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Remembering the Master
“[The practitioner] perceives that there is no difference between life and death, that they are simply two sides of the same coin. He understands that the current of self, the life-force, active while he is alive, merges with the universe when he leaves his body at death….In realizing the oneness of life and death, there is an end to ignorance in the aspirant and he lives forever in the flow of tranquility.”
—B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, II:9
In the wake of B.K.S. Iyengar’s death, YogaJournal.com welcomed any and all memories of this guru. Here, we present a collection of poignant contributions from 18 of his students—all of whom also happen to be among some of the most prominent yoga instructors in the U.S. Learn how and why Mr. Iyengar’s influence was so profound and pervasive.
Certified Advanced Iyengar Yoga Teacher, Lifelong Student of B.K.S. Iyengar
B.K.S. Iyengar was my beloved teacher of asana and pranayama, the man to whom I attribute my birth itself. I called him Iyengar Uncle until I was 17! Our families were close. During my teens, I spent more time with him than my own father. He took me into his heart and, often, even his home. He taught me with intensity and with kindness.
There are many, many stories. There are many joyous memories, many adventures we shared, from holidays in the mountains to 8 hours of asana practice a day, alone with each other, face to face! Forty-eight years is a long time.
We disagreed on many issues: Philosophy, nutrition, practical teaching style and technique, yet we always stayed in touch. If I had an asana question I could not answer, I asked him. He immediately answered with kindness. I called him on his birthdays and he always came to the phone. Guruji answered every letter I wrote him, including the last one a few months ago, which I am holding in my hands now. In it he writes,
….my health is slowly fading due to a continuous virus infection which is affecting me very fast. I do not know when God is going to call me.
I wish you a happy life in case God calls me.
I feel grateful, nay, blessed that the Grand Master of asana was my teacher. The tears will pass, the love will not.
Mary Dunn (1942-2008)
Iyengar Yoga Teacher, One of B.K.S. Iyengar’s First American Students
B.K.S. Iyengar was an extraordinary teacher who taught mega classes and individuals alike from all different points of view: from familiar physical points of view and then from different, unique physical points of view that you would never think of. He was able to teach from metaphysical and psychological points of view and from karmic and life experience.
I saw him teach everybody differently. When he taught someone who had a problem, he didn’t care. If the problem was in the abdomen, he didn’t care if the legs were straight, and didn’t say “get your legs straight,” because he knew if he gets the legs straight, it tenses the abdomen. So when he taught individually he taught to exactly what needed to be done. He was an extraordinary, gifted teacher and human being. So we are celebrating this wonderful man and the teachings of this wonderful man, because it is his teachings that are going to live on.
This excerpt is from a talk Mary Dunn gave at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York on the occasion of Guru Purnima in July 2008, about six weeks before she passed away.
YJ Contributing Editor, Author, Founder of Piedmont Yoga in Oakland, CA
One of my hobbies is collecting yoga instruction manuals published between the 1920s and 1966, the year of Mr Iyengar’s Light on Yoga. From them I’ve made a kind of “timeline” for several poses, including Trikonasana and Urdhva Dhanurasana. The dozen or so “pre-Iyengar” poses look, shall we say, disorganized, on par with our stiffest, most beginning-est beginners.
Then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, there are Iyengar’s poses. There’s no obvious progression, as if it’s the culmination of a long evolution. It’s rather a complete revolution in the presentation of the pose: the perfect integration of its parts, the harmony of its lines, the mastery of its expression. You can’t help thinking, “This isn’t an asana, it’s a piece of art.”
The two most important things he taught us with his work are that yoga—true yoga—doesn’t simply change us, it transforms us. Radically. And thus it helps each one of us express the unique beauty inherent in our being.
Certified Senior Intermediate Iyengar Yoga Teacher in Los Angeles, Former YJ Columnist
It is not often that we encounter someone who has, through intense discipline, developed such faith in a practice that it becomes his most intimate companion. When teaching, B.K.S. Iyengar poured all of himself into the process of transmission, whether teaching 1 or 1,500 students.
