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Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar

Mr Iyengar was 90 on December 14th 2008

Lewes teachers held an open day at the Subud Centre, Station Street, on Saturday December 6th.

The early years – Bellur

Bellur Krishnamacharya Sundaraja Iyengar was born on 14 December 1918 in the village of Bellur, South India. He was the eleventh of thirteen children of a poor schoolmaster. He was lucky to survive the influenza epidemic and other afflictions including TB and malaria. When he was seven his father passed away and times were hard. In his early teens he was the classic sickly seven stone weakling and because of frequent illness was also a poor scholar.

When he was fourteen, he was sent to keep his elder sister company in Mysore while her husband was away. His brother-in-law, Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, of the same Vaishnava spiritual tradition, was to set Sundaraja on his life’s path.


It was decided that young Sundaraja should remain with his sister and learn yoga from her husband to regain health. Sri Krishnamacharya was a renowned scholar but had also spent seven years studying yoga in Tibet. He was also trained in the medical system of Ayurveda. He was a stern guru (teacher) who demanded total obedience and even now B.K.S. Iyengar reveres Sri Krishnamacharya as his Guru.

Sundaraja got basic instruction in the asanas or postures. The youngster did not impress at first, being skinny, puny and as stiff as a board. He gradually overcame his stiffness to become a skilful and impressive demonstrator. In all he spent only two years in Mysore, but this time was to change his life beyond imagining.

Becoming a teacher

As a youngster of sixteen, he was first sent to teach a women’s class in another town. Then his Guru sent him to teach cadets in Pune, where his students mocked his traditional appearance and poor English. At this time, yogis were viewed as disreputable rogues. When the Deccan gymkhana cancelled his classes, he was often without money or food and struggled to find pupils.

He worked hard to present and teach the asanas well, practising up to ten hours daily. He made his body a lab to study the imbalance and problems of his students caused by faulty practice and posture. Some of his earliest students were aged or in poor health, but he rose to the challenge of helping them.

After his marriage to Ramamani, he and his growing family still experienced hardship. Gradually his extraordinary prowess and his success in treating problem cases brought better days and growing renown. Mr Iyengar now began to meet and teach the great and good of India’s political, cultural and spiritual circles.

East meets West

In 1952 the classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin was in Bombay. Prime Minister Nehru recommended Mr Iyengar to him as a yoga teacher. They became firm friends, Menuhin calling Iyengar ‘my best violin teacher.’ In 1954 Iyengar began regular visits to teach him in Switzerland.

In 1960 he was invited to London by the Asian Music circle. This was the start of regular visits that continued until the mid seventies. He now encouraged a small core of keen students to start teaching. Some of these came weekly to Brighton to teach a group that included Rayner Curtis, and sometimes Mr Iyengar himself visited Sussex.

Interest in yoga was growing fast and in 1970 the Inner London Education Authority chose Iyengar’s method for their adult education classes. To meet this need, Silva Mehta started the first official Iyengar Yoga Teacher Training in 1971. BNHC teacher Jenny Deadman is a graduate of this course.

Tradition and innovation

Krishnamacharya gifted Iyengar the canon of poses, the vigorous practice and the use of props and ropes (yoga kurunta). The standing poses are a hallmark of his tradition, perhaps because they are suited to the Himalayan climate. They were not emphasised in other schools within India and have spread to Western schools in great part thanks to Iyengar’s influence.

Krishnamacharya, most unusually at that time, taught public groups and encouraged women to learn yoga. Iyengar worked closely within his guru’s tradition, while internalising and refining the practice. Look at photos of his standing poses to see the vibrancy and the structural geometric alignment. He was the first to sequence the asanas in the best order for learning and practising. He developed the use of supported poses for the weak or infirm and built on his guru’s knowledge of yoga therapy.

Teachers of his method, numbering many thousands, are found in five continents. His first book, Light on Yoga, published in 1966, is a classic which has had an immeasurable influence on modern schools that may not even know what tradition they draw on. It has been followed by other great works on pranayama and yoga philosophy. The duffer school boy has come a long way from those unpromising beginnings.

Return to Bellur: A generous guru

Bellur village, only 40 km from high-tech Bangalore, is a poor rural community of agricultural labourers. It had no school, until 1968 when the primary school opened paid for by Iyengar and his British students.

Iyengar is not rich compared to the famed Rolls Royce and ‘ice-cream’ gurus. For over thirty years he has lived in the same house next to the yoga hall built by his grateful students. He has given to many needy causes: to victims of the Gujerat earthquake and of monsoon floods, to a leper colony.

Now he wants to give Bellur the means to rise out of poverty through better health and education and training. His students are asked to donate to Bellur, as he is doing. Already there was a health clinic, now there is a water tank, a hospital, a free secondary school, a skills training centre. Yoga is a means to transformation. Guruji Iyengar is still transforming the lives of many, in the east and west.