B. K. S. IYENGAR
Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, better known as B. K. S. Iyengar, was born into an influenza epidemic on December 14, 1918, in the small village of Bellur, India (Iyengar 2000: 15). Iynegar’s mother, Sheshemma, battled with influenza when she gave birth, which threatened Iyengar’s survival as a new born (Iyengar 2005: xvi). Despite the odds, Iyengar survived the influenza. However, he was very weak and sick, and battled with malaria, typhoid, and tuberculosis throughout his childhood; furthermore, he was often unable to attend school in his weakened states (Iyengar 2000: 16). At the age of nine his father passed away, leaving Sheshemma to take care of Iyengar.
Fortunately for Iyengar, his family’s Brahmin status resulted in the marriage of his older sister to Shriman T. Krishnamacharya, an honoured and highly revered scholar of Sanskrit (Iyengar 2005: xviii). At the age of fourteen, Iyengar was asked by Krishnamacharya to visit his wife in Mysore while Krishnamacharya was away. Upon his return, Krishnamacharya suggested that Iyengar remain in Mysore and begin practicing yoga asana (posture) to improve his health (Iyengar 2000: 17).
Iyengar studied under Krishnamacharya for many years, and thus Iyengar considers him to be his guruji, which is an honorable title a student gives to his guru or teacher (Rodrigues 549). At first, Iyengar struggled with his asana practice due to his poor health, but gradually his skill improved, as did his health. The pivotal moment that helped Iyengar become a guru himself occurred in 1936 when Krishnamacharya asked Iyengar to teach a class for women who wanted to learn yoga. As Iyengar was one of the youngest of Krishnamacharya’s students, the women were not as shy around him, and he was successfully able to instruct them (Iyengar 2000: 17). Not long after, Iyengar was sent to Pune to teach yoga to schools, colleges, and physical activity centres. While he was not at first accepted by his students due to his slight physique and difficulty speaking English, Iyengar put in a great deal of effort to instruct his classes for the benefit of his students. He remained teaching for the Deccan Gymkhana Club of Pune for three years (Iyengar 2000: 18).
During this time, Iyengar expanded his practice and started focusing on how his body responded to it. He stretched and breathed deeply in different postures, testing how his asana practice affected his own body. He learned by trial and error since his guru, Krishnamacharya, was nowhere near him. He felt as though he had no qualifications of practical knowledge to draw upon, so instead he chose to use his practice to teach him more about yoga. He felt pressure to master the art of asana for the benefit of his students, so he would practise for up to ten hours a day, and often until his body ached with pains and his mind felt fatigued. Yet he persevered, and after many years he developed what he considered to be a true understanding of asana. Moreover, Iyengar discovered that he could further his understanding of asana from his experiences teaching his students. One of Iyengar’s students was an eighty five year old professor of Ferguson College, Rajawada, who suffered from dysentery and could not even walk. From these experiences, Iyengar started to understand how asana could be adapted to both healthy and unhealthy bodies (Iyengar 2000: 32).
All these experiences helped Iyengar develop into one of the world’s most influential yoga instructors. Since Iyengar had received limited instruction from Krishnamacharya and was independently teaching himself about yoga, Iyengar developed a strong understanding of what it meant to be both a student and a guru. His teachings were very different from Krishnamacharya’s as he put emphasis on clarity of knowledge and purity of what one does to guide their students (Burley 69). More importantly, Iyengar asks of his students a consistent and dedicated practice, claiming; “your guru is your practice” (Budia 16). This can be interpreted to mean that, while instruction and book learning are important, one’s self and practice are the most important aspects for a student who is learning yoga.
Iyengar also discovered the importance of being a good student in order to be a good teacher, and of being a good teacher to be a good student. It was only through close examination of his students and himself that he was able to breakdown the different postures and focus on proper alignment. Moreover, from the wrestlers that lived next door to him in Pune, Iyengar learned of the importance of balance in one’s life and physical activity. The wrestlers had developed such inordinately large muscles that they were unable to use the latrines without help from someone else in locking the doors to the toilets (Iyengar 2000: 31).While Iyengar was considered by many of his students to be physically inferior, he did not wish to be crippled by physical strength, and instead desired a well balanced and healthy body. As with the wrestlers, Iyengar used many common people in everyday situations to help him learn more about the body and yoga asana. His student Agens Mineur studied in Pune under Iyengar’s supervision for many years, and recalled how her guruji would turn everything into a learning experience by pointing out poor posture or indications of pain in nearby people (Busia 13). Another of Iyengar’s students, Marian Garfinkel, has noted that “Iyengar is always practicing and inquiring. He is focused on his study and learns from his practice … Iyengar is his own best teacher and his own best student. He has always remained a student – eager to learn, to find out, to question” (Busia 59).
From his constant work to remain an attentive and critical student, Iyengar helps his students by allowing them to realize their full physical capabilities, while still remaining knowledgeable of their limitations. Agens Mineur recounted one time when she was helping her guruji Iyengar teach a class, and he told her “your pupil is your god” (Busia 12). Mineur took his words to heart, always remaining attentive of her students, and treating them as demigods. Similarly, Iyengar cherished his students, and learned as much from them as they did from him. From his years of work analyzing asana, Iyengar developed an unparalleled understanding of postures and the importance of body position and alignment. He could skillfully direct students into the most appropriate form for their specific bodies. Another of Iyengar’s students, Rama Jyoti Vernon, commented that when Iyengar would correct postures he “worked like a sculptor, moving bodies into exacting alignment, with or against the gravitational pull” (Busia 8).