With insight and extraordinary intuition, he could see each student’s potential and with courage, he guided us to realize it. He did not take the subject of yoga lightly or casually and he demanded the same focus from his students. I remember when he visited Los Angeles in 2005, our pre-dinner conversation turned to a yoga question. He started teaching and asked me to do the asana so that I could experience, rather than merely theorize. He was quiet throughout the dinner but the moment the meal ended, he picked up where he had left off, teaching late into the night. Despite a full stomach, the experiential lesson did not end until everyone insisted that he get some rest.
I observed the same energetic enthusiasm at 92 years old. When he was exhausted from a long day of travel and activity in Beijing, a reporter came to interview him after a late-night dinner. Guruji’s voice was quiet and frail until the conversation turned to the workings of yoga when his voice grew strong, his attention became sharp and the interview turned into a beautiful explanation of yoga philosophy and technique. When his mind was on his subject, he was completely absorbed and energized. Yoga was his love and his religion.
Founder of Mind Body Solutions, a nonprofit known for adapting yoga for disabilities
No one has explored the asana as thoroughly or as profoundly as Sri B.K.S. Iyengar, at least not in recorded history. That is reason enough to pause. Even more than that, he developed a rigorous and disciplined method to pass down his realization. That is a reason for gratitude. My debt goes further. I am someone who could have been easily left behind. Paralyzed since the age of 13, I found Iyengar Yoga at 25 and have been practicing for 23 years. (I have not studied with Sri B.K.S. Iyengar in person, as traveling to India is very difficult for someone in a wheelchair.) No other style of yoga possesses the depth, precision, adaptations, and knowledge to welcome my paralyzed body into the world of the asana. It turns out that Iyengar Yoga’s revolutionary approach to alignment, precision, props, and adjustments transcends my severed spinal cord.
Through Iyengar Yoga, I gain access to living sensation within my paralysis and have gained glimpses into the ‘unseen’ unity of the Universe. Sri B.K.S. Iyengar transformed my disability into a conduit for my salvation. My life’s work and that of my nonprofit, Mind Body Solutions—working with people living with trauma, loss, and disability—all of it is made possible because of his fervent life and dedication. There is no way I can ever repay my debt. There is no way I can adequately honor his influence. What I can do is strive to help others in the way that he has helped me. Today and for the remaining days of my life, I am humbled, honored, and proud to call myself his student.
Ashtanga Instructor, Codirector of Maya Yoga in Hawaii and California
I had the privilege of studying at the Iyengar institute in Pune, India in 1997 with Mr. Iyengar, Geeta, and Prashant. What I most remember of that 2-month experience was seeing Mr. Iyengar practicing yoga in the studio every single day without fail. No matter how early I got there, he was already in the room and was a force to behold. His tenacity, brilliance, and poise were incredible, especially considering he was almost 80 years old at the time.
Just before we left to head home, I went down to the library in the basement of the institute and asked him to sign my copy of Light on Yoga. He was standing with a group of Indian men and graciously stepped away from them to sign my book. As he handed it back to me he gave me this incredibly bright big smile that I will never forget. I cherish that copy to this day. I still insist that every person who studies with us have that book; it is truly the bible of yoga. Thank you Mr. Iyengar for your dedication to the practice of yoga and for inspiring millions of students worldwide, myself included. Hare Krishna!
Ashtanga Instructor, Codirector of Maya Yoga in Hawaii and California
A guru is an individual who can bring or help bring people from darkness into light. B.K.S. Iyengar was a true Guru and master of yoga for thousands. He was a man of integrity, honesty and profound insight. He took the time to polish the lens of his own being through his personal practice.
Mr. Iyengar taught me how to see the yoga inside an individual and follow it to unravel the mysteries within the practice. He taught me how to teach. He taught me how to keep it simple.
One time after teaching in front of him, I asked how my teaching was. He cocked his head and raised his eyebrows and said, “You speak and your students don’t move.” I was floored! I asked him to explain. He said, “You know all the right directions, but you’re missing the point. It is about giving life to the directions in the students’ minds and bodies. You give one direction in as many different ways as you can come up with and teach that one direction only. When 90% of the students do it, then and only then, can you move on.”
