Yogis reflect on the life (and incredible influence) of B.K.S. Iyengar

Iyengar The yoga world stopped breathing for a moment, this week—when B.K.S. Iyengar did—at 3:15 a.m. on August 20.

Iyengar, who lived to age 95, was a yoga luminary whose influence is hard to exaggerate. In addition to creating his own style, Iyengar Yoga, he’s often credited with bringing yoga to the West—through visits to the U.S. in the ’70s, his influential book, Light on Yoga, and the many students he trained in his accessible, alignment-based style in India, most of whom returned to their home countries on a mission to spread his teachings.

Time Magazine named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2004. Celebrity yogis like Rodney Yee follow his teachings, Martha Stewart sings its praises (her teacher, James Murphy, is quoted below), and the Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York counts Donna Karan and Diane von Furstenberg among its advisory board members.

To honor Iyengar’s life, we asked top yoga instructors who either trained directly with him or were heavily influenced by his work to reflect on their memories and how his teachings affected their own lives—and the greater yoga world… Read them now. —Lisa Elaine Held

(Photo: Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York)


Get Started
Director, Iyengar Institute of New York

I’ve been going to Pune [in India] to study with him for 25 years, almost every year. My teacher was Mary Dunn, and her mother, Mary Palmer, was the first person to bring him to the United States to teach, at the Ann Arbor Y in the ’70s. On my first trip to India to study there….he taught a class that was very profound. I can remember this quite electrifying moment when he gave you three simple instructions, and it just took you into a suspended state I had never felt before. He teaches to everyone but you feel like he teaches directly to you.

He provided the system that can be done by everyone. He was the person that started that, with just simple props you had at home—a blanket, a chair—that were around the house. Blocks…they call them bricks in India, because it was originally a brick he had a student take from outside. The props were used so everyone could get the benefits of the poses even if they didn’t have the flexibility or strength or stamina.

His daughter and his son are [still]there, his granddaughter is there…and then there are senior teachers all over the world that have been studying with him over the years, and because the system he’s put together is so thorough and methodical in a progressive way, that’s in place, and the teaching will go on. Next, Erich Schiffmann…

(Photo: James Murphy and Martha Stewart practicing, via Iyengar Yoga Association of Greater New York)


Exhale Venice

I went to Pune, India, during the summer of 1977 to study with the great Iyengar. I’d arrive at the Institute every morning at 7:00 to watch Iyengar practice. I observed him closely and wrote down everything he did. He was extremely creative and extremely internal when he was practicing. You could tell he was thoroughly immersed in his experience. Class would begin as soon as he was finished and would last three hours. We’d then walk to town, eat, go to our room and take notes, then nap. I would then walk to the Institute again to watch Iyengar do his afternoon practice, an hour of headstand shoulder stand variations. This was followed by a pranayama (breathing) class, which was followed by the evening class. It was a lovely summer.

One experience I remember most clearly from that summer occurred at the end of a very intense, difficult class, and during savasana, I went particularly deep. I remember being very quiet, very centered, and yet very wide awake. Iyengar must have noticed this because he came over to me afterward and said, “You see! It takes Krishnamurti twenty years to get your mind quiet. I can do it in one class.”

Many people attempt to discredit him by saying his yoga is not spiritual. But here it was! Spiritual in the most practical, grounded, obvious way. The whole point of all this physical, hard work—and it was very physical and very demanding—was to get into a deep meditative state. And, for me, it worked. I am extremely grateful to have learned this from him. Next, Alison West…

(Photo: Iyengar in his younger days, via  Judith Jones Yoga)


bks-iyengar-lotus-500x403 ALISON WEST
Director, Yoga Union

I studied at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute perhaps 8 or 9 years ago. Mr. Iyengar was no longer teaching group classes, but he supervised the medical classes and observed my work a number of times—and went off with what I can only call a growl to signify that what I was doing was okay. His presence was magnetic. The minute he was in the room, the space became charged with awareness. He practiced frequently during our own self-practice time, which meant it was possible to observe the care he took with his own work, the duration of the poses, which might last a long time, and his essential repose.

Sri Iyengar’s books have had a lasting impact on me. I turn to Light on Yoga, Light on the Sutras, Light on Pranayama regularly for advice and inspiration….With Light on Yoga in 1966, Sri Iyengar made yoga accessible to the Western mind though his own searching intellect, always exploring and revealing the inner workings of the body and breath in an almost scientific way, albeit through subjective means, and changed how we view the potential of yoga.

I think Sri Iyengar was intent on maintaining an intellectually rigorous approach to yoga so that it might also be respected by the medical community. By establishing rigorous training programs with required ongoing study, he also elevated the level of teaching of yoga around the world. Next, Annie Carpenter…

(Photo: Iyengar in lotus pose, via Iyengaryoga.org.uk)


Exhale Venice, SmartFlow Yoga

I only attended lectures with him. He was charismatic, warm, and intelligent. Even in a huge theater and crowd, he had an appealing blend of pride and humility. I spent many years studying with his great students/teachers in New York and Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. He infused his teachers with a yearning for specificity and precision, which has helped me practice for almost 40 years with intelligence in form, modifications, and sequencing. It is my hope to bring to my students and teachers-in-training this intelligence infused with patience and compassion.

Most of the props we use today are his invention. And perhaps more to the point, his unwavering search to make yoga asana accessible to all regardless of age, flexibility, or health was the essential message behind all of the props. I think we can say that the burgeoning field of yoga therapeutics grew directly out of his ongoing work with students who came to him from near and far with all kinds of health issues.

While from the outside his insistence on his strict methodology and credentialing system may seem rigid or harsh, the truth is, that under his lead, a studio or teacher who calls herself Iyengar has an immediate respect worldwide. May his wise influence continue!

(Photo: Iyengar traveling, via Honolulu Iyengar)

Do practice Iyengar yoga? Tell us about your experience in the Comments, below!


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