1918 – 2014 B.K.S Iyengar: A Yogi’s Life


For the fully illustrated article see:

Grateful thanks to Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute for these wonderful words and pictures.

The story of a simple man, his relentless efforts, and his journey towards conquering the body, intellect and mind.
On December 14, 1918  Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar (B. K. S.) was born in Bellur, Karnataka, India.  He died on August 20, 2014 at the age of 95.  Founder of the the Iyengar school of yoga, he is credited with spreading the practice and study of yoga throughout the world.  This is the story of his journey from an inauspicious childhood to one of the greatest and most beloved yoga masters.

Iyengar was born in the village of Bellur, the 11th of 13 children. His father Sri Krishnamachar was a school teacher, and his mother Sheshamma a homemaker. The conditions at the time of his birth were especially difficult. His family was poor, and his mother contracted influenza while pregnant with him. Indeed, India was in the grip of the deadly world influenza pandemic of 1918.

Iyengar was a sickly child who suffered from tuberculosis, typhus, malaria and malnutrition as a child. In his 2005 book Light on Life, he describes his weak physical condition: “my arms where thin, my legs were spindly, and my stomach protruded in an ungainly manner. So frail was I, in fact, that I was not expected to survive.”

At the age of 14, he went to live with sister and her husband Shriman T. Krishnamacharya, a great yogi residing in Mysore. His brother-in-law suggested he undertake the practice of yoga to improve his health. Iyengar went on to spend his teenage years being initiated and immersed in Ashtanga Yoga by T. Krishnamacharya. According to Iyengar, “this was to be the major turning point in my life – the moment when destiny came to meet me, and I had the opportunity to embrace it or to turn away.” Krishnamacharya’s guru was Ram Mohan Brahmachari, who lived in the Himalayas. Therefore, Iyengar became part of a great lineage of yogis.

Yoga is founded upon “eight petals or limbs” which serve as the pathway of guiding practices and principles leading us to a healthy life. During this initial period, Iyengar suffered from tuberculosis and was instructed only in the asanas – the poses and postures of yoga which contribute to the strength and maintain the health of the body. “Perfection in asana” was the only guru mantra he received. He stayed with his guru for two years, and was then sent to Pune to teach.

Life in Pune was not easy. He had to contend with unfavourable circumstances and strive for every small thing. It was a difficult time. For many days, he would practice intensely in front of his guru’s photograph. He thought if God had brought him to Pune, God would find a solution. Whenever his neighbours saw him, he was engrossed in his sādhanā: a discipline undertaken in pursuit of a goal. It consists of practice, reflection, observation, and study. They thought he was a mad man since he was practising so many hours a day. He cycled great distances to teach yoga to anyone who was interested and often subsisted only on water a few days a week as everything else was unaffordable. Despite these hardships Iyengar continued his intense practice.

Under these circumstances, what would have gone through Iyengar’s mind?

Should I leave Pune, should I look for other means of earning money? Enough of Yoga?”

“Every occurrence has a reason. Sometime it is evident, sometimes it is not.”

“After many strides forward, when one looks back, things seem to fit.”

“Unknown place, unknown people, unknown language… Mere survival was uncertainty magnified.”

“Even if the answer to any of these questions was a ‘yes’, it would have only been natural. Looking back now, that the answer to these questions was a ‘no’ seems vital for yoga.

In 1943, Iyengar married Ramamani from the village of Anekal, in Karnataka. They were blessed with five daughters and one son. His wife was one of his first students, and an able assistant. While teaching her, he cultivated the technique of deciphering and teaching an asana. It was at this time that Iyengar learnt the art of establishing a student in an asana and a seeker in yoga.

Ramamani offered everything she could including herself to yoga as she helped spread the light of yoga. Her involvement proved crucial in Iyengar’s endeavour.

Iyengar taught his children yoga from a young age. In this photograph he is shown teaching the Vrischikasana asana (scorpion pose) to his son, Prashant. Iyengar’s eldest daughter Geeta and his son Prashant are internationally-renowned teachers of yoga.

 Later in life Iyengar reminisced of his marriage to Ramamani: “we lived without conflict as if our two souls were one.” Sadly, Ramamani Iyengar died at the age of 46. In her honor, he named his yoga institute the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.
Sharing Yoga with the World

By 1950, Iyengar’s renown had spread. By this time, Iyengar had a very large number of students. many of whom were famous Indians, he was little known outside of his home country.

This photo records him giving a yoga demonstration to Dr. Rajendra Prasad, the first President of India, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of the head of the Republic.

In 1952, Iyengar met and became friends with the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who had been invited by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, to give a series of concerts. It would prove to be another turning point in Iyengar’s life.

Two years after meeting Iyengar, Yehudin invited him to Switzerland and from that time forward he began what was to become regular visits to Europe. Iyengar embarking on one of his trips abroad to deliver a workshop. Iyengar and Menuhin were friends for over forty years. This photo, taken in Switzerland, shows them in conversation with J. Krishnamurti, the philosopher.

In 1956 he visited the United States for the first time, to teach and deliver yoga demonstrations at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

In 1973, Iyengar began the construction of a Yoga Institute in Pune. The foundation stone was laid in January of that year. Sadly, his wife Ramamani passed away just a few days later. Iyengar decided to dedicate the Institue in her memory. The Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, which opened its doors in 1975, has been the heart and soul of Iyengar Yoga ever since.

His first book, Light on Yoga, was published in 1966. This was followed by Light on Pranayama which was published in 1981. Over the years, his books have been translated into dozens of languages.

Over the decades, Iyengar travelled extensively and gave lecture-demonstrations all over the world. Many awards and honors followed. He received the Padma Shri in 1991 and the Padma Bhushan in 2002. In 2014, he was conferred with the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, by the President of India.

Credits: All media
The exhibit featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute

Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute

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