Through yoga, BKS Iyengar bridged cultures a world apart
BKS Iyengar helped bridge the gap between mainstream Western culture and a 3,000-year-old Indian tradition.
The man largely credited with bringing yoga as we know it to the West would have turned 97 on Monday, and Google is celebrating the day with Doodle animations of the renowned yogi's poses.
Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, more commonly known as BKS Iyengar, helped transform yoga from a fringe practice in the mid-20th century to the phenomenon it is today. Not only did he work to raise the credibility of yoga’s potential health benefits among the scientific community – he also helped bridge the gap between mainstream Western culture and a 3,000-year-old Indian tradition. And his teachings still resonate among yoga practitioners around the world today.
“Iyengar knows what the body needs, and he's introduced to the West the Easterner's best path to health and well-being,” actor Michael Richards wrote for Time in 2004, the year Mr. Iyengar made the magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People. “Yoga may have origins outside our culture, but its benefits are now felt within it.”
Born into a poor southern Indian family as the 11th of 13 children, the sickly Iyengar at 16 was sent to live with his sister and her husband, the guru and “father of modern yoga” Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. As the New Yorker reported in a tribute to Iyengar last year:
He arrived at a time of enormous ferment in the development of modern yoga. Indian nationalists were particularly taken with the global vogue for 'physical culture,' in part because British domination was often justified in terms of physical superiority.... Krishnamacharya, a brilliant scholar who had sacrificed respectability to pursue the outré path of hatha yoga, was at the forefront of this renaissance. … [H]e ran a yoga shala at the palace, where he taught yogic physical culture to royal boys.
Iyengar became one of those boys, and eventually started demonstrating to audiences a series of difficult asanas, or poses, for his brother-in-law. As his skill improved, Iyengar began developing “a slower, more anatomically precise type of yoga, using props like blocks and blankets to help students find correct alignment,” the New Yorker continued.
The method – now known as Iyengar yoga – took off in the West after Iyengar met and then taught renowned Swiss and British violinist Yehudi Menuhin in the early 1950s. The musician raved about the practice to the press, insisting it helped him improve his art. Bringing Iyengar to Switzerland, Menuhin introduced Iyengar to other influential people who would further publicize yoga’s benefits.
In 1966, Iyengar published “Light on Yoga,” a manual for teachers that came with instructions more than 200 asanas and laid out his understanding of the practice and purpose of yoga.
“The popularity of yoga and my part in spreading its teachings are a great source of satisfaction to me,” Iyengar explained to Yoga Journal in 2007. “But I do not want its widespread popularity to eclipse the depth of what it has to give to the practitioner.”
The book was a hit, and has since been translated into 13 languages and sold in 70 countries.
Today, millions of people practice Iyengar yoga. Google’s animations – illustrated by Kevin Laughlin – commemorate his life and yoga style, both of which were “characterized by tremendous control and discipline.”
"His legacy is ... about the way in which yoga is part of our culture," said Suzanne Newcombe, associate lecturer at Open University in London and a researcher on the development of modern yoga, to the BBC after Iyengar’s death last year. "You don't think there's anything strange about your colleague going to a yoga class after work. Without BKS it might still be very much a fringe thing."