The impact of B.K.S. Iyengar as a yoga practitioner and dedicated teacher has influenced the totality of the landscape of modern yoga. We asked some notable students of Iyengar to reflect on their experience of Iyengar as a yogi.
What inspired you to study with B.K.S. Iyengar?
I had been practicing yoga since the 1970s, and was searching for more knowledge about this inspiring science. I took my first Iyengar class at the Iyengar Institute, in the mid 1908s. During the class the teacher was so clear, that I could feel exactly where the pranic energy was moving in my body and mind. Standing in Tadasana was a revelation!
I was first attracted to B.K.S. Iyengar’s integrity and the fact that everything he taught came directly from his personal practice. He told his students not to accept his teachings as dogma but rather to test everything in the laboratory of our own practice, as he had done. Before I encountered his teachings, I had only viewed yoga as a physical discipline, as some form of exercise. However B.K.S. Iyengar demonstrated that through the practice of asana and pranayama with unwavering attention, one can experience the full spectrum of yoga. He didn’t merely relegate these practices to preliminary or preparatory techniques but he treated asana and pranayama as the ultimate spiritual discipline. He did not take the subject lightly and demanded high standards of himself and his students.
At the time Iyengar came into my life I was in great need of structure. Iyengar taught that freedom required discipline, and because my mind tended towards chaos, this was a welcome relief. It wasn’t that I hadn’t striven for stability in my own way, but Iyengar offered a better, healthier approach.
Rama Jyoti Vernon
In l968, Dr. Haridas Chaudhuri, founder of the California Institute For Asian (Integral) Studies, put the book Light on Yoga into my hands. The author, Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar, affirmed my feelings that asana and pranayama were integral to the philosophy of yoga and that the seat of meditation could be found within each pose. Because in those days a teacher taught one or the other, philosophy or the physical practice of yoga, it was difficult to believe that the man pictured in the book was the same one writing about the philosophy.
During the summer of 1976, Mr. Iyengar was teaching in London and because of my associations with Dona Holleman and Mary Stewart, I was able to attend his classes. The classes were packed, he had an enormous amount of energy, and that during Virabhadrasana I, the Warrior Pose, he came over and slugged me in the chin. Apparently, I was pulling my chin down too much. I never did that again when he was around. In spite of this, I was very impressed by this man. He was an extremely creative practitioner and teacher and I wanted to study with him.
I went to Pune, India, during the summer of 1977. I’d arrive at the institute every morning at seven to watch Iyengar practice. I observed him closely and wrote down everything he did. He was extremely creative and extremely internal when he was practicing. You could tell he was thoroughly immersed in his experience.
Can you describe your first meeting with B.K.S. Iyengar?
I attended the first National Iyengar Yoga Convention in San Fransisco in 1984. I was taking a pranayama class taught by one of Guruji’s staff teachers. We were doing backbends over a chair, and then lifting up into urdhva dhanurasana, to open the chest. Iyengar walked into the room wearing bright red shorts. He then exploded. “What are you doing?” his nostrils practically flared! “You will do what you will when I am dead, but not while I am alive! Think of their nervous systems!” He then proceeded to show how to set up for lying down supported Savasana on blankets to quiet the thighs. His might and vitality oozed through every pore of his smooth skin. We then had a fabulous class with his assistant.
My first personal meeting with B.K.S. Iyengar was in 1993 at the Iyengar Convention in Ann Arbor. I had the honor of cooking for this great yoga master. He is a pure vegetarian, only eating simple foods in the mode of goodness. I was in the kitchen, over the stove and felt a strong energy behind me. I turned around, spoon in hand, and there was this illuminating personality looking right over my shoulder, observing what I was cooking. He was kind and compassionate, and gave me some very good recipes. He talked about his wife’s wonderful cooking. B.K.S. Iyengar was refined in every way. Not just in the asana practice and teaching, but the way he walked, talked, the foods he ate; he was a true yogi in every way.
It was at the 1984 San Francisco Iyengar Convention. I was in a class taught by Judith Lasater at the San Francisco Institute. We were in Virahbadrasana II when B.K.S. Iyengar swooped into the room. He looked straight at me and boomed, “Tell him to bend his knee!” Judith came right over and very nervously instructed me, “Bend your knee!” I did the best I could, but he was not satisfied. He took a rope off the wall and looped it over the top of my thigh and put his foot in the loop. Then I bent my knee to his satisfaction!
Rama Jyoti Vernon
In l970, after two years of devouring Light On Yoga, my husband and I traveled to India. One of my intentions was to find Mr. Iyengar. After three weeks of circuitous searching, we found him in Pune. At that time he didn’t have an institute and was teaching in a small home that could only hold seven or eight students.
At the end of the class, my husband and I were ushered in his tiny bedroom where he served us high tea while sharing his memories of teaching the Queen of Belgium, J. Krishnamurti and Yehudi Menuhin, the violinist. Tears came into his eyes and his voice was shaking as he reminisced about his late wife Ramamani who he planned to one day memorialize by building an institute in her name. I invited him to stay with us in the San Francisco Bay Area, California and teach the teachers. Very few people at that time knew who he was. However, I felt strongly that his genius of alignment and integration of philosophy with asana was the next step in all of our Yogic evolution. My husband and I started his first nonprofit organization and school for yoga teacher education in the US, not knowing at that time that one day his teachings would spread worldwide.
