B.K.S. Iyengar (1918-2014) is arguably one of the most well-known and influential yoga teachers within modern postural yoga. Named as one of the hundred most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2004 Iyengar’s impact reached far beyond the yoga studio.
Spanning a life of almost 100 hundred years he went from sickly child to international Guru who wrote one of the best-selling yoga books of all time and pioneered a precise approach to yoga that used props to help the physical, mental, and intellectual body to align.
“Occasionally throughout history, there have been individuals whose achievements leave a positive mark across the entire world. B.K.S. Iyengar was such a person.” Iyengaryogalondon.co.uk
In this article we’ll look at:
- The life behind the teacher
- Philosophical influences on Iyengar Yoga
- Āsana approaches
B.K.S. Iyengar – the Child
Bellur Krishnamacarya Sunderaja Iyengar was one of 13 born into a poor brahmin family in Karnataka, India. His beginnings were rife with illness and during his childhood, he suffered from typhoid, malaria, and tuberculosis all of which impacted his education and well-being.
B.K.S. Iyengar – The Student
Iyengar began yoga under the tutelage of his brother-in-law Śrī Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in Mysore at the age of 15. Krishnamacharya had little faith in Iyengar’s prospects as a yogi due to his physical health, but it was through yoga that Iyengar found a mode of healing and well-being.
As a teacher, Krishnamacharya was renowned for his fierce and uncompromising manner towards his students, and he is said to have offered very little direct tutorage to Iyengar.
Along with Krishnamacharya’s other students, K. Pattabhi Jois and T.K.V. Desikachar he became one of the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century.
B.K.S. Iyengar – The Teacher
At just 18 Iyengar was sent to Pune to teach yoga. Resisting the traditional path of other yogis, Iyengar did not choose to become a sannyasi and renounce his life as a householder which subsequently allowed him to marry and become a father.
“In life, we have a lot of responsibilities. It is not meant for renunciation. We live in this society and it is our duty to give back to our society. Renunciation comes to me when I am 96. Renunciation means giving up the enjoyment of worldly happiness. But I am full of inner happiness.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
It was Iyengar’s relationship, both as a student and friend, with internationally renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the 1950s that propelled him to success in the West. Menuhin said, “I consider B.K.S. Iyengar to be my first real violin teacher. He is the first to teach me how to use my body”.Iyengar began teaching at the London Education Authority in the 1960s on the basis that the teachings be predominantly physical omitting the philosophical and spiritual aspects of yoga. This paved the way for the first Iyengar Institute in the West.
“Iyengar’s biomedical dialect made postural yoga appealing to a wide array of modern urban individuals.” Andrea Jain “Selling Yoga”
Iyengar was a charismatic teacher and despite being notorious for his temper he was also known by his students for his sense of humor and compassion. Notably, his radical approach to teaching was founded on the notion that yoga was for everyone regardless of race, gender, or class.
After the death of his wife, Iyengar established the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune in 1975 where he taught with his children Geeta and Prashant. Iyengar spent the rest of his life at the RIMYI and continued to teach well into his 90s.
Iyengar Yoga – The Training
“Yoga is my way of life.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
There are thousands of trained Iyengar teachers throughout the world all of whom have undertaken the rigorous program of teacher training. At least eight years of study are required before entering the two-year introductory certificate program and senior Iyengar Yoga teachers undertake mandatory in-depth training to progress in their teaching.
Iyengar Yoga – The Philosophy
“Yoga does not just change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
B.K.S. Iyengar refers to the practice of yoga as “meditation in action”. His approach to the philosophical concepts of yoga was heavily underpinned by the classical yoga of Patañjali. In the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, we find the eight limbs of yoga which is a systematic approach to living a purposeful life and path to samadhi.
The eight limbs of yoga, also known as Aṣṭāṅga yoga (not to be confused with K. Pattabhi Jois’s Aṣṭāṅga vinyasa), provide a holistic guide to life with attention to ethical conduct, discipline, self-inquiry, and spirituality. The first four stages are concerned with refining aspects of daily life before diving deeper into the subtleties of meditation and consciousness.
Let’s take a look at the philosophical inquiry behind Iyengar Yoga in more detail.
