100 years of B.K.S. Iyengar
The yoga 'guru' taught his students not to disengage from the world, but engage with it in new ways, without the ego
The Iyengar Yoga community in India isn’t exactly populist. It values rigour and purity over ubiquitous brand presence. It is a brand in the most non-brand way. That’s exactly how founder B.K.S. Iyengar spread it. Commerce and marketing are unnecessary—even harmful—words in this staunch, demanding community of yogis known to correct body alignments in ways that has far-reaching effects on the mind and soul.
On 14 December, Iyengar would have been 100.
After his death at age 95 in 2014, the guru-shishya tradition has continued. The Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (Rimyi), Pune, run by the guru’s son Prashant, daughter Geeta and granddaughter Abhijata, doesn’t follow a standardized system of certification for teachers. If a guru considers a shishya (disciple) ready to be able to teach others, he or she is given informal permission. That is one of the reasons Iyengar Yoga—a multi-pronged interpretation of the yoga sutras compiled by sage Patanjali thousands of years ago, using props such as wooden bricks, ropes, chairs and blankets—although well-known and revered, is not easily accessible across India. In Mumbai, for instance, there are no institutes or formal centres of practice in the suburbs beyond Bandra. A new such centre will open at Fort, the deep south, in early 2019. While students pay ₹ 2,000 a month for organized group classes sanctioned by the Pune institute, such as the Bandra class taught by Jawahar Bangera, many practitioners who teach and offer therapeutic solutions for specific health conditions, charge up to ₹ 20,000 a month. While most of the other 82 countries in which Iyengar Yoga has centres, from Lithuania and Botswana to Lisbon, Osaka and Guangzhou, certify teachers before they can start teaching, there is no uniform, structured way of teaching Iyengar Yoga in India.
To celebrate the centenary birth year, the Iyengar family and their network of around 100 teachers (there are about nine formal centres of practice across India) took workshops and “mega classes" to cities such as Lucknow, Vrindavan and Kolkata. “We do believe in quality of practice over quantity or number of classes and number of centres, but this year we made an effort to reach out. The hope is once the awareness is there, people will come to the nearest centres or to Pune to learn more," says Abhijata, who spent around eight years constantly by her grandfather’s side, learning from him. Abhijata, 35, is considered the guru’s successor. She is a mirror of Iyengar in many ways—articulate, precise and protective of the guru-shishya sanctity. “A teacher is always a student, he or she attends classes of other teachers. That never stops," Abhijata says.
Her uncle Prashant is known for his vast knowledge not only of yoga, but also various strands of ancient Indian philosophy and their relationship to the body and mind. Her aunt Geeta has Iyengar’s astonishing attention to details of an asana. “The one lesson from him that I have internalized is sadhana. His advice was not to take anything for granted until you have achieved the goal; as life continues, sadhana has to continue," says Geeta.
The cardinal rule of Iyengar is spelt out in his interviews and writings: a philosopher when you practise, a scientist when you teach, an artist when you demonstrate.
Around 60 people gathered at Bhujbal Knowledge City last month for the last “mega class" of the year in Mumbai. The group included long-time practitioners and novices, and those seeking therapeutic benefits for 21st century afflictions such as carpal tunnel syndrome. The teacher was Firooza Razvi, who learnt for several years under Iyengar himself. Razvi spoke about the prana (life force) and how we can be aware of that. Iyengar Yoga is not known to stress on Pranayam; the school considers it a state that is finally achieved through asanas. Like all schools of thought with one man as its centre, Iyengar Yoga practitioners and teachers believe other schools of yoga falls short, and mixing methods is sacrilege. “The Lakshman rekha is that you can’t mix and dilute," says Rajvi Mehta, one of the leading proponents of Iyengar Yoga in Mumbai, a student of Iyengar since she was 11.
The best teachers of Iyengar Yoga demand and emphasize on patience. A student who has been learning under Bangera says she was befuddled when “Jawahar Sir" kept saying she had “hyper-extended calves" and didn’t explain to her what that meant. After three years of practice, she realized she was stretching her calves in such a way that her thighs had comparatively less traction and strength, and this made her legs prone to fatigue and pain. The teacher brought her to that realization over three years. Examples of epiphanies like these, including the most clichéd one of discovering muscles that we never knew existed, are common in informed, experienced conversations about Iyengar Yoga. Both Abhijita as well as Mehta say that Iyengar rarely noticed a student or interacted with him or her for the first couple of years. “One day he corrected a posture and you knew you had achieved a decent level," says Mehta.
For a cover story in Lounge on his 95th birthday in 2013, I had met Iyengar at the institute in Pune. I watched him conduct “therapy classes" with Abhijata by his side. He instructed in fluent, fast-paced Marathi and English, went from student to student, correcting them, flexing their limbs. Most practitioners who have learnt from him, including Manouso Manos and Patricia Walden, the two most well-known American teachers, say that Iyengar innovated, customized and refreshed every time he performed an asana. Navaz Kamdin, 66, who teaches at the institute in Pune (her mother Colly Dastur was also Iyengar’s student), says, “We all imitate him, but one of the biggest lessons from him, after observing him for so many years is that he gave himself to his students completely. What he practised was informed by who he was. He depended a lot on his intuition. So every teacher has to do that to keep the guru’s legacy alive."