In the years you studied with B.K.S. Iyengar, can you describe a pivotal moment in your teacher/student relationship?
He always taught what I needed and respected that at that time I was a better study by proximity than direct transmission. He would often address me specifically by conveying something I needed to learn to someone else directly next to me. He was very psychologically astute in how to handle different types of personalities. Also the times he touched me physically were memorable. He communicated a great deal more through touch than could ever have been said through words. And that’s quite astonishing, because his words were brilliant.
Rama Jyoti Vernon
One day when taking him to the airport I said, “Mr. Iyengar, after studying yoga with you, I realize that what I’ve practiced and taught before was all wrong.” He was surprisingly tender in his response, “Did you know it was wrong?” I said, “No,” shaking my head while choking back the tears. His voice was soft and loving, “Then it was not wrong.”
How has B.K.S. Iyengar impacted you as a teacher?
At his Institute in Pune, India, Guruji practiced every morning. Frequently he would come out of his pose to teach his assistants and senior teachers. Over the years it has been my privilege to watch and hear this darshana, his insight. He would often point out how the pose or the body part was ignorant, and lacked vitality or support. Almost always these insights were accompanied by a reference to a yogic principal, something from the Upainshads, the Bhagavad Gita or yogic anatomy. I realized that the pose is but a pointer to the poetry of conscious awareness, and how we can culture that in our lives. I recognize that to teach Yoga is to touch upon the miracle of the body as an organism that supports us to explore the ephemeral light of inner peace and freedom. This is grueling work, not a fantasy. Guruji taught me that yoga is about being free from my own fears so that I can work and serve.
He taught us to always have humility in the face of this great science and art. He said, “Never forget that the pupil also teaches the master.”
First and foremost by observing his practice. There was deep commitment and openness to learning from the body in balance with great will power of disciplining the body to shift it into ever different experiential modes. Then, in teaching, by his capacity to read people and respond to their needs.
What words of his do you remember when you practice?
“It is for you to find out.”
I hear him say, “When your practice is imbalanced, the practice is physical. Balanced asanas lead to a spiritual practice.”
“You do not need to seek freedom in a different land, for it exists within your own body, heart, mind, and soul.”
What words of his do you remember when you teach?
“Life itself seeks fulfillment as plants seek sunlight.”
“Always watch your students. Give one instruction, build on that and then another. Do not talk fast!”
His words to me when we first met, “Every day you must walk that fine between courage and caution” are forever ingrained in my practice. He underscored to “Seek alignment in everything you do…not just physical alignment.”
“If you have doubt, do the practice. See who wins.”
How has Iyengar Yoga changed your life?
It has offered me hope on an initial landscape of fear and the courage to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles along with a teaching career I never imagined was even possible.
Is there a quote from B.K.S. Iyengar that you find meaningful?
“The hardness of a diamond is part of its usefulness, but its true value is in the light that shines through it.”
How will he be remembered?
B.K.S. Iyengar was a man of great compassion. He gave this knowledge of yoga to everyone, with no discrimination. He will always be in the hearts of every yoga practitioner for centuries to come. His photos of asana are pure inspiration for yoga practitioners. His writings on his life, the philosophy of yoga are there for all to study. His style of teaching was dynamic, precise and pierced from the outer body to one’s inner core. As he said, “Giving does not impoverish nor does witholding enrich us.”
I don’t think that he would have cared to be remembered in name. It was never his idea to call his method Iyengar Yoga. To him, it was just yoga. However I think that he hoped to elevate the practice of yoga so that it would be used as a tool for inner penetration to reach true knowledge of the self. He worked hard to discover the deeper dimensions of the yoga practice and he freely shared the principles discovered in his explorations. He would want for those principles to guide future generations of practitioners. He said, “May my end be your beginning.”
What do you see as the legacy of Iyengar?
Aspects of his work are being transmitted and shared in yoga studios, gyms, and in health facilities all over the world by people who have never even heard of Iyengar Yoga. Single facets of his teaching such as restorative asanas, work on the wall ropes, props, therapeutic practice, alignment orientation, prenatal yoga, et cetera, have spawned the development of entire systems of yoga. His work has seeped into all corners of the yoga world and beyond. While I am honored to give him credit while teaching Iyengar Yoga and I strive to realize the potential of his teaching, I feel that his legacy lives in the awakened consciousness and healing of countless practitioners around the globe.
It is rare to find a practitioner as dedicated as B.K.S. Iyengar. Rarer still is to find such a practitioner who is also committed to teaching and sharing. I feel that we are blessed to have lived during his time.
Zoë Kors is a writer, speaker, and coach. She is the founder of The Big Libido, Pussy Project, and other programs which cultivate a women’s rights, empowerment, and self-expression. Zoë is the former Senior Editor and Creative Director of LA Yoga Magazine and Origin Magazine. She is a certified Co-Active Coach and has a thriving private practice. Zoë’s work reflects her extensive study of Tantra, Zen Buddhism, meditation, yoga, breathwork, and other Eastern disciplines, which she blends with more process-oriented modalities of Western psychotherapy and Co-Active Coaching.