B.K.S. Iyengar began life with many challenges. The 11th of 13 children born into a South Indian family, he was a sickly child. After his father died when Iyengar was eight, the family was nearly destitute. At 16, in 1934, he was sent to live with his sister and her husband, Tirumalai Krishnamachacharya, in Mysore, India. At the time, modern yoga was in the midst of national rediscovery. Krishnamachacharya, a brilliant scholar and hatha yoga teacher, lead this resurgence of interest. He ran a yoga shala at the palace of the progressive Maharaja of Mysore, teaching yogic physical culture to the sons of royalty. His method was a combination of several types of physical training, including Indian wrestling and British army calisthenics!
Soon after Iyengar came to live there, Krishnamachacharya’s top student ran away days before a scheduled asana recital at the palace. Iyengar had to learn a series of difficult yoga poses to take this student’s place. Though weak and stiff, Iyengar did his best to comply, which caused him serious injury. However, the audience was impressed. Over the next two decades, through sustained practice, steadfast effort, and experimentation, Iyengar gained health and strength. He began to teach. To avoid injuring himself or his students, he developed a slower, more anatomically precise approach to yoga, using props like blankets and blocks (real concrete blocks off the streets!) to help students find the proper alignment. The use of props also enhances the action of the pose on a physical, emotional, and energetic level. Props used with this intention can be an aid to enlightenment! Eventually, Iyengar systematized more than 200 classical yoga poses and 14 different types of pranayama (control of the breath), from simple to challenging.
By bridging the traditional distinctions between hatha yoga—sometimes considered a merely physical form—and yoga philosophy, Mr. Iyengar invited students to experience the spiritual nature of yoga, including concentration, meditation, and even samadhi—the seemingly mystical union of the individual soul with the universal soul.
His book, Light on Yoga, written in 1966, remains unparalleled as a guide to asana practice. He also wrote a number of other important books, including the Tree of Yoga and Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Iyengar describes yoga as a “timeless pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years dealing the with physical, moral, mental and spiritual well-being of man as a whole.”
His practical innovations include:
- Sequenced classes to build strength and flexibility in a set-by-step manner,and to enable students to expand their awareness throughout the body.
- Attention to alignment to promote safety in the body and calmness in the mind—an experience of asana as meditation.
- Use of props to allow students to adjust each asana for their body and ability, and to deepen their experience of the pose.