Guruji Turning 95
An Artist, Scientist & Philosopher…
Shri B.K.S. Iyengar, or Guruji, is the most influential living yoga master in the world today. And he is truly a living master. At the age of 95 he still practices yoga daily for 3 hours doing supported inversions, backbends and long relaxations. Last summer when in India, I had the opportunity to study yoga on my mat just a few feet away from Guruji every morning. It was amazing to experience his quiet, meditative presence in the corner of the Institute, with hundred students actively following a yoga class all around him. I was most impressed to see how radiant and youthful his skin was while in supported Dwi Pada Viparita Dandasana (supported backbend) and observe the total peace on his face while in Savasana, (relaxation).
For the last 80 years, Guruji has dedicated his life to explore how to practice yoga in the most mindful, balanced and effective way and how to make yoga accessible to everybody whatever physical ability or spiritual background. And to help us experience all the wonderful gifts of yoga, he has written many books including Light on Yoga, Light on Pranayama, Light on the Yoga Sutras and Light on Life.
Guruji’s, first book, Light on Yoga, was written in 1966 and is often referred to as the “Bible of Yoga.” It is the most sold Yoga book in the world today and has been translated into 21 languages! My favorite book, Light on Life, he wrote just a few years ago at the age of 87. It was supposed to be his final book, but last year he published yet another one, Core of the Yoga Sutras. What I find most inspiring about Guruji is his continual passion for learning; sharing and helping us experience the heart of yoga. A few years ago, at the age of 93, he went to China and taught yoga to over 1,000 people in one big hall. According to an American Senior teacher that accompanied him, it was the most profound teachings she had ever heard him share with his students.
So, Guruji has sparked a bright light into the practice of yoga today and now millions of people all around the globe follow his method. There are Iyengar yoga centers in every main city around the world. Today most other schools of yoga are inspired by his teachings, using “Restoratives”, “Alignment” and the use of “Props”, like belts, blocks, blankets, and bolsters – all inventions Guruji developed to help everyone experience all the benefits of yoga safely and effectively whatever their flexibility, strength or state of mind.
While Guruji has spent his life spreading the light of Yoga to millions of people, his own life didn’t start in the light. Instead it began under dark circumstances. He was born into a large, poor family in the village of Bellur in Southern India. His mother gave birth to him during an influenza epidemic, leaving him sick, weak, and close to dying. And during his childhood, he had many serious illnesses, including malaria, tuberculosis, and typhoid.
In his book, Light on Life, he says, “My poor health was matched as it often is when one is sick, by my poor mood. A deep melancholy often overtook me, and at times I asked myself whether life was worth the trouble living.”
When Guruji was nine years old his father died. With the added challenges at home and his poor health, his studies went downhill and failing grades brought his schooling to an end. The Iyengar family wondered how this young man might make a living.
The turning point in his life came at the age of fifteen, when he was sent to live with his brother-in-law Krishnamacharya, who worked as a Yoga teacher in the palace of the Raja of Mysore.
Guruji goes on to tell in Light on Life that “seeing that the general state of my health was so poor, my brother-in-law recommended a stiff regime of Yoga practice to knock me into shape and strengthen me up to face life’s trials and challenges as I approached adulthood.”
After a few years living and doing Yoga with Krishnamacharya, Guruji’s health improved drastically. His teacher saw potential in Guruji and at the age of 19 he was sent north to Pune to teach Yoga to an upper class sports club on a three-year contract.
But many of his students were older and more accomplished in Yoga. Guruji was fearful of having to return in disgrace to his strict teacher in Mysore, so he embarked on a regime of practice that could last up to 10 hours per day. His aim was to become a total Yoga expert, fully systematizing the diverse bits of knowledge his teacher had passed on, and getting to know the ultimate potentials of his own body and being.
Neighbors in Pune, most of them unfamiliar with Yoga, questioned his sanity!! But Guruji’s knowledge and strength deepened. It was during this period that the systematic discipline later known as Iyengar Yoga emerged.
After three years of working for the Gymkana sports club, Guruji ventured off on a career as an independent Yoga teacher at the age of 21. At first he had few pupils and there were days in which he subsisted on just rice and tea. Nothing would dissuade him, however, from his hours of daily practice. One of his supporters, a cardiologist named Mr. Vakil was a good friend of the American violinist Yehudi Menuhin. And it was Yehudi Menuhin who became the main gateway for Guruji’s fame in the world.
