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A Christmas Tribute to a Yoga Master: Personal Perspectives of Working With BKS Lyengar

22/12/2014 07:00 GMT | Updated 20/02/2015 10:59 GMT

It is hard to over-estimate the impact that BKS Iyengar, who died aged 95 on 20 August, has had on yoga teaching in the UK and globally. Reported widely in the national and international press and in social media, Iyengar's passing has prompted a global wave of appreciation including from those that never met him.

But how did Iyengar impact individual teachers in their teaching and in their lives? Richard Agar Ward, senior Iyengar teacher at the Bath Iyengar Institute, recalls when he first met Iyengar in 1976. Teaching at Cecil Sharp House at the time, Iyengar came into the room unannounced, wearing a Hawaian T-shirt which he subsequently took off. Agar Ward had an intuitive insight that he 'could trust this man completely'. He also adds that if it had not been for Iyengar, he might not have pursued yoga, such was Iyengar's sheer talent and quality.

Known for a style that uses props and emphasises alignment, Iyengar was in fact a sickly child, suffering from many illnesses including typhoid and tuberculosis. As a teenager, he was invited to study with his brother-in-law, Krishnamacharya (often referred to as 'the grandfather of yoga'). But it is Yehudi Menuhin, the renowned violinist, who is credited with introducing Iyengar to the West when he invited him to visit Switzerland in the early 1950s. Iyengar went on to establish an institute in Pune, which is very well attended today, and attracted an international following including celebrities such as Aldous Huxley and Donna Karan.

With a reputation for being fiery and a strict disciplinarian, there is no doubt that studying with Iyengar himself was physically very exacting. Alan Brown, a senior Iyengar teacher working from Yorkshire, recalls that a three week intensive was the hardest thing he ever did and physically gruelling. However, it was also transformative; taking him to a different place. Brown also emphasises that the uncompromising and strict approach was in order to get the best out of each student. Agar Ward agrees that Iyengar was actually sincere and compassionate in his teaching and very concerned that people learn. He refers to Iyengar's ability to see things very clearly and easily and to get to the heart of a pupil or the nub of a problem. What Korinna Pilafidis-Williams, a teacher at the Iyengar Institute in London, refers to as 'almost x-ray vision.'

For Bobby Clennell, a senior Iyengar teacher based in New York and author of The Woman's Yoga Book , one of the things that struck her most about Iyengar was that no-one was unworthy of his attention. Intensely focussed, he pulled everyone into the class with the result that there was no escape. Always direct, always profound, everything he said was a teaching.

In addition, his style with children was charming, notes Pilafidis-Williams. There was a playfulness and sense of adventure and a sense of humour. An endearing habit was to crack a joke and then laugh the loudest of anyone.

Another quality was Iyengar's accessibility- he was happy being among students. Brown also mentions this is something he particularly liked about Iyengar: that there was a homeliness about him and that he could often be found at the institute sitting outside on a bench.

Iyengar was also personally very generous; raising money for charitable causes including a local leper colony. He was not detached from suffering and became interested in animal welfare as well as setting up a trust in his home town, Bellur.

With its strict approach, there can be a perception that the Iyengar style is rigid. Brown considers this to be a myth and notes that Iyengar was actually very flexible in his approach and open-minded. Pilafidis-Williams agrees that Iyengar was very flexible in mind as well as body. He would say there is no such thing as 'Iyengar yoga', whilst also not denouncing other styles.

Clennell also emphasises how Iyengar carried on rethinking. That each time you revisited Pune, things would be different. She recalls a workshop in Panchgani for his 75th birthday celebrations where Iyengar started to introduce the five elements and the concept of the koshas and to harness them to asana while keeping within alignment. Previously separated, this was the first time Clennell heard mention of the more subtle aspects of yoga being linked with asana practice.

One aspect of Iyengar's work which has perhaps been less publicised is his remedial focus. Iyengar worked with many serious conditions including chronic back problems and MS. An inspirational example is Garth McLean, an MS sufferer who has studied with the Iyengar family and is now an advanced Iyengar teacher himself, helping others through the therapeutic applications of yoga. He recalls of Iyengar: 'under his exacting tutelage he encouraged all, regardless of ability or experience, to be "learners" of the subject of yoga to realise one's potential...to realise oneself.'

The Iyengar tradition continues in Pune under the expert guidance of his children, Geeta and Prashant, whom Agar Ward refers to as being of the highest calibre. His legacy also continues through his granddaughter, Abhijata Iyengar- a relationship which Pilafidis-Williams says was infused with pure love.

At his cremation, Geeta Iyengar mentioned that there was nothing hidden in Iyengar's life. In the words of Agar Ward: 'Guruji said that to spread the art of yoga is the most valuable service one can provide to humanity. He was without equal in this service to human kind.' And in the words of Iyengar himself: 'Old age makes a strong man say goodbye.'

A version of this article first published in the winter edition of Spectrum, the magazine of The British Wheel of Yoga.

Sian O'Neill teaches hatha flow yoga in London. Further details can be found at www.yogawithsian.co.uk or email on sianoneill@yahoo.co.uk.