A short biography of the author of Light on Yoga.
1918 – 1951 B. K. S. Iyengar in illness and poverty
Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar was born on December 14, 1918 in Bellur in the Indian province of Karnataka as the 11th of 13 children. Since his mother suffered from a flu infection during birth, it was questionable at birth, whether mother and child would survive. Both survived, but the little Sundararaja, as he was called by his real first name, had a feeble constitution. He was susceptible to disease and as the family was poor, he also suffered from malnutrition. When he was 9 years old, he also lost his father. At the age of 16, a doctor predicted that he would not have a long life expectancy and possibly die in two years.
However, during this time he was invited by his brother-in-law and yoga master Tirumalai Krishnamacharya to look after his sister while Krishnamacharya was traveling. After his return, Krishnamacharya asked him to stay and to learn some yoga exercises to improve his health. Krishnamacharya was already famous for his healing arts at that time and so it is interesting how he treated Iyengar. The film Leap of Faith reports that he initially denied Sundararaja the opportunity to take yoga lessons in his shala – his yoga school – but put him in a room with his best student and asked him to practice āsana. As a result, Iyengar was extremely self-concentrated meanwhile he had to take part in household chores and, of course, to attend school.
At the same time the feeble boy constantly had the role models of the best student and his future guru Krishnamacharya in mind. But when he asked Krishnamacharya for instruction, he simply responded,
Learning āsana depends on the karma of a past life.
Krishnamacharya had an extremely strict regiment in his household, and after a few months, the best student disappeared and never returned. At first, this increased the burden on Sundararaja, because he had to take over the domestic duties of his roommate. However, when he returned to Krishnamacharya after visiting his family, he took the place of the model student in the yoga school, and within the next two years, Iyengar became the showcase student when it came to demonstrating āsana. But until he felt completely healed of his sickly constitution, another four years would pass.
Another incision then came into his life when he failed the English exam in college due to illness and thus the school had to finish without a degree. He had learned some English – unlike his brother-in-law Krishnamacharya – and so Krihnamacharya sent him to Pune at the age of 18, where he was to teach a group of women in yoga. Since he was still under the full age, Krishnamacharya thought it best to let him teach the women when he was still an immature boy. Because at that time in India it was new that women also practiced yoga. This experience initially represented a complete overstrain for him, who had not received training as a yoga teacher. However, he did well and a three-year employment emerged.
When the employment had finished, he remained as a freelance yoga teacher in Pune. However, poverty and a certain isolation continued to accompany him and his family worried that he should marry. Finally, he agreed to marry the then 16-year-old Ramamani and from then on he had an important support – and a new student. Gradually, the students increased, but now it was also necessary to feed a family, because the couple got a total of six children. For a long time, life remained a struggle for survival, the same as it had been since his birth.
But Iyengar practiced yoga for hours every day to overcome the requests of teaching and he made very high demands on himself.
1952 – 1974 B.K.S. Iyengar as an international celebrity
The great turning point in Iyengar’s life came when the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin asked him for yoga classes. At that time, the violinist could not make music because of tendonitis and Iyengar actually managed to improve the health of Yehudi Menuhin. Pleased with the results of Yoga, Menuhin invited him to Europe and thus began a new phase in the life of Iyengar. From then on, his life split between his native India and extensive travels to Europe and the United States. His most prominent pupil was Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, who learned headstand at the age of 80.
Iyengar considered Tirumalai Krishnamacharya as his guru. How Krishnamacharya thought about him and how he promoted him right from the beginning is shown in an event that Iyengar himself says:
He never taught me much about teaching, but he saw me teaching. In 1961 he came to Poona and taught my daughter and my son. He taught for many hours, but unfortunately they could not grasp what he wanted to show them. When I came in and asked what the problem was, my daughter said that she could not understand a certain position. So I told her, “You have to stretch from here to here.” And immediately, when Krishnamacharya saw this, he gave me a gold medal called Yoga Shikshaka Chakravarti, which means ” Yoga Teacher Emperor, the Best of All Teachers”. He said I had to teach just like that, and not just privately, but publicly.
In the coming period, Iyengar was often asked to write a book about yoga. He himself talks about how he dared to do a lot, but not writing a book! However, his wife encouraged him to try, and so in a work of 7 years, the book Light on Yoga with numerous photos of Yoga-āsana was created. It was first launched in 1966.
In 1973, his wife died at the young age of just 46 years. Iyengar’s children report how the father subsequently thought so intensely about his deceased wife that the children still felt her presence.
1975 – 2014 B. K. S. Iyengar as Yogacharya – Yoga Master
Therefore started again a new life for Iyengar. In 1975, he opened his own yoga school in Poona and gave it the name of his wife Ramamani. His daughter Geeta and his son Prashant, who were involved in teaching from childhood through Iyengar, chose not to marry and devote themselves fully to the leadership of the institute.
If Iyengar also argued that yoga would be best to learn at a young age, he was convinced that access to yoga practice had to be possible for all people, young and old, healthy and ill. Based on this background, he researched the use of various tools to enable people with certain limitations to perform important yoga postures. He intensified his research work when he suffered a spinal injury in a scooter accident. Over a period of two years, he could then practice only with great difficulty, but just these experiences encouraged him later in the use of various tools when working with people with restricted mobility.
While his brother-in-law, Krishnamacharya, had revolutionized yoga in India to teach women equally as man, it was the innovation that B.K.S. Iyengar brought to the yoga world, that he devised a variety of tools to make yoga practicable for all. Although he retired from official teaching in 1984, he remained active in his yoga school and practiced intensive Yoga postures even at the age of 90.
B.K.S. Iyengar died on August 20, 2014 at the age of 95 years. His daughter Geeta S. Iyengar followed him on 16 December 2018, two days after the commemoration of her father’s 100th birthday.
B.K.S. Iyengar and the Yoga Online Exhibition
In connection with one of his many āsana demonstrations, Iyengar once said that this activity was his service to the people. And in the interview he held in occasion with the film production Enlighten up! he still emphasizes in 2012 how much he has been continually seeking a better understanding of the āsana. This attitude to remain entirely in the practical treatment of yoga āsana and where even philosophy must become practical, is probably characteristic of his approach to yoga. The result are highly perfected postures and full body control, for example regarding the formation of the thoracic spine in backward flexion. That’s how I chose those backward bending āsana for the Yoga Online Exhibition.
Institutes that teach Iyengar Yoga are around the world. You may have a look at the official website, where you can found a complete list of Iyengar Yoga teachers: B.K.S. Iyengar Yoga – The Official Website
Update (19-08-10): This famous interview with the 94-year-old B.K.S. Iyengar clears several points about his life. He also speaks about Krishnamacharya and his yoga stile.
Text sources: Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama