B.K.S. Iyengar | Biography & Teachings

‘Yoga can be practiced by anyone, whatever one’s state of mind or health‘ – B.K.S. Iyengar

B.K.S Iyengar (1918-2914) is arguably one of the most influential and prominent teachers of modern postural yoga and is the creator of the renowned brand Iyengar Yoga.  An active teacher and practitioner until his death at the age of 95 he was a key figure in the evolution and success of the practice we know as yoga today.

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • His early life
  • His key teachings
  • His most influential and inspiring writings
  • Inspirational quotes by B.K.S. Iyengar
bks iyengar portrait photo

B.K.S. Iyengar’s Early Life

B.K.S. Iyengar (Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar) was one of 13 children and was born in Karnataka (Mysore), India. His early years were poverty-stricken and tainted by illnesses such as malaria, tuberculosis, and typhoid which is said to have been a motivator for seeking the benefits of a rigorous yoga practice as he approached his teenage years.

Under the guidance of his brother-in-law, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya at the age of 15 Iyengar began to apply himself to yoga.  Iyengar did not have an easy relationship with Krishnamacharya who considered him too sickly to be taught and Iyengar claims that he received a mere three days of teaching from Krishnamacharya in his entire studentship.

Through commitment and dedication to yoga, Iyengar’s health did indeed improve, and the once sickly boy evolved into a supple and healthy yogi who began teaching began in Pune at the young age of 18.

“Yoga saved my life. I took it up for my health, and then I took it up as a mission” – B.K.S Iyengar

Iyengar was one of three prominent students who adapted and disseminated the teachings of Krishnamacharya, all of whom took a diverse and individualist approach to creating their own style.  Both K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Vinyasa) and T.K.V. Desikachar (Viniyoga) were like Iyengar instrumental in changing the face of yoga not just in India but throughout the world.

For Iyengar, practice became a laboratory for understanding the body. Viewing yoga as both an “art and a science”  fuelled his meticulous approach and interest in yoga as a therapeutic system. At this time, there was little emphasis on yoga being a system for health and well-being which was a stark contrast to the austerities of the haṭha yogis of the past and fuelled a new direction for yoga.

bks iyengar photo

Iyengar Shared yoga With The World

It’s worth noting that in the background to Iyengar’s tutorage and study there was somewhat of a “revival of hatha yoga” taking place in India famous yogis such as Sri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda were opening yoga centers to disseminate the teachings of yoga as well as promote health and fitness.  One might say that the evolution of yoga as a global cultural phenomenon was taking shape around Iyengar.

It was Iyengar’s relationship with internationally acclaimed violinist Yehudi Menuhin that launched Iyengar into global recognition.  Menuhin claimed that after meeting Iyengar in 1952 he “improved his violin playing” and gifted him a watch inscribed with “To my best violin teacher, B.K.S .Iyengar.”

Iyengar first visited the USA in 1956 and made his way to Europe in the 1960s.  In London, in 1967 he began teaching at the Inner London Education Authority which added yoga classes based on the premise that they be free of dogma and philosophy.  Focusing on yoga as exercise was prioritized and any Hindu or non-dualist that contradicted the dominant religion of Christianity was stripped away.  

Iyengar’s compliance to promote asana without the spiritual teaching of yoga elevated the success of his approach and he is considered a huge influence in bringing postural to the West in the 1970s.  Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004.

Following the death of his wife, Iyengar opened the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute in Pune in 1975.  Although he retired from teaching in 1984, he continued to teach events, lecture, and write books.  He leaves a legacy behind in his daughter Geeta and son, Prashant who continue to teach Iyengar yoga.

The first Iyengar Yoga Institute in America was founded by teachers including Mary Dunn and Judith Lasater in San Fransisco in 1976.  Other international centers followed their lead and continue to open their doors to Iyengar students throughout the world.

b.k.s. iyengar black and white portrait

Teaching style – Approaches to Asana

Iyengar’s devotion to his practice was at the heart of his teaching but he was known for his stern and often rough manner with his students which included harsh adjustments and strict alignment rules.  Despite his unpredictable nature, he was remembered for his sense of humor and compassion.

“B.K.S. Iyengar evolved precise posture (Asana) and breathing (Pranayama) techniques with a firm philosophical base in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.” –Iyengar.org.uk 

The use of props to support alignment was key in Iyengar’s approach and inspired many other teachers to adopt a more therapeutic, restorative, and accessible approach while maintaining the underlying principle of yoga as exercise.  It is commonplace to use bricks, belts, blankets, chairs, and even ropes in an Iyengar class.