1 | Yamas – Often referred to as ethical standards or restraints the five Yamas set out a code of behaviors to live by. Consider these the “don’t’s”:
- Ahiṃsā – non-violence
- Satya – truthfulness (not lying)
- Asteya – non-stealing
- Brahmacharya –sexual restraint
- Aparigraha – non-covetousness or non-possessiveness
2 | Niyamas – A compliment to the Yamas the five Niyamas are considered the “inner observances” and help us to act appropriately. Consider these the “do’s”
- Śauca – cleanliness
- Saṇtoṣa – contentment
- Tapas – heat or spiritual austerities
- Svādyāya – the study of the self and of the sacred scriptures
- Īśvarapraṇidhāna – dedication or surrender to God
3 | Āsana – These are the physical postures and the dominant form of yoga associated with modern practice.
4 | Prāṇāyāma – Used to manipulate prāṇa or energy, prāṇāyāma is the control of the breath or breathing exercises.
5 | Pratyāhāra – Often referred to as detachment from the external such as cravings, pratyāhāra is the withdrawal of the senses and a tool for turning toward the internal.
6 | Dhāraṇā – Concentration or focus on a single mental object is the practice of dhāraṇā.
7 | Dhyāna – Meditation is the focus of this limb. Dhyāna differs from concentration as it is a wider state of awareness not reliant on a fixed mental point.
8 | Samadhi –. A state of being that is at one with the universe, enlightenment, or bliss is used to describe the state of samadhi.
Iyengar Yoga – The practice
“Iyengar prescribed a thoroughly individualistic system of postural yoga that was a rigorous and disciplined form of body maintenance” Andrea Jain “Selling Yoga”
Iyengar Yoga is one of the first “brands” of yoga and was initially successful because of its focus on physical methods with little focus on the wider teachings of yoga. This accessible approach to what was previously an esoteric practice used physical exercise to draw people in.
There are three important components of Iyengar which provide a good insight into the style: alignment, sequencing, and the use of props.
The precise approach to the performance of postures in Iyengar Yoga is detailed and specific. Postures are held for a longer duration than in many other styles allowing time to work with alignment, breath, corrections, and adjustments while in the shapes.
There is an emphasis on learning and progression through the alignment principles on account of the demanding attention and awareness required. “Good alignment” means that the whole physiological and mental system is balanced.
Iyengar Yoga adopts a methodical approach to sequencing postures and aims to prepare the body for opening in a safe way. Unlike many other styles, Iyengar Yoga does not feature warming sequences such as sun salutations (Sūryanamaskāra) and relies heavily on poses being held for longer periods, sometimes up to 10 minutes, which are said to help to build strength and flexibility as well as focus. Classes generally end with “invigorating” or “re-energizing” postures to cultivate vitality.
Considered a pioneer in the use of “props”, Iyengar Yoga incorporates belts, blocks, straps, walls, sandbags, walls, ropes, and bolsters in order to provide support and help those with limitations, lack of experience, or injury. The use of props compliments the alignment principles and helps students to perform each pose safely.
Iyengar Yoga – Proposed Benefits
“Your body exists in the past and your mind exists in the future. In yoga, they come together in the present.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
Like other styles of yoga, Iyengar Yoga is a good approach to improving health holistically. More specifically it claims to:
- Increase strength and flexibility
- Improve posture
- Boost energy
- Reduce chronic pain symptoms
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve concentration
BKS Iyengar’s Writing
“Light on Yoga” is arguably one of the most widely known books on yoga and includes over 600 photographs of 200 āsanas accompanied by instructions on how to do the poses and their benefits. It has been translated into 22 languages since being published in 1966 and has been referred to as “the bible of modern yoga”.
If you’re eager to find out more about the man and the practice of B.K.S. Iyengar then the Light on series is a good place to start:
“Light on Yoga” – B.K.S. Iyengar
“Light on Life” – B.K.S. Iyengar
“Light on Pranayama” – B.K.S. Iyengar
“Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” – B.K.S. Iyengar
Iyengar Yoga is a methodical approach to the practice of yoga and its success rides on the teachings of the man who pioneered a brand of yoga for householders that was both challenging and therapeutic.
“Yoga is a light, which once lit, will never dim. The better your practice, the brighter the flame.” – B.K.S Iyengar