I never quite bought into the idea of the yoga “community."
I’ve taken yoga classes for more than twenty years from a succession of teachers in rooms full of familiar-looking faces whose names I never knew. And yet, the news of B.K.S. Iyengar’s passing on Aug. 20 at the age of 95 felt like a death in my tribe.
I never met Mr. Iyengar, who was one of the great theorists, practitioners and popularizers of yoga. I did not study with him or read his books. After I heard he died, I had to go online to see what he looked like. But since several of my yoga teachers are his students, I am only one degree of separation away from the man.
Iyengar is a regular presence in the studio where I practice yoga. My teachers, Tristan, Carin, Nadja, Mary, Justine and Rosie quote him often and those who studied at his institute in Pune, India, tell stories about being in class with Mr. Iyengar -- the honorific is always employed as it would be unseemly to go first-name with one’s guru. Even so, they talk about how funny he could be, as well as how demanding and wise.
Having read several obituaries, I now know that Iyengar was the eleventh of thirteen children born to a poor family in the south of India. A sickly child who suffered from typhoid, tuberculosis and malaria, he was not expected to live long. He credits the practice of yoga for all those “extra” years. They say he was practicing up until two months before his death.
He came to international prominence in 1953 thanks to the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who became a devotee and called him his “best violin teacher.” Iyengar’s other celebrity students included Aldous Huxley, Annette Bening, Donna Karan, and politicians and sports figures in India.
He became a yoga rock star, but William Broad, the author of “The Science of Yoga” -- a comprehensive and balanced book about the benefits of yoga -- credits Iyengar with being the first major teacher to acknowledge that forcing the body into difficult postures can cause injury. Rather than try to fit the body into idealized shapes, Iyengar designed ways to make postures fit the body, using props to create a safer experience.
As a result, Iyengar classes often look like a kindergarten, the room cluttered with chairs, blankets, bolsters, straps, wall ropes, blocks and boards -- equipment that makes postures (asanas) accessible to bodies that could otherwise never do, say, a downward-facing dog, feet flat on the ground as in the “classic” pose. downward dog with props
A day after Iyengar died I received an email from Justine Wiltshire Cohen, the director of Down Under Yoga, announcing his passing and celebrating a life well lived and “an epic yoga legacy.”
“I remember practicing at the foot of Mr. Iyengar as he taught the pose called ardha chandrasana.
He asked a woman with one leg why she was not attempting it. She gestured to her body in answer. Fifteen minutes and several props later, I watched this woman lift up into this one-legged balance pose, tears of disbelief and joy streaming down her face.
“He was a man who could make one believe anything was possible.”
His approach -- making yoga accessible to everybody -- is not sweaty or sexy. Which isn’t to say that it’s easy. The emphasis on alignment means going slowly and learning how far to push your body and when to acknowledge its limits. It is a deliberative and a humbling practice, which has taught me -- through his students, my teachers -- that I will always be a beginner.