When yoga practitioner BKS Iyengar visited the West in the 1950s, people asked him if he could walk on fire or eat glass and razor blades. Today, 20.4 million in the United States and 250 million people worldwide practice yoga.
Many yogis have contributed to this groundswell, including Iyengar’s teacher, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya; Patabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga; and Yogi Bhaijan, founder of Kundalini Yoga, but yoga’s popularity is largely due to Iyengar.
Yoga dates back at least 2,000 years to Patanjali’s book of aphorisms, Yoga Sutras, including eight “limbs,” one of which is the physical poses we now call “yoga.”
Bellurr Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar was born in 1918 in the village of Bellur near Bangalore. He was the eleventh of 13 children. His father’s death when he was eight left the family impoverished, interrupting the boy’s education for lack of money. His brother took him begging, and Iyengar suffered from malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis, and malnutrition.
His sister married Krishnamacharya, who invited 17-year-old Iyengar to help with chores. Krishnamacharya has come to be known as the father of modern yoga.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are about attaining enlightenment by stilling the mind. They refer to posture only to encourage steadiness. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, composed in the fifteenth century, introduced 15 poses.
Until the twentieth century, many yogis disdained the poses. Yogi Vivekananda, who brought yoga to the West, said, “We have nothing to do with it here, because its practices are very difficult and cannot be learnt in a day, and, after all, do not lead to much spiritual growth.”
Motivated partly by a fitness craze, Krishnamacharya began to include postures cribbed from British military calisthenics and “primitive gymnastics.”
There are a number of reasons to exercise in the pursuit of enlightenment. Yoga’s strengthening, stretching, and balance exercises foster meditation. The poses also involve all eight of Patanjali’s “limbs.” For instance, we practice telling the truth by correctly holding the pose, not just “phoning it in.”
Energy discipline has to do with breath. Easy breath is both a clue to progress as well as an aid to deepen poses. “Withdrawal of the senses” means attending to the body’s sensations. Instead of daydreaming, we direct our attention to the stretch or to the distribution of weight.
Fixing your attention on one thing follows from withdrawal of the senses. The idea is to keep returning attention as it wanders, which is the beginning of meditation.
After Krishnamacharya’s star pupil fled his abuse, he drafted Iyengar for a recital. He asked Iyengar to perform a front-back split, something the boy had never done. Iyengar did the split, tearing a hamstring.
Impressed by the boy’s pluck, Krishnamacharya began using him as a teacher and emissary. Sent to Pune to teach college students, Iyengar worked hard, not wanting to return to his tyrannical guru’s house.
Iyengar’s practice emphasized proper alignment and, influenced by his hamstring tear, conditioning the body in stages. “I developed a progressive approach from simple to difficult [poses]. I categorized their effects as being purifying, pacifying, stimulative, nourishing, or cleansing. Guru lit the fire of yoga within me. But I did not learn it in the form it is today.”
Modern yogis who have seen photographs of Krishnamacharya believe he performed the poses incorrectly. Richard Rosen of Yoga Journal writes, “The dozen or so ‘pre-Iyengar’ poses look, shall we say, disorganized, on par with our stiffest, most beginning-est beginners.”
Iyengar pioneered the use of bricks, blankets, or straps to compensate for gaps between ability and ideal. “I struggled with and traced the missing links of refinement and precision. I evolved my guru’s method, so that a set of [poses] could be followed by another set, using the alignment of the intelligence in the [poses].”
Iyengar helped violinist Yehudi Menuhin overcome exhaustion and a hyper-extended bow arm. Menuhin called Iyengar his “greatest violin teacher,” and introduced him to Standard Oil heiress Rebekah Harkness. Life magazine published photos of Harkness posing under Iyengar’s direction.
In 1966, Iyengar published his first book, Light on Yoga, and established a teaching institute with the proceeds. He also funded a school, water system, and health center in his native Bellur, before his death in 2014.