BKS Iyengar @100: The centenary of the father of modern yoga

Last updated: 12-21-2018

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BKS Iyengar @100: The centenary of the father of modern yoga

Seated with the legs folded, the spine straight, eyes gently closed, palms in a namaste, the breath softened and elongated and reciting an invocation to Sage Patanjali. This is how a practice session unfolds. When a yoga practitioner does this before the start of a session, an unusual feeling begins to take over. The feeling is of calmness and peace inside that is hard to explain. The mind begins to settle down and sink into a different world. It is you in peace with yourself. The problems of the world are kept outside the yoga room and it is time for bliss. Yoga is one of India’s most valuable gifts to the world, and the foremost modern practitioner was Dr Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, more popularly known as BKS Iyengar, whose birth centenary is being commemorated across the world today. Yogasana – the physical aspect of yoga -- has taken the world by storm, particularly Western countries. Ironically, India is following the West in this, too: yoga is catching on and there are several forms of this ancient, scientific practice that improves fitness and keeps the mind under control. The concept of yoga was given a shot in the arm when the world first celebrated June 21 as the International Yoga Day in 2015. His highly scientific and practical approach towards the practice of yoga evolved into what is popularly known as Iyengar Yoga. The world will commemorate his 100th birth anniversary on December 14. Though his passing on August 20, 2014, left Iyengar yoga practitioners a denied lot, the legacy of his research and what he left us with can only be celebrated.

Padma Vibhushan Iyengar was born in Bellur village in Kolar District (Karnataka) and Friday marks his 100th birth anniversary. His parents were Krishnamachar, a school teacher, and Sheshamma. Guruji, as he is fondly known, was victim to malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis as a kid. His yoga journey began at the age of 16, when he was sent to Mysore to learn yoga from his brother-in-law T Krishnamacharya. Two years later, his guru sent him to Pune to teach yoga. Iyengar spent a lot of time researching and experimenting with yoga techniques. Over time, he came up with his unique style of yoga. Iyengar, an ardent supporter of nature conservation, emphasised on precision and alignment in any pose. A strict teacher in the class, he was known to be very gentle and friendly outside it. Iyengar Yoga is unique due to the fact that a lot of props are used in postures. Be it the wooden block, belt, rope, bolster or folding chair, Iyengar Yoga is devised to make things easier for learners as everyone may not be flexible while beginning yoga practice. Props help with alignment and geometry of the body during practice. Over time and with dedicated practice, the body becomes more flexible and there is less reliance on props. However, most continue to use props for better postures. He laid the foundation stone for the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute on January 26, 1973, in Pune. It is named after his wife, Ramamani, and was inaugurated on January 19, 1975. His children are Geeta, Vinita, Suchita, Sunita, Savitha and Prashant. The eldest, Geeta Iyengar, and youngest, Prashant Iyengar, are actively involved in running the institute. 

Students and teachers from all over the world throng the institute throughout the year to learn advanced yoga techniques even to this day. Among other institutes, the BKS Iyengar Yoga Center was inaugurated in September 2015 in his birthplace and imparts yoga knowledge to Indian and international students. It also supports village children with free education and a maternity hospital has also been built and provides medical facilities at nominal costs. Iyengar has authored 14 books and one of them, Light on Yoga (published in 1966), is considered to be a complete guide to what yoga is all about. In his book, he says: “Yoga is a timeless pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years dealing with the physical, moral, mental and spiritual well-being of man as a whole. “The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ meaning to bind, join, attach or yoke. It also means union or communion. The inference is that it is yoking all the powers of body, mind and soul to God. Yoga teaches the means by which the jivatma can be can be united or be in communion with the paramatma and secure moksha (liberation). It also means disciplining of the intellect, mind, emotions and will. “Sage Patanjali describes yoga as ‘chitta vrtti nirodhah’, which is the restraint of mental modifications or as suppression of the fluctuations of consciousness,” he adds. Among some of his students was famed American-born violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who was struggling with pain due to playing too much and suffered with sleeplessness. Yoga rid him of both problems after learning from Iyengar.

In the foreword of Light on Yoga, Menuhin says: “Yoga, as practiced by Mr Iyengar, is the dedicated votive offering of a man who brings himself to the altar, alone and clean in body and mind, focused in attention and will, offering in simplicity and innocence not a burnt sacrifice, but simply raised to his own highest potential. “It is a technique ideally suited to prevent physical and mental illness and to protect the body generally, developing an inevitable sense of self-reliance and assurance. By its very nature it is inextricably associated with universal laws: respect for life, truth, and patience are all indispensable factors in the drawing of a quiet breath, in calmness of mind and firmness of will.” So attached was Menuhin to yoga that when he was the conductor in the Berlin Philharmonic in 1982, he did so in the Sirasasana (headstand) and used his feet as a baton.

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