Obituary: B.K.S. Iyengar / Indian guru helped bring yoga to West

Dec. 14, 1918 - Aug. 20, 2014

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B.K.S. Iyen­gar, who helped in­tro­duce the prac­tice of yoga to a Western world awak­en­ing to the no­tion of an in­ner life, died Wed­nes­day in the south­ern In­dian city of Pune. He was 95.

The cause was heart fail­ure, said Ab­hi­jata Srid­har-Iyen­gar, his grand­daugh­ter.

After sur­viv­ing tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, ty­phoid and ma­laria as a child, Mr. Iyen­gar cred­ited yoga with sav­ing his life. He spent his mid-teens demon­strat­ing “the most im­pres­sive and be­wil­der­ing” po­si­tions in the court of the Maharaja of Mys­ore, he later re­called.

A meet­ing in 1952 with vi­o­lin­ist Ye­hudi Menu­hin, an early yoga dev­o­tee, proved to be a turn­ing point, and Mr. Iyen­gar be­gan trav­el­ing with Mr. Menu­hin, even­tu­ally open­ing in­sti­tutes on six con­ti­nents.

Among his dev­o­tees were nov­el­ist Aldous Hux­ley, ac­tress An­nette Ben­ing and de­signer Donna Karan, as well as a who’s who of prom­i­nent In­dian fig­ures, from crick­eter Sachin Ten­dulkar to Bol­ly­wood si­ren Ka­reena Kapoor. He fa­mously taught Queen El­is­a­beth of Bel­gium, 85 at the time, to stand on her head.

In a 2005 book, “Light on Life,” Mr. Iyen­gar mused about the vast changes he had seen.

“I set off in yoga 70 years ago when rid­i­cule, re­jec­tion and out­right con­dem­na­tion were the lot of a seeker through yoga even in its na­tive land of In­dia,” he wrote. “Indeed, if I had be­come a sadhu, a men­di­cant holy man, wan­der­ing the great trunk roads of Brit­ish In­dia, beg­ging bowl in hand, I would have met with less de­ri­sion and won more re­spect.”

Mr. Iyen­gar’s prac­tice is char­ac­ter­ized by long asanas, or pos­tures, that re­quire ex­tra­or­di­nary will and dis­ci­pline. A re­porter who watched daily prac­tice in 2002, when Mr. Iyen­gar was 83, said he held one head­stand for six min­utes, swiv­el­ing his legs to the right and the left, and that when he fin­ished, “his shoul­der-length hair was awry, he seemed phys­i­cally de­pleted,” but he wore the smile of a glee­ful child.

Ms. Srid­har-Iyen­gar said her grand­father rec­og­nized early on that yoga, up un­til then viewed as a mys­ti­cal pur­suit, “had some­thing for ev­ery­body, not just the in­tel­lec­tu­ally or spir­i­tu­ally in­clined.”

“He felt sat­is­fied,” she said. “Even at the end, even a few weeks be­fore, he said, ‘I’m sat­is­fied with what I’ve done.’ He took yoga to the world. He knew that.”

Bel­lur Kr­ish­namachar Sun­darar­aja Iyen­gar was born on Dec. 14, 1918, into a poor fam­ily in the south­ern state of Kar­na­taka. The 11th of 13 chil­dren, he was born in the midst of an in­flu­enza out­break. Three of his sib­lings died be­fore reach­ing adult­hood, and he watched his father, a teacher, die of ap­pen­di­ci­tis when he was 9 years old. Mr. Iyen­gar him­self suf­fered from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, ty­phoid and ma­laria; by the time he be­gan study­ing yoga, at 16, he was pain­fully frail.

His first teacher was his brother-in-law, a Brah­min scholar who had set up a school of yoga at the Jagan­mo­han Palace, and who some­times de­nied his stu­dent food if his per­for­mance was deemed in­ad­e­quate. Mr. Iyen­gar, then a teen­ager, was the young­est mem­ber of the Maharaja of Mys­ore’s en­tou­rage, and was asked to demon­strate his abil­ity to stretch and bend his body for vis­it­ing dig­ni­tar­ies and guests.

Mr. Menu­hin, who vis­ited In­dia in 1952, heard of his prac­tice and pen­ciled him in for a five-minute meet­ing, and was so in­stantly im­pressed that the ses­sion went on for more than three hours.

The vi­o­lin­ist later brought Mr. Iyen­gar to Swit­zer­land, where he in­tro­duced him to other prom­i­nent West­ern­ers who be­came his fol­low­ers. In his first visit to New York City in 1956, Mr. Iyen­gar said he en­coun­tered lit­tle in­ter­est in yoga. It was not un­til the fol­low­ing de­cade that he be­gan to at­tract crowds.

“We were just com­ing out of the ’60s change-your-con­scious­ness thing, and many of us were in our heads, and want­ing to med­i­tate, and reach Samadhi,” or en­light­en­ment, Pa­tri­cia Wal­den, a long­time stu­dent of Mr. Iyen­gar’s, said in an in­ter­view in 2000. “Iyen­gar was, like, ‘Stand on your feet. Feel your feet.’ He was so prac­ti­cal. His fa­mous quote was, ‘How can you know God if you don’t know your big toe?’ ”

Were it not for his ce­leb­rity in the West, Mr. Iyen­gar would hardly have gained a rep­u­ta­tion in In­dia, said Latha Sat­ish, who heads a ma­jor yoga in­sti­tute in the south­ern city of Chen­nai.

“He was at the right time at the right place. He would not have sur­vived here,” Mr. Sat­ish said. In In­dia, he said, “ev­ery­body was in­ter­ested in Western ed­u­ca­tion. Yoga was not so pop­u­lar.” Iyen­gar’s trade­mark im­pro­vi­sa­tions — like the use of blocks, blan­kets and straps to as­sist in hold­ing dif­fi­cult pos­tures — were adopted “be­cause of the need of stu­dents abroad,” he said.

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