Today, when the word Guru has become a cliché for expert knowledge (or ‘gyan’ to the Instagram generation), it is well to remember that Gurus were also human personifications of traditional knowledge passed down from generation to generation. One such Guru closer to our own era was Yogacharya B K S Iyengar, whose 100th birth anniversary will be celebrated on December 14. 

After a short apprenticeship under the tutelage of his Guru, the strict taskmaster from Mysore, Sri. T Krishnamachar, Iyengar settled down to teach in Pune. The year was 1937… and he had just two regular students.

Fast forward 81 years and there are 500 Iyengar yoga centres on six continents with its own mecca, the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in a leafy bylane of Pune. From 3 to 14 December, around 1,200 students from 53 countries will gather at the Balewadi Stadium in Pune to participate in a ten-day Iyengar Yoga exposition. Though Iyengar passed away in 2014, he’s left behind a wealth of visual and intellectual knowledge in the form of books (24), lecture-demonstrations (almost 10,000) and a strong message to believe in the power of your own practice.

Any yoga enthusiast can get connected onto this yogic wifi network with just one password – practice. For Iyengar, zealous and committed practice was the secret ingredient.

Sage Patanjali in his Yoga sutras uses three words to denote three types and qualities of practice. First is Tapas: that is zealous and intense practice (tap means heat so this practice is to burn the physical impurities). Next is Abhyasa: which is study and application of the knowledge gained to enhance and mature one’s understanding. And finally, Anusthana: the consolidation and integration of your practice with every aspect of your life. Many enthusiasts stop at tapas. Not B K S Iyengar.

There are many stories connected with his practice, but I will recall one to highlight Iyengar’s commitment to his art and to the students standing before him.  In the late 1970s, at the end of a class he was teaching, Guruji informed the students to expect back bending asanas the next day, to come prepared and be ready.
The next day, as he started class, he asked them if they’d remembered his words from the previous day, of being ready for backbends. They said, of course, and so he asked them what they did to prepare. All said nothing, just that they turned up for class. He said that his day had started at 4:30 am; he prepared to face them by doing 85 backbends (urdhva dhanur-asana) that morning before he came to class; just to understand how to teach them; just to be ready and committed to them as their teacher and demonstrate how they can penetrate their subjective embodiment objectively and gaze deeper into themselves.

For a layperson, this needs a certain decoding. Even in medicine, doctors seldom take up the responsibility of treating their own family or close ones, because objectivity is very difficult to achieve without bias or emotion. Hence, yoga is a unique and complex art wherein one learns to objectify our subjective body, mind and self through associated practices and self-study.

The genius of Iyengar was to demonstrate on his own body, mind and breath the effects that were to be imbibed and internalised by a student. This subjective-objective simplification has helped make Iyengar yoga the most practiced yoga on the planet.

This commitment to his practice at every stage of his life, through his 20s right up to his 90s, made Iyengar stand apart from self-proclaimed preachers. He would always humbly credit all his achievements to his art, yoga.

But that is like saying that the flute is melodious; of course it is, but it needs a Hariprasad Chaurasia to bring it to life. Similarly, the blissful union of one’s body, mind, breath and self  needed an Iyengar to bring it to light.

When Abraham Lincoln passed away, his Secretary of State paid a fitting tribute and announced, “He belongs to the ages now.” The world celebrates an International Yoga Day today, and globally Yoga has come of age all around us. But it’s good to remember on the eve of B K S Iyengar’s centennial celebrations, that the seed of this yogic revolution germinated just a 100 years ago.