The Amazing Contortions of B.K.S. Iyengar

The legendary yogi died on Wednesday at age 95. Reportedly, he did headstands into his 90s.
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In its American form, yoga can sometimes seem like it's less about meditation than fitness, extreme sweatiness, and the absurdity of trying to balance on your head while wearing hot-pink lycra pants. But the practice has deep spiritual roots, dating back at least 2,500 years to philosophical traditions in ancient India. In the twentieth century, one of the most influential figures in spreading yoga beyond South Asia was B.K.S. Iyengar, an Indian guru. He died on Wednesday at age 95 in the Indian city of Pune; according to the Associated Press, he was still doing headstands into his early 90s. 

"He had such a huge impact on how yoga is understood and practiced around the world today; everything after him is pretty much variations on a theme," said Debra Diamond, the curator of the Smithsonian's recent exhibit, Yoga: The Art of Transformation. The gallery included several videos of Iyengar, including a 1938 clip that's thought to be one of the earliest recordings of yoga. This silent film features a young Iyengar and his teacher, Krishnaraja Wodiyar, transitioning through a series of asanas, or poses, and practicing meditative breathing. The mesmerizing sequences are a perfect example of yoga's wow factor: The men's physical and mental control is just stunning.

Iyengar didn't see a separation between the physical and spiritual aspects of yoga, according to John Schumacher, a longtime student of Iyengar's in India and the United States and the director of the Unity Woods Yoga Center in D.C.  "The physical body is a manifestation of the divine body," he said. "How we approach the physical aspects is part of the whole package of yoga: body, mind, spirit, breath, and emotion." The poses aren't just designed to be good party tricks (although, can you imagine having those guys at a party?)—they're ways of creating physical benefits through a meditative practice. "That focus that’s required to pay attention on that level is not unlike a super-trained athlete," Schumacher said.

Yoga has a long history in America, but Iyengar helped shape the practices that are popular today, said Masum Momaya, the museum curator at the Smithsonian's Indian American Heritage Project. He introduced his eponymous yoga practice to the United States in 1956 when he visited the country for the first time, and it gained popularity over the course of the next two decades. "The particular type of Ashtanga yoga he taught emphasized precision and mastery, and this appealed to many people here in the United States, especially those who came of age during the 'feel-the-burn' movement of the 1980s."

He also made the practice more American-friendly. "Yoga was taught one teacher to one student for many years; Iyengar was one of the first to teach yoga to large classes of people," Shumacher said. He found ways of making yoga more accessible to non-bendy newcomers, developing methods for using props like belts, straps, and blocks—or, in the early days, bricks and pieces of wood—to get people into positions. Even in the hippy-filled 1970s, he was making the practice more mainstream. "He sort of took away the esoteric trappings to some extent: We don’t turn the lights down, we don’t play music, we don’t burn incense," said Schumacher. "There's already plenty to occupy us."

That being said, Iyengar wasn't necessarily the Mr. Rogers of yoga. "People used to call B.K.S. 'beat-kick-shout' or 'beat-kick-slap,'" chuckled Schumacher. Practicing with him was "exhilarating, it was terrifying, it was exciting, it was demanding. But the two words that most come to mind are enlivening and inspirational." Once, when Iyengar was traveling back to India from a conference in the United States, he made Schumacher get into dolphin pose, which is sort of like a handstand on your forearms, in the middle of an airport terminal. "Here you thought you were cranking along and doing a great job and, 'Oh I can do some pretty snazzy things' … and he would show you that you’d only scratched the surface.”

You can see some of those hardcore teaching tactics on display in this video from 1977, which shows Iyengar instructing several extremely intense-looking classes. Throughout, he contorts himself into unimaginable pretzel shapes, seemingly without effort. There are scenes of students hanging from straps to open their shoulders and a roomful of white people inexplicably practicing yoga in khaki shorts. The craziest part happens around the 10-minute mark, where the audio changes to a series of "dong, dong, dong" sounds and the video shows a giant room full of students transitioning from pose to pose without seeming to move at all.

 

For non-yogis, the twists and bends and balances of the practice can seem daunting, especially when you're watching someone like Iyengar. But Schumacher said his teacher's most impressive feat was actually much simpler. At one of the early conventions Iyengar held for his students, he gave a demonstration before a crowd of hundreds of people. "The first thing he did was walk out in front of the microphone, and inhale. He inhaled, and he inhaled, and he inhaled, and he inhaled, and he inhaled. He took a breath that I didn’t think it would be humanly possible for someone to take. Now, this isn't eye-catching to someone who is thinking about poses and things, but ... to have a breath like that, to do it standing up in front of a crowd … It was mind-blowing."

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also oversees the National Channel and writes about religion and culture.

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