I thought of this almost every time I taught for the following 10 years. Because of the development of his own eye, he was able to lead his students into seeing, understanding, and communicating the yoga in a more precise and profound way. I will forever be thankful for his presence and his teaching. It is with tremendous humility that I pay tribute to this giant.
Elise Browning Miller
Senior Certified Iyengar Yoga Instructor, Founder of the California Yoga Center
I had the privilege of taking the workshop with Iyengar when he came to California in 1974. I had never met a man so full of life and passion for yoga. He recognized that I had a scoliosis and adjusted my back to increase lengthening of my spine and better alignment. I remember his firm adjustment of my right shoulder blade, which often protruded. Though it sounded like a pounding, it was a true awakening and gave me a first inclination of how to work with my scoliosis. I felt more balanced and centered than ever before in my life and knew that he was my teacher (guru) and that yoga was my path.
I went to Pune, India, in 1979 to study with him. I expected him to give me special attention with my scoliosis but instead he ignored me and made me do yoga like everyone else. After three weeks of five or more hours of asana a day, I’d never felt stronger. He was relentless, teaching us jumpings, intense backbends, 15-minute headstands, shoulderstands, and long timings in forward bends. The last week of the month, he saw that I was no longer needy and started to work with me in poses for my scoliosis. He saw that I was strong enough to endure his adjustments!!
I have continued to go to Pune regularly for over 35 years. Though he is gone in body, he is with us all in spirit. He will live within my heart as an inspiration to guide others to find the true essence of yoga.
—Elise Browning Miller
Certified Intermediate Senior Iyengar Yoga Instructor, Director of the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York
Guruji was able to devise a pathway into the experience, through the different layers of yoga. There are the eight limbs, but he was able to touch all those limbs through asana. It was intensely physical but yet it wasn’t about the physical.
Yoga is a household word today because of Mr. Iyengar. He taught yoga to anybody that came. If they didn’t have the flexibility, the stamina, the strength that he had, he’d find ways for people to have the experience and get the profound benefits. If he saw they couldn’t do it, he figured out how to use a chair or a blanket. Now these props are all a big business, but they were just simple items he had around the house. The blocks were called bricks. In India they still say “get a brick.” They’re actually wooden blocks now, but it was originally a brick that was outside and he brought in and used.
Because he had such an in-depth knowledge of the practice, he was able to do it and make it accessible to people who couldn’t. He knew where it came from and how to get there. He was able to take you on the path and make it work for you. Those teachings can be carried on through the system he produced. He has given us the tools and the guide to work from the outer body inward to gain access and insight into yourself. We’re very lucky to have been touched by that connection.
Certified Intermediate Junior Iyengar Yoga Teacher in New York, Former YJ Columnist
It was early afternoon at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India. I was studying in the library. Guruji was at his desk, as he was each day, writing and answering correspondence or students’ questions. One of the students had come prepared to show Guruji his portfolio, which included photographs of him practicing various asanas. Guruji reached for a straightedge ruler and observed each image using the ruler to demonstrate the alignment of each pose and specifically how parts of the body were relating to each other in balanced action. During this exchange, I listened as he generously examined each image and instructed this student in the refinement of his practice. Then he came upon a photo and said, “Look everything is aligned, only you didn’t know it.”
When I heard this, I immediately recognized the depth of Guruji’s passion for the subject of yoga. He wasn’t only looking at the shape of the outer form; he was seeing through the higher intention he held for each of his students. Iyengar is known for his scientific and methodical approach to the body, for his clarity in communication and instruction, for his ability to guide and support anyone in the practice of yoga despite physical, emotional or mental challenges; however, his intention for each student resides in their inner knowing. He demonstrated through his discipline, the constant pursuit of a state of true equanimity, which permeates all layers of the body. He has given students everywhere a method by which to practice this inward journey. And as I see it, his legacy continues with a profound inquiry, “Can you reach and know the depths of your own soul?”