“Iyengar yoga is meant for all and is a way of life. The use of props, designed by Guruji , such as wooden gadgets, belts, ropes helps the practitioner to achieve perfection in any asana. Regular practice of ‘Iyengar Yoga’ definitely integrates the body, mind, and emotions.” – bksiyengar.com

The Iyengar method consists of a slower pace than other approaches (such as Jois’ Ashtanga Vinyasa) and poses tend to be held for longer encouraging students to explore and experience the importance of alignment and present moment awareness.   His meticulous and some might say purist approach combined strength, and flexibility while subtly weaving in awareness, intention, and the broader underlying principles of yoga. 

a group of students practicing headstand in a bks iyengar yoga class

Philosophical influences

The primarily secular approach of his style arguably drove the global success and accessibility of Iyengar yoga in the later part of the 20th century and while he has been criticized for stripping away the spiritual and philosophical part of the practice his holistic method as a teacher prescribed that the body was simply the first layer of the practice.

His physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual system accessed through the practice of alignment-based asana was rooted in the classical tradition of Patanjali and his Yoga Sutra and its eight-limbed path. Iyengar was very much an advocate for “living” the practice of yoga and ensuring it wasn’t just a practice for the mat.

Iyengar even included an invocation to Patanjali at the beginning of each class.

“In chanting the Invocation we are taking a moment to acknowledge and pay respect the ancient roots of Iyengar Yoga, the teachings which have been handed down over the centuries and the instructors from whose experience and wisdom we benefit.” – Peggy Cardy

yogena cittasya padena vācāṃ
ṃalam  śarīrasya  ca  vaidyakena
yopākarottaṃ pravaraṃ munīnaṃ
patañjalim  prānjalirānato’smi
ābāhu  puruṢākāram
śankha  cakrāsi  dhārinam
sahasra  śirasaṃ śvetaṃ
praṇamāmi  patañjalim
yogena cittasya padena vācāṃ

To the noblest of sages, Patanjali, who gave us yoga for serenity of mind, grammar for purity of speech and medicine for the perfection of the body, I salute. I salute before Patanjali whose upper body has a human form, whose arms hold a conch, and disc and a sword, who is crowned by a thousand headed cobra. Oh incarnation of Adisesa my humble salutations to thee.

feet on the wall of an iyengar yoga studio

Writing

The international best-seller “Light on Yoga” was written by Iyengar in 1966.  Translated into 17 languages and selling millions of copies the “DIY” approach of the book bought yoga into people’s homes and is considered a bible of modern yoga.  Undoubtedly this encyclopedia of asanas with over 600 photographs including instruction and benefits continues to be one of the most popular yoga books of all time and a key factor in the uptake of yoga in the West.

Iyengar wrote many books during his life including the acclaimed “Light on Life”, “Light on Pranayama” and “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”.

Inspirational Quotes by b.k.s. Iyengar

Let’s take a look at 10 inspirational quotes by B.K.S. Iyengar to better understand the teaching and philosophy behind his method.

“My body is my temple and asanas are my prayers.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

“Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel like you are constantly trying to fit broken pieces together.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

“Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

“Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

“We are a little piece of continual change, looking at an infinite quantity of continual change.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

 “It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

“Yoga is like music. The rhythm of the body, the melody of the mind, and the harmony of the soul creates the symphony of life.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

“Yoga does not just change the way we see things; it transforms the person who sees.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

“Yoga, an ancient but perfect science, deals with the evolution of humanity. This evolution includes all aspects of one’s being, from bodily health to self-realization. Yoga means union – the union of body with consciousness and consciousness with the soul. Yoga cultivates the ways of maintaining a balanced attitude in day-to-day life and endows skill in the performance of one’s actions.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

 “It is through the alignment of the body that I discovered the alignment of my mind, self, and intelligence.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

“Spirituality is not some external goal that one must seek, but a part of the divine core of each of us, which we must reveal.” – B.K.S. Iyengar

Want to know more about this fearless and inspiring yogi and teacher?

It’s likely that if you have been to a yoga class it is in some way influenced by the teachings of Iyengar.  He helped shape the face of modern yoga asana and is a key person in the momentous evolution of yoga that took place in the 20th century.  Find out more about the man and the practice here.

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Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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