Remembering a yoga master
Team SB were saddened to learn of the death of influential yoga teacher BKS Iyengar last week. Here Sweaty Betty ambassador and Iyengar teacher Angie Newson shares her memories of the man who helped to bring yoga to the West.
Angie practising Iyengar yoga
The renowned Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Institute in Pune, India, is the place in the world to practise Iyengar yoga. You can only 'go to Pune' and receive instruction if you are already a qualified Iyengar yoga teacher - there was and still is a two-year waiting list! About five years ago I was fortunate enough to visit the Institute. At the time, I had been practising for over eight years and to apply, I had to get my application form signed by my regular Iyengar teacher and wait patiently for my acceptance letter.
Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, known as BKS Iyengar, was born in 1918 in the village of Bellur in Karnataka, India. He was a sickly child and at 15 years old, at the suggestion of his brother-in-law, yogi Sri. T. Krishnamacharya, he travelled to Mysore to learn basic asana (posture) instruction to improve his health. In the early 1950s, he met the renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who enabled him to travel to Europe to show the world the importance of yoga. In the 1960s Iyengar wrote his famous book ‘Light on Yoga’. After the book was published in 1966, word about the benefits of yoga soon spread across the West.
Although yoga is much more than a series of physical poses, regular practice creates a feeling of well-being and cultivates the dynamic balance in both mind and body. Yoga is a philosophy for a way of life, and the benefits gained from the physical aspects explore a deeper inward journey of conscious awareness and questioning. In Iyengar yoga, there is strong focus on precision, alignment and detail. The use of props - bolsters, straps, blocks and blankets - aid the postures and they can offer support to the body when needed.
I can't express how excited (and apprehensive) I was when I arrived in Pune after hearing so much about it from fellow teachers. My classes at that time were taught in the morning by Geeta, Mr Iyengar's daughter, and in the afternoon by Preshant, his son, and they were both very strict and quite stern. I even had to cut my lovely long manicured nails - certainly not allowed to practise Iyengar yoga in Pune!
We had two classes a day for a whole month. Every day the yoga hall was packed with over 100 students from all over the world. Our mats were bumper to bumper but everyone set up their space and equipment with respect and order and we listened attentively to every word. On my first morning, after about an hour of practice, Mr Iyengar himself came in quietly and did his own daily practice in the corner. I was enthralled to finally see him in person and see him still doing head stands! He was coming on for 90 years old when I was there yet his flexibility, strength and endurance were just mesmerising. He was also teaching his granddaughter and on occasion would stop and correct or adjust a student in class or shout out a correction across the room. When he made an adjustment, everyone would simply stop and we would gather round to take note and watch and learn from the great master.
When classes were not on, he was often quietly sitting in the library writing and I felt honoured and humbled to be in the presence of such a great man. When I returned to the UK I immediately re-applied to return to the Institute, but unfortunately due to other commitments I was unable to go at the time offered. Every Iyengar Institute across the world takes its instructions and lead from Pune so it will be interesting to see what now happens following his passing away. For me personally, I will be forever grateful to have visited Pune whilst Mr Iyengar was still alive.
Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja, 1918 - 2014