(5) Krishnamacharya: the Guru

When BKS Iyengar was but eight-and-a-half years old, his father, Sri Krishnamachar, died. This put further stress on his family, and the young Iyengar was sent to Bangalore to live with one of his brothers. But while he was passing through his painful and difficult childhood, an extremely accomplished man named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was busy educating himself widely and deeply in yoga and the Indian philosophies.

Krishnamacharya studied in Varanasi, Nepal and several other places, including seven years in Tibet. A polymath, he gained degrees from some of the best universities in India, including the Royal College of Mysore. In 1924 he returned to his native Karnataka. Against much opposition, for even in India yoga was not yet recognized as a serious profession, Krishnamacharya decided that he would teach yoga. It was not long before he came to the attention of Sri Krishnaraja Wodeyar Bahadur IV, the Maharaja of Mysore. The Maharaja offered Krishnamacharya patronage, and he became a personal advisor to the Royal Family, having the run of the Jagamohan Palace in Mysore. And now that he had status, a profession and had started earning a regular salary, he felt ready to marry, which he did in 1926. As fate would have it, the woman Krishnamacharya married was Namagiriyamma, one of BKS Iyengar’s older sisters.

The Maharajah of Mysore was so taken with Krishnamacharya's work, and expertise in yoga and yoga philosophy that in 1930, he endowed a Yogashala (school of yoga) especially for Krishnamacharya. It became the Maharajah’s custom to send Krishnamacharya to various places around India to spread knowledge of yoga. On one of those educational visits Krishnamacharya and some of his pupils were due to visit Kaivalyadham at Lonavala, in the foothills between Mumbai and Pune (at one time often written as ‘Poona’). Krishnamacharya stopped off in Bangalore, where Iyengar was then living with his brother. Iyengar and Krishnamacharya had of course met several times, but a very particular occasion was in March 1934 when Iyengar was 16. Krishnamacharya at that time asked Iyengar to please go to Mysore to take care of Iyengar's sister, Krishnamacharya’s wife, until Krishnamacharya could return from his travels. The young Iyengar had heard of the lush palaces in Mysore, and curious to see them for himself he was more than willing to accede to this request. His brother-in-law therefore bought him the fateful railway ticket for what turned out to be the two-year stay with his sister, and that would change his life.

When Krishnamacharya eventually returned to Mysore from his travels, Iyengar asked for his brother-in-law’s permission to return to his home in Bangalore. To Iyengar’s surprise, Krishnamacharya refused. He instead suggested that Iyengar should remain in Mysore. He could enrol at the Mysore High School while Krishnamacharya taught him a few yoga asanas, or postures, at the Yogashala to improve his health. The two offers were tempting for Iyengar was not only grateful for the opportunity to perhaps catch up on some of his missed studies, but of even greater interest was the possibility that he might at last be able to improve his health. The plan was duly set in motion. And when Krishnamacharya was confronted with Iyengar’s stiff, weak and sickly body, he apparently predicted that Iyengar would never amount to much in yoga. But since it was Krishnamacharya who planted the seed of yoga in him, BKS Iyengar calls Krishnamacharya his guru.