Certified Introductory Iyengar Yoga Instructor in New York
I visited Pune to study with the Iyengar family in 2012. As a younger teacher on a first visit, and with Guruji being 93, I didn’t expect to have any access to him. I was just excited to be in the Yoga Hall and satisfied to study with senior teachers who had known him for many years and with his children, Geeta and Prashant.
I was wrong. Guruji was there the whole time.
He was there, practicing for hours a day alongside us. How inspiring in this day and age, with so much of yoga driven by commerce, branding, and the culture of the selfie, BKS Iyengar’s yoga was still all about practice. With openness and generosity he taught family members, senior teachers, or anybody who caught his eye for a moment.
He was there in the library writing, reading, always a student. He was there in the medical class, seeing that the benefits of yoga are indeed available to everybody. He was there teaching. When he felt we were not doing our best, he would not stop until he was satisfied that we were as present as the subject demanded. Exasperatingly, he joked: “I teach you fast like a sea lion in the sea and you learn slow like snails on land.”
We have been blessed in our lifetime by the passion, genius, innovation and openness of B.K.S. Iyengar. He has given us the access and opportunity to study this wonderful subject. We should not take it for granted.
Judith Hanson Lasater
Cofounder of Yoga Journal and San Francisco’s Iyengar Yoga Institute
B.K.S. Iyengar was a complex and richly textured man. He had a great passion for life and yoga, which he saw as one. Surviving his difficult childhood no doubt leant him a sense of self-reliance and strength. In India he was considered an outsider in the traditional world of yoga teachers. He honored his teacher, but struck out on a new path of self-study and a new style of teaching. He did the unusual things: group classes and teaching men and women in the same class, for example. He treated all students, regardless of class, caste, title or gender the same way.
One day in class he gave us a very stern look and moved his incredibly bushy eyebrows up and down. He said, “God gave me these eyebrows to frighten you.” I replied cheekily, “It’s working.” He roared with laughter, as did we all. Mr. Iyengar, or “Mr. I” as we affectionately called him, was deeply human. He wanted a family and had one; he loved people and was insatiably curious about the world. He once said humbly to me and a few others gathered in a private home in 1974, “anyone can do what I have done.” Maybe so, Mr I. But I am not alone in believing what you did was extraordinary.
He gave us so many things: his knowledge, his warnings, his insight into our practice, his full attention. But mostly he honored us by holding us to the highest of standards. He helped us find our best selves. We already miss him deeply.
Internationally Renowned Ashtanga Yoga Teacher
I mourn the loss of the great teacher, philosopher and yogi, B.K.S. Iyengar. His teachings and magnanimous presence have left an indelible mark on the world of yoga, and the atmosphere now feels a bit less vibrant without him in it.
Though I was not directly a student of his, I was dramatically affected by his teachings and his dedication to the practice, promotion and love of yoga. My brother, Doug, 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 B.K.S. 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.
Decades later in 2005, I had a fortunate encounter with B.K.S. Iyengar when he came to Mysore, India, for my teacher K. Pattabhi Jois’ 90th Birthday. It had been 65 years since they had last met and their reunion was electric. Like two bright suns merging into a dazzling effulgence of energy and light. (The photo above captures the essence of that moment.)
Thank you, Mr. Iyengar! Your legacy will live on through the knowledge you shared so deeply with your students as well as through your written words.
Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher, Physical Therapist, Founder of Gudmestad Yoga in Portland, OR
Mr. Iyengar’s brilliant light shone on thousands of people during his lifetime. Like a mirrored disco ball, we each saw a different facet of that brilliance reflected. As a physical therapist, I was particularly dazzled by his knowledge of the body. At a glance, he could see injuries, misalignments, and imbalances that contributed to movement limitations, pain, and suffering.
His display of x-ray vision was invariably followed by yogic solutions to solve the problems and begin the healing process. His creativity was limitless and deeply inspiring. While his solutions were often deceptively simple, they could also be very challenging, as he pinpointed the exact areas that needed strengthening, releasing, or increased awareness.
