‘Real thing that made Iyengar special was that his focus on the physicality of yoga’

If you haven’t noticed already, BKS Iyengar would have turned 97 today. (Check the Google Doodle for an all-too-easy Kapotasana.) TIME magazine looks back on Iyengar’s influence:

In 1947, despite the fact that many celebrities (Aldous Huxley, for example) had become fans of yoga, TIME noted that it was “still as mystifying as Sanskrit to the average American.” Those who did practice yoga outside of its homeland tended to be more interested in its spiritual benefits than its physical ones; even the Beatles, who helped make the name of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi world famous in the late 1960s, were open to changing their philosophies and not just their bodies.

That was right around the time that Iyengar released his 1966 book.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

More coverage: Telegraph, Mirror, Christian Science Monitor.

Posted by Steve

Richard Freeman and David Swenson remember BKS Iyengar

A few of the senior Western Ashtanga teachers have taken some time to remember BKS Iyengar. Richard Freeman, for whom Iyengar was a first teacher, put something up today. Link and excerpt:

Samadhi, attention to depth, and details of asana form were all that he asked. His razor sharp intelligence and the twinkle of humor and compassion in his eyes have caused a profound deepening of our understanding and practice.

From all the yoga world, Thank you Mr. Iyengar.

David Swenson posted a piece last week:

My brother and I started to practice in 1969 when we only had access to books as our teachers. One of the first ones we came across was Light On Yoga. The power, grace and presence displayed within BKS Iyengar’s asanas conveyed an ocean of energy and depth far beyond his mere physical prowess. We would sit for hours in the park trying to emulate what we saw on the pages and attempt to gain just a small taste of what we knew he was experiencing so purely. His concise and erudite discourse and explanations of yogic philosophy dazzled us.

Those are the ones I find. I’m sure there are others.

Posted by Steve

Iyengar and the dawn of modern yoga

OK, so this will, I hope, be the last link to a piece on Iyengar we post. Bobbie told me today — while, I suppose I can “boast” we climbed Runyon Canyon in LA after our regular Ashtanga practice, a thoroughly LA experience that only could be made more so had we definitely seen a celebrity or it had been January, and most of our fellow Ashtangis freezing cold in the inhospitable climes of some place like New Hampshire or Boston — that she has a post percolating about Iyengar.

This post may be in part to pressure her to write it.

Anyway, if you otherwise don’t see it, the New Yorker — and, yes, you’re forgiven if you’re surprised we’re in LA and not NYC — has a remembrance of Iyengar that situates him (and to a lesser extent Pattabhi Jois) within the creation of modern yoga. Here’s the link and a little taste:

When Iyengar was sixteen, in 1934, he was sent to live with his sister and her husband, Krishnamacharya, in Mysore, a green, temperate city not far from Bangalore. 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. As the nationalist movement gained steam and Indians turned away from foreign imports— replacing Western clothing with homespun khadi cloth, for example—nationalists found in the old hatha yoga the basis for a physical culture that was distinctly Indian. Krishnamacharya, a brilliant scholar who had sacrificed respectability to pursue the outré path of hatha yoga, was at the forefront of this renaissance. At the invitation of the progressive Maharaja of Mysore, a patron of traditional Indian arts and an avid sportsman, he ran a yoga shala at the palace, where he taught yogic physical culture to royal boys.

The piece calls Iyengar the most influence of Krishnamacharya’s students. I suppose I ought to argue that point, but I don’t think it is arguable. It also neatly sums up how hatha yoga was treated before Krishnamacharya’s effort to revive it or, perhaps we could say, revise it.

For those keeping track at home, if you read the New Yorker piece, check out the way Mark Singleton’s scholarship is couched. Pretty interesting for those in the know.

Oh, and I hope you enjoy your Moon Day.

Posted by Steve

Are you misusing yoga?

Pegged to BKS Iyengar’s passing this week, the Washington Post — which we link to far less than the New York Times or even the LA Times — has a religion column online that makes a very NYT-ish claim: That Iyengar’s passing “revives a debate about whether most Western practitioners are misusing yoga, misunderstanding it as primarily a way to firm their bodies when the physical practices traditionally are just a segment of what is meant to achieve a transformational world view.”

Here’s a link to the column.

As best as I can tell, the “debate” the WaPo mentions is based on one Iyengar teacher who put out a “release about Iyengar’s passing and sought to emphasize the late guru’s spiritual focus.”

