Last updateTue, 17 Mar 2015 12pm

#BKSIyengar: Meet the man who brought Yoga to the west

Yoga guru B.K.S. Iyengar, who passed away in the southern Indian city of Pune on Tuesday aged 95, counted a veritable galaxy of stars among his international clientele.

From cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar through Bollywood beauty Kareena Kapoor to Hollywood star Annette Bening, fashion designer Donna Karan and even Queen Elisabeth of Belgium who, at the grand old age of 85, was taught by Iyengar to stand on her head.

The New York Times once said that Iyengar had done more than anyone else to bring yoga to the western world, long before this ancient practice became a multi-billion dollar industry.

However, well before Iyengar brought a form of enlightenment to millions around the world, yoga had saved his life.

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar was born to crippling poverty, the 11th of 13 children of a poor family in Bellur, rural Karnataka, in 1918.

At the time of his birth the region was gripped by a severe influenza epidemic, as a result of which Iyengar suffered from a string of illnesses in childhood including malaria, tuberculosis typhoid and general malnutrition.

In his mid-teens, the poorly young boy was introduced to yoga by his Mysore-based brother-in-law, the well-known yogi Sri Tirumalai  Krishnamacharya, who convinced Iyengar that the practice would help improve his health.

Writing in his autobiography in later years, Iyengar recalled that it had taken a full six years for him to get better but the recovery instilled a determination to never give up yoga.

"I found emotional stability, intellectual clarity, spiritual delight", he wrote.

Iyengar would later travel throughout Mysore demonstrating yoga asanas and once even performed at the court of the Maharajah of Mysore.

He also taught yoga to his wife Ramamani who he described as "my only friend, my sharer, my partner, my guide, my philosopher".

Weeks before he opened his first teaching institute in India in 1973, Ramamani passed away.  Iyengar never remarried and created the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute, which continues to teach his unique approach to yoga.

Iyengar's step to the west came about some two decades before Ramamani's death and after a chance encounter with Yehudi Menuhin, the gifted violinist and composer and early yoga devotee. 

Menuhin had heard about Iyengar during a visit to Bombay and asked for an audience with the young guru.  What was supposed to be a five-minute session turned into a three-hour tete-a-tete and a lifelong friendship began. 

Impressed by Iyengar, Menuhin arranged for his new friend to conduct yoga workshops in Britain, France and Switzerland.  The musician even credited Iyengar with helping to improve his conducting skills.

Iyengar would eventually go on to establish yoga centres on six continents.

“I set off in yoga 70 years ago when ridicule, rejection and outright condemnation were the lot of a seeker through yoga even in its native land of India,” he wrote.

“Indeed, if I had become a sadhu, a mendicant holy man, wandering the great trunk roads of British India, begging bowl in hand, I would have met with less derision and won more respect.”

Iyengar paved the way for other - invariably far more flamboyant - yogis who would cater to everyone from supermodels to reality TV stars.

But when Iyengar first arrived in New York, 1956, his teachings and work were considered an abomination.  No one was interested in yoga.

Unruffled, Iyengar continued to teach to an ever expanding following. By the time he returned to America, in 1973, he found hundreds of students waiting.

The yoga 'industry' that has followed in Iyengar's wake is a hugely successful 'enterprise' but lacked in the holistic approach that he practiced and preached: Iyengar was renowned for his earthy, practical approach to spreading knowledge about yoga, once famously demanding that students gain a deep understanding of what they were doing with their bodies before embarking on the spiritual journey.

"Stand on your feet.  FEEL your feet.  How can you know God if you don't know your big toe?", he once quipped.

The news about the passing of 'Guruji' - as many referred to him - touched those at the very highest echelons of power. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that he was "deeply saddened" by the guru's death. 

His granddaughter Abhijata Sridhar-Iyengar said her grandfather recognized early on that yoga, up until then viewed as a mystical pursuit, “had something for everybody, not just the intellectually or spiritually inclined.”

“He felt satisfied,” she said. “Even at the end, even a few weeks before, he said, ‘I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.’ He took yoga to the world. He knew that.”

Iyengar is survived by his son Prashant and five daughters, Geeta, Vinita, Suchita, Sunita and Savitha.




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