“the real meaning of yoga – a deliverance from contact with pain and sorrow”– B.K.S. Iyengar
Light on Yoga is arguably one of the most seminal contemporary yoga books.
Written by B.K.S Iyengar and published in 1966, this comprehensive manual of yoga adorns many a yogis bookshelf.
Somewhat a DIY manual for the yogi, the book comes with illustrations and instructions for how to perform yoga asanas. It is dedicated to his revered guruji, Krishnamacharya.
B.K.S. Iyengar remains one of the most influential teachers of all time so let’s find out more about this important book.
In this article we’ll take a look at:
- Light on Yoga
- Who was B.K.S. Iyengar?
- What is Iyengar Yoga?
- Other books by B.K.S Iyengar
Light on Yoga
Light on Yoga includes a foreword by Iyengar’s student and famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
The book itself is divided into three parts.
- It opens with an introductory chapter called What is Yoga? which highlights the liberating goals of yoga. He provides an overview of the philosophy of yoga including Patanjali’s Eight Limbed system.
- The second section includes the description of over two hundred asanas (poses) and over six hundred photographs which makes up the bulk of the book.
- The final section of the book is concerned with pranayama (breathing techniques).
There are two appendices within the book. The first is a set of asana courses that develop in difficulty, and the second is a list of “creative asanas for various diseases,” including conditions such as “acidity” and “varicose veins”.
The book also includes a glossary of the Sanskrit terms used.
Within the asana section of the book, each posture is given its Sanskrit name, technique, grade, and effects.All of the photos provided are of Iyengar himself. Some of the poses come with several photographs that attempt to show the yogi how to get into the pose as well as what the fully formed posture looks like.
A good example of the description within the book is triangle pose (a fairly familiar pose for many):
- Utthita trikonasana (extended triangle pose) is positioned as a difficulty level three out of sixty.
- Iyengar provides eight technical steps for getting in and out of the pose.
- He describes the effects on the body and provides three photographs.
This is the standard layout for each pose throughout the book.
The book was praised for its anatomical and breath-focused lens, which was a new approach. Rarely had there been descriptions, techniques, and benefits of poses described and depicted on this scale.
“Mind is the king of the senses. One who has conquered his mind, senses, passions, thought and reason is a king among men”– B.K.S. Iyengar
Why was Light on Yoga such a big deal?
There are countless books, websites, and social media posts describing yoga poses today so it’s hard to believe that Light on Yoga was one of the only manuals of its kind at the time.
The clear descriptions and photographs provide practitioners with a “no-nonsense” do-it-yourself guide.
Yoga was traditionally taught through a one-to-one relationship with a teacher or guru.
In more recent times, gurus began traveling to the West to teach large groups of people, but it wasn’t until Iyengar’s Light on Yoga that yoga asana was accessible to a huge audience within their own homes.
“My body is my temple and asanas are my prayers”– B.K.S. Iyengar
There was a proliferation of asana which took place in the Middle Ages with the popularity of Hatha Yoga taking hold, but even the highly regarded Hatha Yoga Pradipika only lists fifteen asanas.
B.K.S Iyengar’s expansion of the repertoire of poses was unparalleled at its time of publishing.
George Allen and Unwin first published Light on Yoga in 1966 with revised editions being published in 1968 and 1976.
Aquarian Press published a paperback edition in 1991 and the book has become an international bestseller.
It has been translated into over 23 languages, including Czech, Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, Portuguese, Hungarian, Thai, and Russian.
Light on Yoga has sold over three million copies to date.
Considered the “bible of yoga” and described by scholar Mark Singleton as “encyclopedic” and “the most influential do-it-yourself yoga book of all time”, Light on Yoga set the stage for many books and manuals about yoga.
Step-by-step instructions for the physical practice of yoga enabled people to practice yoga in their own homes as well as read about the benefits of postures.
B.K.S. Iyengar was one of the first teachers to put biomedical explanations into text, along with postures and their descriptions.
