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.