra ‘sthira sukham asanam’ becomes even more difficult to follow. But Guruji demonstrated how to live the sutra through practice — he endeavoured to stay in all asanas 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.

As he writes in
Light On Life
, Guruji’s practice evolved, 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 constant sadhana became the touchstone for his teachings; he practised what he preached.

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 benefited 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. 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. He designed them through his deep experiential knowledge of the human body.

Innovative props

He refused to patent the innovative props — including belts, ropes, blocks — instead he shared his discoveries with the world as a gift. With the use of these props arose a new approach to traditional practices, and their use consolidated the healing and therapeutic value of yoga. Yet, he consistently reminded his students, the ‘body is the first prop.’ They were not meant to lessen human effort, only refine it.

Guruji rose above limitations of health and literacy proving that blocks exist only in the mind. He inspired seekers of yoga-knowledge 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 practise, the brighter the flame.”

Guruji was 96 when he passed away on August 20, 2014, sadly, a few months short of the U.N. instituting the International Day of Yoga. Even in his last days, he would prop himself for supine pranayam — another technique he had popularised for easy yet effective deep breathing — as he talked to family and visitors in his booming voice. When his daughter, Geeta, son Prashant and granddaughter, Abhijata, lead the world congregation in paying tribute to the legend, his words will echo with the same authority in the hearts of ardent followers.

The author is a Mumbai-based senior Iyengar Yoga teacher

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.’

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