So many lovely BKS Iyengar quotations and tributes have been circling around today in the wake of his passing. Reflecting upon his teachings has led me to think about my own yogic path. His book, Light on Yoga, was the first yoga book I purchased over 10 years ago. It is still an active part of my role as a yoga teacher and student. It was first printed in 1966 and includes hundreds of photos of the man doing yoga. In the age before photographic ubiquity, this is a marvel in itself! Light on Yoga is a must have for any yoga practitioner or teacher.
I’m only partially through another book of his, Light on Life. I found this excerpt printed online. It starts “Most people ask only from their body that it does not trouble them. Most people feel that they are healthy if they are not suffering from illness or pain, not aware of the imbalances that exist in their bodies and minds that ultimately will lead to disease. Yoga has a threefold impact on health. It keeps healthy people healthy, it inhibits the development of diseases, and it aids recovery from ill health.” And, goes on to discuss different types of health.
Yoga is certainly a physical practice, but it is also a mental and spiritual practice. As he states: “Even in simple asanas, one is experiencing the three levels of the quest: the external quest, which brings firmness of the body; the internal quest, which brings steadiness of intelligence; and the innermost quest, which brings benevolence of spirit.” And it’s important to understand and strive for health in all three areas. To have balance in body, mind, and spirit is the goal of yoga for me.
“A great boon of yoga, even for relative beginners, is the happiness it brings, a state of self-reliant contentment.”
I started doing yoga for the pure physicality of it. I enjoyed working my muscles in a way that I had never done before. Being introduced to new, strange postures excited me. But I also began to feel the mental effects of the practice. I would become more serene, less anxious. Yoga helped me through my undergrad years, as well as through law school. In fact, during law school, my mom could discern whether or not I had been to yoga that day based only on the tone of my voice over the phone! The stress and tension would accumulate when I had not practiced.
During that time I was heavily into Ashtanga yoga. It was popularized by a contemporary of Iyengar, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. It’s a vigorous practice, and my type-A mentality at the time was energized by it. Jois and Iyengar were students of Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga. It took both Jois and Iyengar, in my mind, to help popularize yoga throughout the world starting in the 50s and reaching up to today. Now, there are so many types of yoga, so many blends and so many teachers these days, that I think it’s important to look back at the history of the practice. Not much is known before Krishnamacharya, because yoga was passed down orally from teacher to student. Though of course, students of yoga know to reach back to Patanjali for some of the earliest writings on the subject. (Please, if you haven’t, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)
Lately, I have been highly influenced by the teachings of Mr. Iyengar, mainly through one of his senior students, Gabriel Halpern here in Chicago. Though I never got to meet the man himself, I learn his lessons and feel his spirit through Gabriel and the Iyengar community here in Chicago. The style is heavily focused on alignment, anatomy and therapeutic healing. I’ve seen it transform, heal and relieve pain from people suffering from serious physical ailments (sciatica, depression, anxiety, physical issues from car crashes and other injuries, spinal and disc issues, etc.)
I encourage you to do some of your own research on the history of yoga, check out some of Iyengar’s books and find the style of yoga that fits you best. I hope all my students can eventually find that sweet place of health in mind, body and spirit through yoga.
RIP sir, and thank you for all that you have done for the yoga community, humanity, and for me.