I can tell you, as someone who follows and watches way more of the Western yoga world than I ever thought I would, I haven’t noticed this as a trend at all. I’ve seen some concern about the nature of Iyengar’s passing (in a hospital versus what people would like to be a more peaceful setting) and I’ve seen a lot of people passing on quotes from him. Mostly, I’ve seen people thanking Iyengar for helping spread yoga to the West — specifically, for helping bring yoga to their lives. (Oh, and it has given occasion for the NYT’s William Broad to get on mainstream news programs, including one here in LA — in fact, broadcast out of Santa “Yoga” Monica, and repeat his broad claims about yoga, which never fit with my knowledge and understanding, and to talk about how dangerous yoga can be.)

I haven’t seen any debates about whether we are misusing yoga. This week, anyway.

Posted by Steve

BKS Iyengar: ‘I can remain thoughtfully thoughtless’

BKS Iyengar, “the lion of Pune” and the man arguably most responsible for popularizing yoga in the West, passed away earlier today, as we noted in our last post.

Here’s a roundup of coverage and obituaries:

The New York Times, which is worth skimming through to get the mainstream take on Iyengar’s life:

B.K.S. Iyengar, who helped introduce the practice of yoga to a Western world awakening to the notion of an inner life, died on Wednesday in the southern Indian city of Pune. He was 95.

The cause was heart failure, said Abhijata Sridhar-Iyengar, his granddaughter.

India’s Prime Minister Narenda Modi, on Twitter:

I am deeply saddened to know about Yogacharya BKS Iyengar’s demise & offer my condolences to his followers all over the world.

The USA Today:

Iyengar started practicing yoga, an Indian tradition that dates back 2,000 years, after a series of childhood illnesses left him weak. He started teaching in the 1930s and opened his institute in Pune in the 1970s.

It was the acquaintance in 1952 with an international celebrity, which turned into a life-long friendship, and his writings that helped that bring Iyengar’s practice of concentration and carefully arranged postures to a global audience.

And you can find more: The Hindu, the BBC, Times of India, Al Jazeera, the LA Times and the Guardian.

Here is part of a post from the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles (the same is posted at the national association):

In this time of immense sadness it is perhaps comforting for us to contemplate the joy of his great existence. We do ask that respect for his family be observed and that you not try to contact the family. We know that it would be Guruji’s wish for us to continue in our practice of the art of yoga.

Over the next day the IYNAUS Board will connect with Senior Teachers to ensure that news of his passing is appropriately acknowledged in newspapers and other forms of media. We will also continue to provide our membership with updates such as the link to the most recent article from the Times of India, as well as communication from the family with regards to our expressions of condolences and gratitude.

And then a last thing to pass on: A 2002 story in the New York Times:

The young Iyengar would hardly have been voted most likely to become a world-famous yogi. He was born poor in Karnataka during the global influenza epidemic, which afflicted his mother. His childhood was plagued by illness after illness: malaria, typhoid, influenza, tuberculosis.

His education finished at 16 or 17 when he failed his matriculation exam in English by three points. What did it matter? Doctors predicted he would not live past 20 anyway.

Yoga, he observed wryly, “has given me a bonus of 65 years.”

He began practicing at 16, under the tutelage of his brother-in-law, T. Krishnamacharya, a strict taskmaster who trained a generation of teachers in the last century. The training was tough. Mr. Iyengar had spent so much time in bed that his body had no elasticity. It took six years to get his health back.

Partly from fear of becoming a “parasite” again, partly from curiosity to see where yoga would lead him, he devoted himself to practice. He found, he said, “emotional stability, intellectual clarity, spiritual delight.”

If the internal rewards were rich, the external ones came slowly. He was so poor that he sometimes sustained himself on little but rice and water, walking from village to village to demonstrate his feats of flexibility and strength for a few coins.

“I had tenacity,” he said. “That is a fact.”

He trained his wife, Ramamani, brought to him via an arranged marriage, to be his teacher so that he could master the poses. “My only friend was my wife, my only sharer, my partner, my guide, my philosopher,” he said.


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BKS Iyengar, instrumental in spreading yoga to the west, passes at 95

After about a four-week illness, including the last week spent in the hospital in Pune, India, BKS Iyengar passed away today at age 95.

According to the Times of India, he passed away at 3:15 a.m. local time in Pune. The Iyengar webpage also has his passing.

Iyengar was sick for about three weeks but refused to go to the hospital until last Tuesday. Online, Judith Lasater, Richard Freeman and Leslie Kaminoff all have acknowledged Iyengar’s passing.

Leslie had this to say:

For myself, I can say that my teacher Desikachar always spoke of him with great respect, and seemed proud to call him uncle.