Mr. Iyengar demanded the student’s best attention and effort to follow his instructions. If the student was willing to work hard, significant problems could be helped or even resolved. His work and dedication have relieved the suffering of thousands of people and helped them resume normal activities and productive lives.
Each of us who were touched by Mr. Iyengar carry a little beam of his reflected light. Inspired by his generosity of spirit, we hope to continue his healing legacy and thus will his light continue to shine for eternity.
Certified Advanced Iyengar Yoga teacher, Founder of Unity Woods Yoga Center in DC
Guruji’s teachings and the force of his personality changed yoga as it is practiced and taught today and helped instigate the explosion of yoga worldwide. In light of his immense influence on yoga and in recognition of his role in yoga’s acceptance and popularity, in 2004 Time magazine included Mr. Iyengar among the 100 most powerful and influential people in the world. We—you and I, the yoga world, and the world at large—will miss him tremendously. And though the light of his personality has gone out, the light of teachings will survive, thrive, and guide teachers and students of yoga for many years to come.
In this time of grief and remembrance, it would be good to put Guruji’s passing in perspective through his own words:
“I am old, and death inevitably approaches. But both birth and death are beyond the will of the human being. They are not my domain. I do not think about it. The complexity of the life of the mind comes to an end at death, with all its sadness and happiness. If one is already free from that complexity, death comes naturally and smoothly. If you live holistically at every moment, as yoga teaches, even though the ego is annihilated, I will not say, ‘Die before you die.’ I would rather say, ‘Live before you die, so that death is also a lively celebration.’”
—Light On Life
So we mourn and celebrate and do what Guruji always taught and what he would want us to do: practice with intensity and devotion and love of yoga.
Baptiste Yoga Founder, Longtime Student of B.K.S. Iyengar
The planet has lost an important teacher with B.K.S. Iyengar’s passing. Directly and indirectly I have been a student of Mr. Iyengar for nearly 30 years. His teaching has powerfully influenced not only me but those with whom I have been able to share the practice through my own teaching.
Although I never claim to be formally and properly trained in his direct approach to the practice, I always share with the students I teach the immense and profound impact he as my teacher has had on my experience and development as yogi and as a human being. I am grateful to have known him and will continue to learn from him throughout my life. The thoughts and prayers of the entire Baptiste community are with his global family.
Certified Ashtanga Yoga Teacher, Founder of the Yoga Workshop in Boulder, CO
There is a great void in our hearts and our lives. I personally have so much for which to thank him. Not only was his life and work a major catalyst in bringing yoga to millions around the world, but his teaching has provided a perfect complement to the formal Ashtanga Vinyasa series. If postures are to be strung on a thread, should they not be like cintamani jewels?
Mr. Iyengar’s enthusiasm and intensity were legend and on occasion could cause your hair to stand on end. He had such a passion to share the subtle beauty, arising as body and mind, that for us as students there was no place for an ego game to hide.
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.
Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher, Research Scientist
Among his many remarkable qualities, Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar was a savant of the body—a genius at feeling, understanding, performing and teaching asanas. This is why his method sets the de facto worldwide standard for alignment. It’s also how he was able to endlessly innovate props and adjustments to deepen the practice for advanced students, make it accessible to less-able students, and achieve impressive therapeutic benefits.
His asana-focused approach, however, led to the erroneous conclusion by many critics that his yoga was “merely physical.” Through most of his life, he worked tirelessly to counter this criticism. One of his most important contributions to yoga was that he integrated every aspect of the ancient discipline—ethical principles (yama, niyama), physical well-being (asana), regulation of life force (pranayama), control of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and the pursuit of liberation (samadhi)—into classes that, on the surface, appeared to focus only on postures or breathing techniques.
He expressed a beautiful example of this in an interview featured in the 2008 film Enlighten Up! in which he cited a definition of yoga from the Bhagavad Gita: “Today…I explained to [my students] ‘samatvam yoga ucyate…equanimity is yoga.’ But what is equanimity? It is alignment. If I use the [word] alignment, people laugh. [But] if [others] use the traditional word ‘equanimity’ [people say] ‘Oh, it’s yoga.’…Alignment is a technique for equanimity.”