Photo: Courtesy Of Tori Milner.
Last week, yoga legend B. K. S. Iyengar passed away at 95 years old. He was one of the pioneers who brought yoga to the Western world, developed his own (widely practiced) style, and authored some of the most authoritative guides on the practice. One of his books, Light on Yoga, is described as being the “the ultimate reference manual of asana practice.”
“Action is movement with intelligence. The world is filled with movement. What the world needs is more conscious movement, more action,” Iyegar wrote in Light on Life. His influence on the practice of yoga worldwide landed him a spot on the TIME 100 list in 2004.
Iyengar was a proponent of the therapeutic effects of yoga; he began practicing asana as a child to help alleviate health issues. His eponymous style of yoga is often described as focused and meticulous as opposed to other flow-based practices. Classes are methodological and often involve holding postures for long periods of time. This requires strength, stamina, discipline, and — as with most yoga practices — patience. Iyengar's strict focus is on proper alignment, and students often use props such as blankets, blocks, rope walls, and straps to facilitate postural adjustments and provide safer modifications for some of the challenging asanas.
“I am deeply saddened to know about Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar's demise and offer my condolences to his followers all over the world,” wrote India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter. We asked two NYC-based instructors who have studied with Iyengar to share their thoughts on how the yoga icon influenced their lives, on and off the mat.
Photo: Courtesy Of Tori Milner, Photography By Shari Diamond.
“Last week, my greatest teacher — and one of the most incredible human beings I have ever met — passed away. It was an honor to be B.K.S. Iyengar’s yoga student, and it was a privilege to witness him in action as he practiced and taught us with his vigor, fire, inspiration, and endless creativity.
"Many articles I have been reading over the past few days describe Iyengar yoga as being about alignment, holding static poses for a long time, and props. I’m not sure reading that would inspire me to take a class. For me, the emphasis of this style is true integration — to be completely present in not only what I am doing, but also how I am doing it. It is through a genuine, curious, moment-by-moment inquiry (and the awareness that unfolds from that) that I have begun to understand myself a little better.
"The body, Iyengar would say, is simply a prop of the mind. The mind is a prop of the consciousness, and the consciousness a prop of the soul. So, as the practice develops there are these glimpses, however brief, that each pose can offer — profound entry points into the soul. Whoa.
"I didn’t always feel that way or have that experience; in the mid-90’s, I was just another stressed-out office worker. A friend mentioned that she thought I would enjoy the yoga class she was taking. I thought she had nice triceps. So, I began taking classes at the Iyengar yoga studio once a week. I noticed how good it made me feel, and started attending more regularly — twice a week, then three times, then four times. What I recognized at the end of every class I took was that I was not only getting stronger and more flexible in my body; my mind also felt clear, calm and relaxed. Something was changing. I was changing, and an inner stability was emerging. I began to feel balanced and fulfilled, even when I wasn’t practicing.
"I gradually shifted from casual to ardent practitioner to teacher. Part of this transition included making regular trips to Pune, India, to study directly with the Iyengar family, which I have done several times, usually for two months at a time. During these trips, I was able to observe Iyengar at times up close and many times from afar. I remember working with him directly on a series of backbending postures. It was the hardest, most exhilarating experience of my life; I learned to let go of the fear of my physical limitations. The next day, he asked me if I had understood. I said yes, and he said 'Good, so when you go home, teach like that.'
"There it was: a challenge and a charge, handed to me from Iyengar himself, the world-renowned teacher of teachers, the man responsible for bringing yoga to the West. He did not say that because I am special. In the wake of his passing, it becomes more clear that he gave me that charge because that is who he was — always doing his best, always learning, and always pushing others to achieve their best.”
Photo: Courtesy Of Carrie Owerko.
“My own fascination with Iyengar yoga began when, as an ex-actor/dancer, I was studying at the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in NYC. I walked into an Iyengar class to simply 'relax my mind.' I was flexible, and I could do many of the poses, but the teacher gave me a belt and aligned my body in a way that I had never experienced before, even as a dancer. It made me feel awake, grounded, and present in the moment, and that was the beginning of what was to become a great joy in my life.
"B.K.S. Iyengar was an incredibly open, curious, engaged, and enthusiastic human being. He practiced every day until the last weeks of his life, and I had the chance to travel to Pune, India, to study with him and his children numerous times. Iyengar was extremely observant; he noticed the little things in our bodies or behaviors that indicated a potentially larger issue, and he incorporated that into his teachings and practices. For instance, if someone’s hand was not properly pressing the floor in downward dog, he might feel that a shoulder problem was on the way. Or, if a person was not extending or opening from the center of the body to the periphery, or if certain areas seemed compressed or hollow, depression might be on the way. He was often spot-on in his observations, but most importantly, this was a way of asking us to observe ourselves — to listen to the body, to stay open, and to remain curious. 'The body has a story to tell,' he’d say.
"Once, he passed by my mat as I was in a pose called Hanumanasana (monkey pose). He stopped and put his foot by my front foot and started laughing and shaking his head. I had no idea what he meant by this. Then, he took my heel and pulled it forward off the mat and said, 'Now, how does it come?' It is often the simple things that we miss: The mat was giving me too much resistance, and I was not settling into the pose.
"I found that practicing with Iyengar was like being in the middle of an unfolding mystery. His incorporating yoga props into everyday practice was absolutely brilliant and forward-thinking. He was a pioneer who innovated on an ancient practice in order to help people come into a more harmonious relationship with their own bodies, hearts, and minds. He could get any person to have an experience of harmony and of life, regardless of his or her age or afflictions.
"Iyengar lit a fire in me, and that is probably the greatest thing a teacher can do. He and his children taught me to ask questions of myself in the practice. He was playful, creative, and endlessly curious. And, he taught me by example that one can never lose the joy and love of learning."
Carrie Owerko, Intermediate Senior I certified Iyengar Yoga teacher