During a visit to Mr.and Mrs. Vakil in Pune, Yehudi had heard about Yoga and wanted to spend five minutes meeting with Guruji before returning to the States. Well the five minutes turned into a session lasting several hours. Yehudi later invited Guruji to visit Europe in 1954 to teach Yoga to his friends and acquaintances, like the Queen of Belgium!! Mr. Iyengar had her standing on her head during her first private session at age 75.
Since then he has traveled to Europe, USA, Africa, China, Japan and Russia numerous times teaching Yoga to mega classes. The popularity of Yoga in the West and East can in large part be attributed to Guruji. And interestingly there are now more Iyengar yoga studios in Moscow than in any other city in the world.
To backtrack in history…in 1975 Guruji opened the Ramamani Memorial Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune in honor of his deceased wife. Their 30-year marriage gave birth to six children. Two of them, Geeta and Prashant, are now the main teachers at the institute as Guruji retired from teaching daily classes when he was 66 years old. Monthly 80-100 students come to study at the Institute from countries all over the world. The waiting list is currently about 2 years long and you need a minimum of eight years of Iyengar yoga study before you can even apply.
In spite of all his fame and fortune, Guruji has continued to live humbly in a small dwelling next to the Yoga Institute for almost 40 years, carrying on a simple and honorable life. Instead of living in a big mansion and filling his garage with multiple Rolls Royces, Guruji has instead donated most of the proceeds from his books and classes to the “Bellur Project”. Bellur is his home town in southern India that 20 years ago was a poor town with few schools, jobs and lack of running water. Today, thanks to Guruji’s help, he has provided the people of Bellur with clean water, a hospital, a Patanjali temple, a primary school, a high school and there are even plans for a university. All students in Bellur study yoga as part of their curriculum and the city is now filled with work, creative energy, smiles and pride.
From a sick and poor beginning, Guruji has journeyed from the dark into the light, with a remarkable inner drive, determination, persistence, creativity and devotion, always ready to learn, share and help others.
So, what makes Guruji’s teaching so unique? I believe it’s because he is a unique blend of an Artist, a Scientist, and a Philosopher.
While watching a Yoga dance demonstration by the Iyengar Yoga Association of New York in 2005, Guruji told a teacher sitting next to him that when he was young, he himself wanted to be a dancer. You can see the inner dancer in Guruji when he practices his yoga asanas like an Artist expressing himself vibrantly with beauty and grace from the skin to the core.
And he is a Scientist with an extremely curious mind, always yearning to learn experience and explore every aspect of the human body, mind and spirit. The first time I went to study with Guruji in Pune in 1976, I spent two months literally living at the Institute. I took two classes a day and also practiced with Guruji in the morning and afternoon. In between practicing Yoga I spent hours in his library, filled with hundreds of books, many on anatomy, physiology, and physics, as well as books from every religion and philosophical background.
What was striking to me was that most of the books in his library had been thoroughly read and digested with his underlined emphasis and written comments on the side. From being a drop-out student, he later became a self-taught student of life by his inner drive for knowledge and wisdom.
Guruji is also a Philosopher. He was born into the Iyengar family, a Brahmin group of priesthood, deeply rooted in faith and devotion for many generations back. And Guruji’s faith and devotion is also expressed poetically in all his writings, yet with a universal perspective adaptable to any spiritual belief.
So, Guruji has created Iyengar Yoga as a form of art, science and a spiritual path, integrating the body, mind and spirit. And at Yoga Northwest we are among the 4,300 certified Iyengar Yoga teachers in the world today deeply committed to passing on his teaching, the Light on Yoga; like the sun spreading the light and illuminating our world with positive, healthy, happy energy.
Mr. B.K.S. Iyengar says in his recent book, Light on Life,
I am old, and death inevitably approaches. But both birth and death are beyond the will of a human being…. If you live holistically at every moment, as Yoga teaches, even though the ego is annihilated, I will not say, “Die before you die.” I would rather say, “Live before you die, so that death is also a lively celebration.”
“Let me conclude by quoting the words of the Spanish artist Goya who, in the seventy-eighth year of his life, when he was already deaf and debilitated, said Aun, prendo – I am still learning. It is true for me too. I will never stop learning, and I have tried to share some of these lessons with you. I do pray that my ending will be your beginning. The great rewards and the countless blessings of a life spent following the Inward Journey await you.”
Thank you, Guruji, for the gift of yoga.