Ninety-five years ago today — December 14, 1918 — Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja (B.K.S.) "Guruji" Iyengar was born in Karnataka, India. As the author of more than a dozen books about yoga (including his seminal work Light on Yoga) Iyengar is credited with exporting the practice to the Western world. He counts Pope John Paul II, whose photo hangs on a wall in his studio, among the countless students he has personally instructed. His style of yoga is so popular that his very surname is a noun in the Oxford English Dictionary. Suffice it to say, Iyengar is a living icon.
Last year, at the end of a business trip to India, I made a pilgrimage to Pune, Maharashtra to visit the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute (RIMYI). After spending an afternoon under the tutelage of Abhay Javakhedkar, one of RIMYI's many excellent instructors, I was admitted to interview Guruji Iyengar at the end of his daily book signing. He had a bit of a cold that day, so I was not permitted to videotape the interview and instead resorted to shorthand. The following is what I managed to jot down between revelations:
“Guruji, why do I need to practice yoga every day, as you recommend?” I asked.
“Do you need food every day?” he asked. “Do you need sleep every day? Yoga promotes circulation, digestion, and rest. It sharpens the mind, makes the body more flexible. You can go for days without water, or you can go weeks without food. But I wouldn’t recommend it.”
I then asked him to comment on reports that yoga can cause injury. Iyengar yoga makes use of props such as straps, chairs, blocks, and even harnesses to achieve various poses safely. Though Iyengar compared yoga to other sports, he made a clear distinction: “Yoga does not require drugs, like sports,” he said. “Because yoga improves flexibility, it helps to prevent injuries. It increases endurance and stamina." For further evidence of yoga's physical benefits, he invited me to review his upcoming book Yoga for Cricketeers.
Finally, Iyengar turned the interview around and asked me a question.
“Who do you work for?” he asked.
“Yahoo,” I said.
“Who?” he asked again, cupping his ear.
“Yahoo!” I repeated several times at increasing decibel levels, until I was practically yodeling. He smiled widely at me. Our faces were only inches apart, and I had the sudden realization that despite his great age, Iyengar was not, in fact, hard of hearing.
“Oh! You work for other people,” Iyengar said, again flashing his charming smile. “In yoga, you work for yourself.” He paused to let that sink in. “Yoga will ignite your flame!” he exclaimed, and made a flickering motion with his fingers that, strange as it may sound, made my heart pound against my ribs.
I strongly encourage anyone interested in yoga to make your own pilgrimage to Pune, which is only about an hour's drive from Mumbai. Even if you are not lucky enough to gain a private interview with Guruji Iyengar, practicing yoga at its source may connect you to yours.
For more information, visit: http://www.bksiyengar.com/
- Iyengar yoga