I have never met B.K.S. Iyengar and I am not an Iyengar trained teacher. The stories of this great being and his way of teaching and practicing are, however, the oxygen that my own teaching and practice breathes. His life has nourished the world in the way that our veins and capillaries nourish our bodies out to the far edges. When I go to Durango, Colorado every year to study with Patricia Walden, I am surrounded by Iyengar teachers who have been studying at his school in Puna, for many years. I find myself alternately sorry that I have not been able to experience him and relieved.
The days following his death, I set up a small altar at the front of the class to honor his life. On the Thursday class, I “accidently” left a mat out on the floor beside mine. As I began the class, I suddenly noticed the mat and laughed at myself. Someone in the class thought I had done it intentionally for Mr. Iyengar. I moved the altar onto the mat. A short time into the class I suddenly felt nervous, as if he was on the mat observing me teach. This feeling lasted about 5-10 minutes and then was gone. I choose to assume he paid us the honor of a visit on his journey.
B.K.S. stands for Bellur Krishamachar Sundararaja Iyengar. I have to confess, it is only now that I learned his full name. He was born on December 14, 1918 and died at the age of 95 on August 20, 2014. His impact on the world is huge and as far as I can tell from a distance, he was a man of great integrity. His rather sickly childhood where he struggled with malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and general malnutrition, changed when, at 16 years old, he lived with the teacher who brought to India a practice that synthesized ancient hatha practices and modern gymnastics, Krishnamacharya. Patricia Walden told us that on his 80th birthday he did 108 drop-backs – dropping into urdhva dhanurasana (wheel) from standing. In his 90s however, he practiced more supported backbends.
The well-known childhood story of his regaining his health through his yoga practice and then giving this learning to his teaching, speaks of taking the circumstances of one’s life and turning them into something great – not so much great because he has become so famous but great because his learning has become meaningful and something of beauty. I don’t know that I am as tireless in his process of transforming life events into greatness but I take inspiration from it.
The Iyengar system of teaching yoga is famous for its use of props that are meant to help us attain the benefit of a pose when our bodies are not quite able to find the necessary alignment. According to an article in the New Yorker, he developed his use of props as a result of being asked by Krishnamacharya to travel and demonstrate yoga and experiencing first hand the dangers of pushing oneself into poses prematurely. Consequently, he developed a slower, more systematic way of practicing including the use of props.
One of the stories about him that make up my yoga world is of him asking his assistants to put someone into a pose using props in a particular way. When he turned to look at that person he said no, that is not right, we must try another way. This capacity to see so clearly and make adjustments according to that clarity of seeing is a metaphor for how to live.
Last July in Durango, Patricia quoted Mr. Iyengar as saying, “God is in the precision.” I have thought about this again and again. As I now begin learning Manual Lymphatic Drainage where my hands must be extremely precise and sensitive, I think of it yet again in a different situation. Mr. Iyengar used great precision in the alignment of poses and he is both highly respected for it and sometimes criticized for it. He also teaches great precision in the pranayama practice as to how one sits, moves ones skin and places one’s fingers on the nose. Sometimes I think I feel, rather than understand intellectually, what he means by, “God is in the precision.”
Thank you, Bellur Krishamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, for all that you have given to the world.