With Iyengar’s passing today,  Pattabhi Joiis’s in 2009, and Desikachar’s incapacity, that leaves precious few direct inheritors of T. Krishnamacharya’s lineage still teaching today.

Fortunately, there are literally thousands of us who are lucky enough to be the next generation of teachers tasked with carrying on the vital work of spreading the precious teachings that flow from this deep, rich wellspring.

Richard and his colleagues at the Yoga Workshop posted this to Facebook:

It is with profound sadness that the Yoga Workshop mourns the passing of a divine teacher and guru to many, Mr BKS Iyengar and are sending prayers of comfort and peace to his family. With love and compassion, Richard, Mary and the rest of the Yoga Workshop community.

We’ll try to round up some more remembrances and additional information in the morning. Feel free to post your thoughts in the Comments. We’ve held back, trying to just report the news; I’m sure we’ll both have something to add, too.

Posted by Steve

Updated Report: BKS Iyengar in critical condition as doctors continue dialysis

A report from the Times of India late Monday on the West Coast of the U.S.  did not sound very encouraging about the health of BKS Iyengar, who remains hospitalized and on dialysis as his kidneys continue not to function properly.

The key part of the news:

“The first cycle of dialysis did not yield any result,” a doctor treating him said. “On Monday, we put him on a second dialysis cycle but there still hasn’t been any improvement. He will be put on two more cycles to see if his kidneys respond.”

In the story, the doctor calls Iyengar’s condition “critical.”

It sounds bad; there’s no other way around it. But I do have one caveat: This is the second time in a row that only the Times of India is reporting on this more dire news. (The first was on Sunday.) I’ve seen updates at Iyengar yoga school sites that say they’ve been told the 96-year-old is home. They don’t have any real sources, though. But other media that carried news of his being admitted to the hospital a week ago haven’t had additional updates.

I’m inclined to think the Times of India has it right — but there’s a little room to wait and wonder.

Update, Tuesday: The Hindu now also has a story that reports Iyengar is in critical condition and not responding to the dialysis. Link here.

Update II, midday Tuesday: It sounds as though things are not headed in a good direction. New report from the Times of India:

Doctors treating the the 96-year-old yoga guru had to insert a nasogastric tube to provide him with liquid sustenance.


“Compared to Monday when he had become little drowsy for the first time after hospitalisation, Iyengar’s condition has become more critical on Tuesday (August 19). He has become more drowsy, hence we had to put a tube to ensure he remains hydrated and nourished,” said a doctor treating him.

According to the latest story, Iyengar had been sick for three weeks but refused to go to the hospital for treatment until his family insisted.

Posted by Steve


When BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois reunited after 40 years

As we wait more news of BKS Iyengar’s health, I have been thinking about the moment when, after 40 years, he and Pattabhi Jois were reunited around Guruji’s (meaning here Jois) 90th birthday. 

There are a few different pieces that captured the moment. One was Namarupa — link to that issue (which you can buy) is right here.

Another is Australian Yoga Life, which has the article online right here. A little excerpt:

Within minutes two of the most celebrated hatha yoga masters of our time, both affectionately called ‘Guruji’ by their students, having not seen each other for more than 40 years, were laughing and hugging as they swapped stories of the past and of their own beloved guru, Shri T Krishnamacharya.

“For anybody that was there on that day it was incredible,” says Alex Medin, who orchestrated the reunion at Pattabhi Jois’s home in Mysore, South India. “There was this vibrant feeling in the air of tremendous healing.”

“All of us that were present just felt so happy. Guruji (Pattabhi Jois) was so happy, Iyengar was so happy. They were just radiant. They were hugging like brothers, like two brothers who had been away from each other…and suddenly they come together and express their love for each other. It’s a beautiful thing.”

David Swenson is quoted a few times in that piece, along with some other Ashtanga teachers.

There probably are a few different versions of why the two yoga teachers hadn’t seen each other in so long; the Australian Yoga Life piece puts the rivalry between Ashtanga and Iyengar more on the students than on the two teachers — though it seems to suggest that in some ways that rivalry is natural, given the differences in the practices that stem from one source — Krishnamacharya. (I have heard “Light on Yoga” jokingly called “Dark on Yoga.”)

The main “first hand” story I’ve heard is that both pulled out all their finest jewelry and gold and made sure they had all their “bling” on — a detail that I think is supposed to remind us of their humanity, that there probably was a combination of pride and trepidation heading into that meeting.

With Iyengar as sick as he seems to be, remembering his humanity seems to me to be appropriate at this time — while also remembering all he’s done that is larger than life.

Posted by Steve