Iyengar Yoga is one of the first “brands” of yoga and ultimately Light on Yoga put the style of yoga into the global sphere.
Its success lies in the short and accessible introduction to the philosophy of yoga which links yoga back to Patanjali’s Eight Limbed system, the Bhagavad Gita, and a focus on the bodily practices of yoga.
Who was B.K.S. Iyengar?
B.K.S. Iyengar was born in 1918 and died in 2014. He was not born into a wealthy family and suffered from considerable ill health as a child. He suffered from typhoid, tuberculosis, and malaria.
He decided to commit his life to yoga at the age of eighteen, and he eventually healed himself. He became a student of his brother-in-law and pioneering yogi T Krishnamacharya whom he had a turbulent relationship with.
Iyengar became the yoga teacher of the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin in 1952. It was through this relationship that Iyengar was invited to teach in Europe.
During the 1960s B.K.S. Iyengar started to teach at the London Education Authority. It was stipulated that all philosophical and spiritual elements of yoga be omitted. This was responsible for creating a pathway for the first Iyengar Institute outside of India.
In 1975 Iyengar founded the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune in memory of his wife.
His daughter Geeta and his son Prashant have also earned acclaim as teachers in their own right.
What is Iyengar Yoga?
B.K.S Iyengar brought physical stamina and flexibility to his students through his demanding and alignment-based approach.
He used props to aid alignment and also to help those less able to practice yoga.
He was known for his stern manner and was nicknamed “Bang, Kick, Slap” (B.K.S.), and he had very high standards when in the yoga room. He was also known to a lesser extent for his humor and compassion.
Iyengar referred to yoga practice as “meditation in action”. While so much of his focus was on asana practice the underlying precepts were heavily influenced by Patanjali’s classical yoga.
The Eight Limbed system (Astanga Yoga) offers a map for spiritual practice. The process of Patanjali’s system includes how we act in our lives all the way to spiritual enlightenment. The Eight Limbs are:
1 | Yamas – ethical standards or restraints
- Ahiṃsā – non-violence
- Satya – truthfulness (not lying)
- Asteya – non-stealing
- Brahmacharya –sexual restraint
- Aparigraha – non-covetousness or non-possessiveness
2 | Niyamas –inner observances
- Sauca – cleanliness
- Santosa – contentment
- Tapas – heat or spiritual austerities
- Svadyaya – the study of the self and of the sacred scriptures
- Isvarapranidhana – dedication or surrender to God
3 | Asana – Physical postures
4 | Pranayama – Breath control/exercises
5 | Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses
6 | Dharana – Concentration
7 | Dhyana – Meditation
8 | Samadhi – Enlightenment or bliss.
Iyengar’s approach to physical postures is considered alignment based and this is evident in the book Light on Yoga. His instructions are very detailed and often rely on props such as straps, ropes, and blocks to enhance alignment.
Postures tend to be held for longer than in other styles which allows for proper alignment to be explored. Iyengar believed that proper alignment enforced balance throughout the physical and mental systems of each individual.
Iyengar is considered the pioneer of the use of props in yoga.
Throughout his career, he utilized walls, ropes, bolsters, blocks, straps, and belts as a way to provide support to the individual and promote safety.
It is reported that Iyengar continued to practice yoga for up to three hours a day into his nineties.
Other books by B.K.S. Iyengar
B.K.S. Iyengar has authored many influential books in addition to Light on Yoga. These include:
- Light on Life
- Light on Pranayama
- Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
- The Tree of Yoga
- Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health
Light on Yoga 101
This important yoga instruction manual brought yoga asana into the homes of millions of people throughout the world.
Light on Yoga is a manual for people to practice yoga without a teacher and comes with techniques, instructions, and benefits.
Iyengar was an influential figure in bringing yoga to the West and has been a significant figure in the modern yoga scene.
Most modern yoga styles have been influenced by Iyengar in some way and his legacy continues to thrive through certified Iyengar teachers.
If learning about B.K.S. Iyengar has left you interested to find out more about the teacher behind Iyengar then why not check out our article on Kishnamacharya: