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Gratitude for BKS Iyengar

IyengarBKS Iyengar, the Indian yoga guru who is usually credited with bringing yoga to the West, died on August 20, 2014, at the age of 95.

For those of us who studied and practiced with Iyengar yoga with a certified instructor, his passing marks the end of an era.  His methods and teachings focus on strict alignment, long holdings, props, and the therapeutic benefits of yoga for mind and body.

The New York Times obituary talks about his own practice, but he expected no less of every practioner:

Mr. Iyengar’s practice is characterized by long asanas, or postures, that require extraordinary will and discipline. A reporter who watched daily practice in 2002, when Mr. Iyengar was 83, said that he held one headstand for six minutes, swiveling his legs to the right and the left, and that when he finished, “his shoulder-length hair was awry, he seemed physically depleted,” but he wore the smile of a gleeful child.

My Iyengar instructor routinely keeps us in headstand for at least five and sometimes 10 minutes. And you can expect to hold any asana (i.e. pose) for at least a minute unless she’s going easy on you.  It’s a demanding form of yoga and not everyone’s cup of tea.

Instructors are required to continue their certification throughout their careers. In order to advance to the higher levels of certification, instructors of Iyengar yoga must attend the Ramamani Memorial Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune, India for at least one month every other year.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the harsh approach the instructors at the Institute take. For example:

Past students recalled Mr. Iyengar as warm and charismatic, but also strict. Elizabeth Kadetsky, who wrote a memoir of the year she spent studying with him, recalled that she was standing on her head in a class when he “took his fingers and shoved them in my upper back, and bellowed, ‘In the headstand, this portion of the back is not straight.’ ”

And then there’s this post that is highly critical of the attitude Iyengar and his daughter, Geeta, take toward the foreigners who attend their Institute. She clearly didn’t have the best of times.

I’ve heard senior teachers justify or explain away the behavior in a number of different ways. Sometimes, they point out that Iyengar is from the Brahmin caste, and as such, simply never thought of himself on the same level as his students.  My teacher’s teacher recounts meeting Iyengar for the first time, over thirty years ago, and extending her hand for a handshake.  He didn’t take it up, making it clear that the gesture was inappropriate given the difference between teacher and student.

In any case, yoga has lost a legend.  The Iyengar methods will continue to be taught under BKS Iyengar’s daughter, Geeta and his son, Prashant.  But neither has been as influential as their father, who is deeply respected, admired, and revered around the globe. It will be interesting to see how Iyengar yoga develops without the leadership of the man himself.

BKS Iyengar teaching a headstand class.
BKS Iyengar teaching a headstand class.

To learn more about Iyengar and Iyengar yoga, check out the official Iyengar website here.

See some of previous posts about Iyengar yoga:

Yoga’s Red Tent

There’s Yoga and There’s Yoga

Yoga Sadhana: Deepening Our Practice, Getting Quiet, and Fostering a Sense of Community


One thought on “Gratitude for BKS Iyengar

  1. My gym offers yoga classes, but every time I’ve gone it’s been more cardio than core, moving from pose to pose rather quickly. I haven’t tried in years. My former employer had classes on campus that were much more in line with Iyengar’s style, and I keep hoping that someday I’ll find an instructor who is more interested in the form than in getting my heart rate up.

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