However, possibly even more important than his understanding of asana and of teaching yoga, Iyengar began to learn the true meaning of yoga. Asana simply refers to the postures that are taught in yoga, but yoga is much more than that. Hatha-yoga, the type of yoga that Iyengar studied under Krishnamacharya, is a branch of Indian soteriology, which is the study of the means to attain salvation (Burley, 1). It is a form of self-realisation, and as Iyengar explains, “yoga is the process of stilling the consciousness and then merging the individual soul (jvatma) with the Universal Soul (Paramatma)” (Iyengar 2000: 69). The term yoga is derived from the word yuj, which means to yoke, and implies the binding of the individual with the Supreme. While Iyengar did not know this when he began to practice yoga, he eventually learned of it, and feels that through yoga he has achieved self-realization. He describes humans as a unit comprised of a trinity of body, mind and self, and that yoga practice helps to combine the three (Iyengar 2004: 12). Moreover, he explains that certain principles are important in this process, using the metaphor of an eight limbed tree to explain the core values of yoga. Iyengar places the values yama (ethical discipline), and niyama (restraint), at the roots and trunk of the tree, as they form the basis of yoga (Burley 190). Asana is placed as the third limb, and only comprises one out of the eight major values or limbs of yoga, demonstrating the postures are only a small component of yoga.
In its entirety, the type of Hatha-yoga that Iyengar constructed drew together all of the important aspects of traditional Hatha-yoga, with emphasis on asana and correct body alignment and position. This type of yoga consequently became known as Iyengar yoga (Burley 96). Iyengar yoga has become more and more popular over the years, and while it is not always practiced to “still the conscious” as Iyengar would like, it is frequently used by people of various degrees of health as a form of physical activity. Often yoga is sold to the masses as a trendy new exercise for people wanting to get fit; however, Iyengar yoga can and should be practised by people of all levels of health, age, and disability (Garfinkel 6). Moreover, Iyengar Yoga has been the subject of many studies examining the effects of yoga on various health conditions. In a 2009 study on chronic lower back pain it was found that sufferers who performed Iyengar yoga had significantly greater reductions in functional disability and pain intensity when compared to the non-yoga control group at 24 weeks. Moreover, at the end of the six month investigation, the yoga group demonstrated an even more significant reduction in functional disability, pain intensity, and depression compared to the standard group (Williams et al. 2074). Similarly, a 2005 study found that Iyengar yoga is effective at treating knee osteoarthritis symptoms, such as stiffness (Kolasinski et al, 692). The effects of Iyengar yoga on breast cancer survivors was also examined in 2008, and it was found that participants in a structured eight week Iyengar yoga program had improved quality of life, flexibility, balance, and cognition compared to breast cancer survivors that did not participate in the program (Galantino et al. 25).
While Iyengar never suspected that his developments in yoga would lead to such an incredibly diverse following and medical uses, he also never envisioned himself becoming a guru himself. Since Iyengar began on his yoga journey, he has traveled abroad, teaching yoga across the globe. He has written a multitude of books, the first being Light on Yoga, which took him six years to write and is considered by many to be a bible of sorts for modern hatha yoga practitioners (Iyengar 2000: 49). He has written several more books on yoga, which have examined the importance of pranayama (breath work), spirituality, and many more yogic concepts.
Through his work, he has improved the lives of many, both directly through his teachings, and indirectly through his development of Iyengar yoga. He has spread yoga across the globe, and has developed a safe and easily accessible form of yoga that can be practiced by people of any physical ability or walk of life. It would be difficult to argue that yoga would be the same without the contributions of B. K. S. Iyengar.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Busia, K. (ed.) (2007). Iyengar: The Yoga Master. Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Galantino M. L., Cannon, N., Hoelker, T., Quinn, L., and L. Greene. (2008) “Effects on Iyengar Yoga on Measures of Cognition, Fatigue, Quality of Life, Flexibility, and Balance in Breast Cancer Survivors: A Case Series.” Rehabilitation Oncology. 26(1): 18-27.
Garfinkel M. (2008). “The Use of Iyengar Yoga as a Complementary Therapy to Traditional Medicine.” Frontier Perspectives. 16(2): 6-10.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (2000). Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Volume 1. Mayapuri Phase 2, Delhi: Allied publishers.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (2004). Astadala Yogamala: Collected Works, Volume 4. Mayapuri Phase 2, Delhi: Allied publishers.
Iyengar, B.K.S., Abrams, D. & Evans, J.J. (2005). Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom. Pennsylvania: Rodale.
Kolasinski, S. L., Garfinkel, M., Tsai, A. G., Matz, W., Van Dyke, A., and H. R. Schumacher, Jr.(2005). “Iyengar Yoga for Treating Symptoms of Osteoarthritis of the Knees: A Pilot Study.” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine. 11(4): 689-93.
Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003). Hinduism—The Ebook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.
Williams, K., Abildso, C., Steinberg, L., Doyle, E., Epstein, B., Smith, D., Hobbs, G., Gross, R., Kelley, G., and L. Cooper. (2009). “Evaluation of the Effectiveness and Efficacy of Iyengar Yoga Therapy on Chronic Low Back Pain.” Spine. 34(19): 2066-76
Related Research Topics for Further Investigation
Shriman T. Krishnamacharya
T. K. V. Desikachar
Astanga Vinyasa Yoga
K. P. Jois
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Article written by Beth Millions (Spring 2012), who is solely responsible for its content.