Friday 23 February 2018

Obituary: BKS Iyengar, international Yoga guru dies (95)

Yoga guru once named by 'Time' as one of the 100 people who shape our world

BKS Iyengar
BKS Iyengar

BKS IYENGAR, who has died aged 95, was credited with bringing the 3,000-year-old oral tradition and physical practice of yoga to the West; he promoted a system, notable for its use of props and its step-by-step approach to the "asanas" (yoga positions), which is now the most widely practised form of the discipline in the world.

The seeds of his popularity were sown in 1952 during a chance meeting with Yehudi Menuhin. The violinist had been suffering from the sort of muscular and skeletal aches and pains that had ruined the career of many a string player, and was finding it difficult to relax or sleep. On a visit to India that year he was introduced by an Indian friend to Iyengar, and after a few sessions of yoga Menuhin found his bowing arm had become much less stiff and he was able to relax.

Menuhin became a fervent Iyengar disciple, describing him as "my best violin teacher". As well as using his new discipline on one famous occasion to conduct the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony with his feet while standing on his head, he invited Iyengar to teach in Switzerland, and introduced him to his students in London, to other artists, and to royalty. Iyengar went on to build up an international following among dancers, film stars, politicians, writers (including Aldous Huxley), sports stars and even, in 1958, the 85-year-old Queen Mother of Belgium, whom he taught to stand on her head: "Once she'd done it, I taught her gardener to help her up," he recalled.

Iyengar's manual Light on Yoga, published in 1966 with a foreword by Yehudi Menuhin, has been translated into 18 languages and has gone into nearly 60 editions. It was the first ever yoga instruction book to attempt to marry theory with practice.

From 1975, the establishment of the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India (named in honour of Iyengar's wife, who died in 1973), attracted student yoga teachers from around the globe and led to the founding of some 1,500 Iyengar yoga centres in more than 70 countries.

In 2004 Time magazine included Iyengar on a list of "100 People Who Shape Our World". But, as Iyengar recalled in his 2005 book Light on Life: The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom, this was quite a contrast to the attitude that had prevailed when he first visited the United States nearly 50 years earlier, in 1956. Then, people had dismissed him as a contortionist, and he remembered getting sceptical stares from people who thought yoga was only for cranks.

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar was born on December 14, 1918 into a large but poor Brahmin family at Bellur in the Indian state of Karnataka. A sickly child, he suffered constant bouts of malaria, typhoid and tuberculosis. Doctors predicted that he would not live to see his 21st birthday.

In his teens he noticed that people who practised yoga seemed much less prone to illness than those who did not; so at the age of 16 he decided to give it a try. His brother-in-law, T Krishnamacharya, was a yoga teacher, and the young Iyengar began studying the asanas under his guidance. After two years' training, Iyengar began to tour India with his brother-in-law giving demonstrations. On one tour he was invited to teach yoga at the Deccan Gymkhana in Pune. It was there that he began to develop his system.

To maintain the integrity of Iyengar yoga, Iyengar developed a rigorous process of certification for teachers which emphasised injury prevention. "The art of teaching is also to know when to stop," he wrote. In later life he handed the day-to-day running of his Pune institute to his children Geeta and Prashant; but he remained involved, travelling around the world and giving classes until late last year. Even at the age of 95 he claimed that there was not a single asana, from headstands to vertical splits, that he could no longer perform. "If you have the right mind, your body can do anything," he maintained.

Iyengar married his wife, Ramamani, in 1943 in an arranged marriage. Their son and five daughters survive him.

Sunday Independent

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