(13) Light in Europe

BKS Iyengar had now had the opportunity to visit Europe. He had met many dignitaries, formed extremely close relationships with a few of them, and been able to give them the benefit of his many deep and intensive years of practice and reflection. But if that had been his sole achievement, the story of Iyengar yoga would have ended right there and then. People like Menuhin and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium would have died with fond memories of their private yoga teacher and the rest of the world would have been none the wiser. But … that was not all there was to Iyengar; and no more so was that all that there was to the unique insights and teachings he had developed.

India was granted its independence from the British rule on August 15th, 1947. All through the 1930s, ‘40s and 50s interest in all things Indian grew. The world at large learned more about India’s ancient heritage, its philosophy, its arts and crafts, its music and its culture. When Iyengar first went to Europe in 1954, it was the first time that many Westerners had been exposed to yoga. As the ‘counter-culture’ revolution of the 1960s hit its stride, such things as yoga and meditation became a part of world culture. The name of BKS Iyengar may not, at any one given moment, have been as widely recognizable as that of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Sri Chinmoy, or Ravi Shankar, but he has lasted as long as any and he is now at the very least as well known as they. He is considerably better known than many others who had their ten minutes of fame and then disappeared into obscurity. His name is associated with his great discovery. Iyengar yoga is a household term and has entered the Oxford English dictionary. It is indeed arguable that over his lifetime BKS Iyengar has done more than any other person to spread the word about the practice and benefits of yoga. This begs the two questions ‘Why?’, and ‘How?’.

Iyengar’s achievements rest on his pedagogical approach: his theory of and approach to practising and teaching. His own adventure with teaching yoga began because he wished to resolve a specific problem: how to teach what he had himself learned in such a way that it was clear and easy to understand to those who came to study with him. Days and weeks and months and years of deep and intense study and reflection had gradually enabled him to draw forth the essential principles. Yet although the essential principles he elucidated were easy to grasp, the depth and profundity of the human mind and spirit—the real topics in yoga—remained ever evident. Even as his steadily increasing number of ‘Iyengar yoga students’ set to on absorbing the fundamentals he gave them, they could appreciate, right from the outset, that he was also making available to them a lifetime of opportunities for the study of body, mind, and the spirit … of the diverse interactivity yet unity of these. Iyengar’s students were able to make immediate, genuine, but non-trivial beginnings to a study they could see would reshape their lives. The same techique he had used to help Queen Elisabeth stand on her head at 85, or remedy Menuhin’s musculature in his violin playing would work for anyone no matter what their build, disposition or circumstance. The Iyengar techniques were not reserved for the famous or for royalty. They were intended for, and available to, anyone.

As yoga, meditation, and other such distinctively India activities increased their profile, so also did Iyengar’s name. The reason was simple. He was offering ordinary people the same commodity he was offering the entitled, the rich, and the famous: an opportunity to grow in spirit and to gain satisfaction in life by applying the deceptively simple techniques he had gleaned through years of dedicated study. Word spread, all over Europe, about the magic that BKS Iyengar could weave by no more than getting people to move their fingers and toes. From all corners of the continent, students flocked to him.