How a violin prodigy helped a teacher change the yoga world forever

In 1951 a world-renowned violin player on tour in New Zealand came across an idea that intrigued him. He read of the possibility that yoga might help him relax. He was a young man who travelled the world and relaxation was in short supply.

A year later he was in Mumbai for a concert tour where he advertised for a teacher. In their first meeting, he complained of tiredness and the yoga teacher suggested he lie in savasana where he fell asleep. An hour later he awoke and a friendship which was to last the entirety of their lives was born. The yoga teacher was the then unknown B.K.S. Iyengar, the violinist was the very well-known Yehudi Menuhin.

B.K.S. Iyengar

The future yoga guru was born in 1918. The date is notable for the end of the First World War, but also for the flu epidemic which killed more people that year than the whole war. His mother was sick with the flu when he was born, and the baby was sickly as a result.

At one point the outlook for Iyengar was grim, he suffered from malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid fever, and general malnutrition before he was out of his teen years, but the thing which made a difference was yoga.

Not even touching his knees

It may be apocryphal, but supposedly the young Iyengar was not able to touch his toes in Uttanasana (forward bend) when he started. In fact, he could not even get much below his knees at the beginning.

His first teacher was his brother in law, who Iyengar acknowledged as his own guru. Iyengar said that he had only received perhaps fifteen days of tutelage from his brother-in-law but they were transforming to his own practice.

Basics of Iyengar practice

Because Iyengar is credited with bringing yoga to the west, his style of yoga is possibly the most common or at least what we associate with a yoga practice. It focuses on the correct alignment of the body. Iyengar yoga approves of straps and blocks to help achieve the correct posture. Iyengar yoga also focuses on holding the posture sometimes for as long as thirty breathe cycles.

Approach and beliefs

Iyengar’s heritage was that of a Brahmin which made his political views and personal views tend towards the conservative. When it came to yoga he could not have been more egalitarian. While he understood where yoga came from, he firmly believed that it belonged to no one and should be available to everyone. He was one of the first who believed that yoga had a place for the sick and disabled.

London 1960 and beyond

The swinging 60s saw yoga make its debut in London and then begin its inexorable popularity trek westwards. With his seminal book ‘Light on Yoga’ Iyengar became a guru to many. To this day those who care about detail about anatomy and alignment still practice how Iyengar taught.