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BKS Iyengar, his life & legacy

by Arundhati Baitmangalkar

The man who spread Yoga to the modern world

Honestly, I do not know where to start. I have been thinking of this tribute for a couple of weeks now and I feel nothing I write here will do justice to the life & legacy of BKS Iyengar. So I am just going to do my best. This is honestly one of the most emotional pieces I will ever write. For a very long time, the face of yoga for me was BKS Iyengar. I was so excited to meet him in India this December but as fate has it, he passed away on August 20th, 2014. This is his life in a nutshell.


Bellur Krishnamachar Sundarajan Iyengar , better known as BKS Iyengar was the founder of a style of yoga called “Iyengar Yoga” and is considered to be the reason for the spread of yoga in the world.


BKS Iyengar was born on December 14th 1918 in a small village in South India. His mother was suffering from influenza when she was pregnant and as a result Iyengar was born sickly and weak. He was the 11th of 13 children. Throughout his childhood he suffered from malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and malnutition. As a result he was very skinny, had a protruding belly and his head hung down all the time.


In 1936, when Iyengar was around 15 years old. His brother-in-law Sri T.Krishnamacharya ( who is considered to be the father of modern yoga) asked Iyengar to move to Mysore and live with them as Krishnamacharya had to travel often to teach yoga. This turned out to be a life changing moment for Iyengar. Though his brother in law only taught him for about 15 days over a span of 2 years. Iyengar was determined to learn more and go deeper in his yoga. Krishnamacharya did not think much of Iyengar in those days as he was sickly & often taken for granted as he was a family member. Also Krishmacharya had a reputation of being fierce and extremely strict with his disciples. It was when Krishnamacharya’s star pupil Keshavamurthy ran away that Iyengar was tasked with mastering advanced postures often with no guidance at all and often Iyengar would cause himself many injuries in mastering these poses but his fear of his teacher was much more.


At the age of 18, he was sent to Pune ( a city in Maharasthtra state & also where I was born) to teach a group of women. Iyengar was scared, nervous & bankrupt but he was happy to get away from the control of his teacher. Also he did not know how to speak english or how to teach women as he had never done so before. Slowly he started developing his practice, his skills, his language as well as a reputation as a yoga teacher. This was a hard journey for Iyengar. He would practice for 10 hours a day, teach for a few hours and study. He would often walk everywhere as he could not afford public transport. And spent many a days without a single meal.


In 1952 BKS Iyengar met Yehudi Menuhin, one of the world’s most recognized violinists through one of his students. Menuhin was very tired and said he had only five minutes. Iyengar asked him to lie in Shavanasa and applied Shanmukhi mudra ( will explain in class) and Menuhin slept for an hour. When he woke up he felt so refreshed and relaxed and, as they say, the rest is history. Menuhin came to believe that yoga improved his voilin playing and invited Iyengar to Switzerland in 1954 and when Iyengar left, Menuhin presented him with a watch that had a message at the engraved on the back which said “to my best violin teacher”. From this point on, Iyengar visited the West often and hence started raising awareness about yoga and single handedly help spread yoga to remote corners of the world.

He was also a genius who started using ‘props’ to aid in his practice when he couldn’t find the form of a pose and subsequently developed a whole new style with props to assist people who didn’t have access to the full pose.

In the 1970s he built his own yoga school in Pune. His wife passed away shortly after the land for the school was bought. The institute was named “Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute”. He has 6 children. Of which his eldest daughter, Geeta Iyengar (I’m studying with her this December for the first time) & son Prashant Iyengar joined BKS Iyengar’s journey and dedicated their lives to yoga and their father. The school became one of the hubs of yoga in modern India. This is now the headquaters for Iyengar yoga. People travel from all over the globe to study with the Iyengars. Though one has to go through years of training under qualified Iyengar teachers before being eligible to attend school in Pune.


It is impossible to write about all his milestones in this one article. But from the 1950s to 2000s Iyengar was the modern day representation of yoga . In the 60s’ he authored “Light on Yoga”, one of the first yoga books available globally. With instructions, hundreds of pictures, philosphy, etc… Even after 50 years it remains one of the most respected, recognized & unparalleled yoga texts that every teacher and practitioner uses as a bible. Iyengar also authored many other books – each establishing his command over the subject of yoga.

HIS PASSING: BKS Iyengar passed away last month, on August 20th in a hospital in Pune. He was 95 years old. He died due to heart and renal failure. He leaves us with his legacy, his memories, his lifework. The school is now headed by his daughter Geeta Iyengar & son Prashanth Iyengar.

I have tried to keep this short to give you an overview of his life. The reason why so many of us – millions in the West have access to yoga is thanks to his efforts and struggles. Mighty titles were bestowed upon him, global icon, Padmabhushan, SF even has a BKS Iyengar day ( October 3rd ), China has honored him with a stamp and many many more accolades, but nothing can come close to his legacy and what he has bestowed upon humanity. The legacy lives on forever…

Here are a few videos that capture Iyengar & his yoga through the ages.
Glimpses of Iyengar’s practice through the ages https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaba-PUd5PU
BKS Iyengar at 20 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUvOuik-g4c
BKS Iyengar in 1977, almost 60 years old https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pIgs03TYo4
BKS Iyengar teaching in 1985 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dXFxouN5rpM
BKS Iyengar in 2011 in China. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvGUjzFuILg

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