Who was BKS Iyengar?

January 5th, 2020

By: Elisa Govea

Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja was born on the night of December 14th, 1918. His mother suffered an attack during an influenza epidemic that hindered his health making him very weak. He was the eleventh child in the family, and when he was five his father moved to Bangalore.  By 1931 young Iyengar had suffered malaria and typhoid giving him persistent fever. His frail health and the difficulty to secure the financial resources for his studies kept interfering with his education.

In 1927 the renounced yoga professor Shri T. Krishnamachar had become Iyengar´s brother in law after marrying his third elder sister Namagiriamma. In 1934, Krishnamachar had to travel to Mumbai and asked 15 year-old Iyengar to go to Mysore to stay with his sister Namagiriamma until he returned. He later asked Iyengar to continue his studies in Mysore and stay to live with them. After the doctors suspected Iyengar suffered consumption, he tried practicing yogasanas but his body was stiff and sore. It wasn’t until early summer in 1935 that Krishnamachar agreed to teach him and became his Guru initiating him with the Gayatri Mantra.

In the beginning he had no interest in learning the asanas. His legs and back pained, and he practiced mechanically. Despite his difficulties he gave his first public performance in the Mysore Town Hall. Soon after this performance he was asked to attend the Yogashala of Krishnamachar to train students. He continued to assist his Guru in public demonstrations, lectures and classes all over Karnataka.

In 1937 he was asked to go to Pune, as he was the only person at the Yogasahala who knew a little English. He struggled to get enough students signed up for the classes and he had no personal resources to sustain himself in the meantime. He worked hard continuing demonstrations at different schools, clubs, conferences, and organizing classes, slowly earning the respect and the heart of students and impressing some education and political authorities. Though he endured several years of difficulty in earning his livelihood he persisted and devoted all his energy and faith to his practice, regarding asanas as his prayers. Iyengar taught himself by tirelessly performing asana and pranayama, exploring and perfecting his understanding, with no other guide by then, than his own intuition and sensitivity. He continued to do so until his lat days.

In 1943 his Guru Krishnamachar considered it was time for him to marry and a family member presented a 16 year old Ramamani as a prospective bride. He was reluctant at first due to his hard life in Pune and his lack of financial stability, but he eventually agreed and didn’t ask for any dowry. In November that year they started their life together in Pune. World War II in Europe was devastating and prices were soaring so they started with a single pot for cooking and a few more borrowed household articles. In the book “Iyengar His Life and Work” Iyengar himself writes: “Ours was a blessed union as we were united physically, mentally and spiritually.... When I married Ramamani I loved her passionately. She was very kind-hearted, serene, and patience incarnate with understanding. She became my excellent adviser. She was my helpmate always encouraging me in my times of difficulty and stress. She never interfered in my practices and my teaching.” After learning yogasana herself, Ramamani became Iyengar’s assistant adjusting and correcting in his own practice.

In December 7th, 1944, their first daughter Geeta was born. She would become her most devoted student and closest collaborator. Mr. and Mrs. Iyengar had six more children. Their fourth child Prashant would also become a full time yoga teacher and philosopher, still teaching at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune.

In the following years Iyengar had the fortune of performing for yogis such as Shri J. Krishnamurti, whom he taught asana for several years, Swami Nityananda, and Swami Sivananda, who were both impressed by his presentation of yogasanas and flow of prana.

In 1952, Iyengar met Yehudi Menuhim, the world famous violinist. This event would change his destiny and open worldwide opportunities to spread the wisdom and practice of yoga. After teaching Menuhim for several weeks in Indi, he was asked to accompany him to Switzerland to continue the yoga lessons for him and his family. Through yogasana Menuhim acquired better control over his violin and the improvement was evident during his concerts. He gifted Mr. Iyengar with a watch with the inscription: To my best violin teacher BKS Iyengar.

Through his friendship and mutual admiration with Menuhim, BKS Iyengar had the privilege to meet important politicians, artists, and royalty of different countries. He travelled to London and Paris and was able to build a bridge for yoga to be spread in the West. As he gained experience teaching women, youngsters, patients with polio, army cadets, he earned a worldwide reputation for having a deep understanding of the matter and being able to teach yoga to everyone and any one.

In 1973 the Iyengar family acquired a piece of a land for a new home. After performing the Bhumi Puja (blessing ceremony) Ramamani became weak and a few day letters she passed away. In that piece of land now stands the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute built in her memory and inaugurated in 1975. It was built collecting donations from students and friends and it has been since the house of studies for thousands of Iyengar practitioners from all over the world that go every year to learn yoga from the Iyengar family.

Guruji passed away in 2014, and his daughter Geeta followed a few days after the 100th anniversary of his birth celebrations in December 2018. His son Prashant and his granddaughter Abhijata are now the carriers of the Iyengar family legacy. The work of Iyengar has permeated the way yoga is regarded and practiced everywhere in the world. Whether practitioners call themselves Iyengar yogis or not, whether they know it or not, the yoga most practitioners have learnt is in some measure influenced by Iyengar’s genius, because true knowledge is uncontainable, undeniable and unstoppable.