Indian cricket has had Iyengar Yoga followers, including Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar—they have all practised it at some point in their careers. Andrew Leipus, physiotherapist for Kolkata Knight Riders and the Indian cricket team, says Surya Namaskar is often used as a form of warm-up before team practice. “Tightness around one body segment could lead to compensation elsewhere along the so called ‘kinetic chain’. This is what guruji would have termed mal-alignment. When properly ‘aligned’, the athlete can improve performance as well as prevent injury," says Leipus.
While the number of Indians practising Iyengar Yoga is fewer than other forms, including Baba Ramdev’s, it is the largest yoga network in the world. Many teachers who are outside the formal fold of teachers say it is far more difficult for an Indian to be an Iyengar Yoga teacher than someone from outside India. Each country has its own system of certification, and besides learning for eight years under a guru in Pune (not necessarily continuously), the institute has no other condition for a non-Indian to teach. In the month-long centenary celebrations at Rimyi that began on 1 December, thousands of practitioners are attending from across continents. China, after exporting yoga from the US in the late 1990s, is emerging as the new yoga superpower. In 2011, Iyengar demonstrated before 1,300-plus people at a public venue in Guangzhou. Evelyn Li, a teacher in Guangzhou who met Iyengar at that time and is part of the centenary celebrations in Pune, says, “There are seven centres in Guangzhou itself, and about 250 certified teachers. They can’t meet the demand for Iyengar Yoga from the students. Before Iyengar Yoga spread in China, many yoga teachers and practitioners got yoga injuries. Iyengar Yoga has made yoga safer, and I would say more therapeutic to Chinese people."
Its rigour, under some teachers, comparable to a military drill, has had enduring appeal in Israel. Shirley Ecker, in her 60s, uses Iyengar Yoga as therapy for cancer and teaches in Tel Aviv. “There are about five Iyengar Yoga centres in Tel Aviv, and the number is growing, it is spreading to other places in the country," Ecker says.
In 1988, the BKS Iyengar Association of Japan was established with seven teachers who Iyengar himself certified. There were less than 100 students. Now there are around 120 teachers and more than 450 students registered as association members. Noriko Enslin, 78, who was part of that group of 100 in 1988, says she feels like a part of a large Iyengar Yoga family, and part of the world beyond Japan. “I became a widow when I was 32 years old with two children and life was very traumatic. By learning about the life of guruji, my life became meaningful. Now many people in Japan are benefitting from Iyengar Yoga. Yoga has a special place in Japan because our country, like India, has a strong spiritual foundation," Enslin says.
“When you cannot hold the body still, you cannot hold the brain still. If you do not know the silence of the body, you cannot understand the silence of the mind. Action and silence have to go together. If there is action, there must also be silence. If there is silence, there can be conscious action and not just motion," said Iyengar.
After several years of practice and devotion, he modernized and interpreted this dynamic stillness and awareness that the ancient sage Patanjali promulgated 2,500 years ago in his yoga sutra.
Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar from Bellur, Karnataka, was born in a family in which disease and death were frequent. His father died of an untreated appendicitis, he himself suffered from typhoid and tuberculosis. “A deep melancholy overtook me," he writes of his childhood in his book Light On Yoga. He started learning yoga from his teenage years under Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who followed Patanjali’s sutras. He made Pune his home while teaching in Mumbai through the 1950s and 1960s to a select group of Parsi and Gujaratis. This group included the parents of Rajvi Mehta, her brother Birju Mehta and Arti Mehta—all three of them teach Iyengar Yoga in Mumbai. Through his Parsi friends, Iyengar met the violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin. “He would accompany Menuhin to concerts, and years of doing that took a toll on guruji," says Rajvi. He returned knowing many more people, including Pandit Ravi Shankar, with whom he forged a long, intense friendship.
Iyengar’s yoga spread across the world steadily; the Parsi community is known to have played a crucial role in supporting its growth. In 1975, after his wife Ramamani’s death, Rimyi was opened, its spiral structure inspired by the eight-limbed theory of Patanjali’s yoga system.
When asked about the other schools of yoga, Iyengar had said in 1995. “It all depends on what state of mind the practitioner is in when he is doing yoga. Without knowing that, I can’t say this yoga or that is bad. I think overall the majority of people who are practising it as a subject are following the right line. For the aberration, don’t blame yoga or the whole community of yogis," he said.
He said he never started an asana with the body, but from the mind or self, moving towards the body. That’s how his gateway of awareness opened. His ability to explain this state of dynamic stillness or simplifying everything about yoga was remarkably lucid.
His work, taken together, is a compelling argument about the need to achieve a higher form of selfhood and equipoise. He taught his students not to disengage from the world, but engage with it in new ways, without the ego. A perfect asana is bereft of ego, he said. In these times of divisiveness, and frenetic, unfocused activity or chitta-vritti, B.K.S. Iyengar is a radically sane voice for union and peace. And for Iyengar Yoga to thrive, and for more Indians to benefit from it, simply worshipping the prescient guru isn’t enough.s