Headstands in Heaven?

bksB.K.S. Iyengar, perhaps the best known living name in yoga, is no longer living, except of course in millions of yoga students around the world.

Iyengar died last night in Pune, India, at 95.

A spindly kid riddled with malaria, tuberculosis, and typhoid. He was extremely unhealthy when he began practicing yoga at 16.

Life improved for him right away and he became a yoga teacher, not at the time even a profession, since yoga was generally a secret practice.

He, however, worked to make it available to everyone, and as part of that developed the idea of props—blankets, blocks, straps, and more—to make otherwise impossible, or dangerous, poses accessible to ordinary mortals. He made trips to Europe in 1952 and to the US shortly afterward, to little notice, but in a few years the world started to catch on.

A yoga practitioner for over 15 years, I went out of my way to see him in person 2005 when he was in the U.S. promoting his book,Light on Life. The title is a play on the title of his seminal book Light on Yoga, still the essential guide to correct yoga postures, illustrated with black and white pictures of his young self in a startling number of complicated positions.

He was 86 at the time and the visit was billed as his last trip to the West. Annette Benning, a devotee, interviewed him in Royce Hall at UCLA. He wore robes and bare feet, his feet were huge the size of bear paws, and astonishing videos of his early years of practice ran in the background. He said that at that point—he was 86 remember—he would ‘only’ do headstands for an hour at a time. His astonishing eyebrows threatened to do yoga poses all on their own.

The most interesting moment of the evening, though, was when Annette Benning dropped a piece of paper. She moved to pick it up, but before she could even begin he had swooped down and gracefully returned it to her.

Iyengar was no woo-woo honor-your-body teacher. He insisted on correctness in every small detail and that was promulgated through his teachers. I would get frustrated occasionally when an Iyengar teacher would have seeming fanaticism about detail. It was five blankets, not four, not six, I was to use on this pose. The blankets had to be ruler-straight and instantly returned to the cupboard after that pose. But when it was time to pay, afterwards, he said the class fee was 20 Euros—I was in France—“If you can manage it.”

This of approach is classic Iyengar. Before him, yoga was mystical and esoteric, secretive even. With him, and after him, yoga is something to be understood and studied by everyone, and its benefits are for the world.

The spiritual component is extremely important, but comes only in due time.

“How can you understand God,” he said, “if you don’t know your big toe?”

About Karen Ray

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