The passing of BKS Iyengar last week marks the end of an era. It creates a void in the hearts of students who worked with him directly as well as those who knew his teaching only indirectly through the teachers that he trained or through his books. Since his passing, I have been thinking about his life and work, his tremendous contributions to yoga and his contributions to my life.

Iyengar was born in 1918 into a poor family in Southern India. The11th of 13 children he came into the world in the midst of an influenza epidemic. He watched three of his siblings and father die before he reached the age of nine. Iyengar contracted tuberculosis, typhoid and malaria. By the time he started yoga he was painfully frail. These early struggles were a gateway to compassion for Iyengar. Throughout his life, he remained sensitive to the suffering that illness causes.

As a teenager, Iyengar was sent to study with his uncle, the mercurial and legendary yoga guru, Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was to have a profound influence on Iyengar, shaping the pathway by which Iyengar learned to practice and teach yoga. In a rare reunion conversation with Pattabhi Jois  in 2006 (see above picture with Iyengar on the left) the two yoga giants of the 20th century reminisced about their time under the tutelage of their teacher.

Jois said: “The first time I met him he (Krishnamacharya) asked me if I would be prompt in attending classes. I readily nodded yes. The next day I was prompt in class. And on that day began the beatings (much laughter).”

Iyengar said: “All credit goes, whatever one may say, no doubt, to our guru, he was a sea of knowledge, but he did not give what he had to all of us.  He had plenty of knowledge, but he gave just a little here, a little there. Like the hen or the cock that pecks, we had to peck to take his knowledge. And we learned and it was we who made it grow into examples.”

Along with knowledge came rough treatment. Iyengar was denied food by his teacher if his performance was viewed to be inadequate. He was sometimes forced to perform complex yoga postures for visiting dignitaries and guests. He did, however, learn how to practice on his own. As he said, “to sweat 100 percent not only physically but intellectually.” This model of instruction and the rough treatment left its mark.

In 1936 at the age of 18, Iyengar was sent by his teacher to instruct yoga in Dharwar, and later in Pune, India where he settled. In his 2005 book Light on Life, Iyengar commented about this period: “I set off in yoga 70 years ago when ridicule, rejection, and outright condemnation were the lot of a seeker through yoga even in its native land of India,” he wrote. “Indeed, if I had become a sadhu, a mendicant holy man, wandering the great trunk roads of British India, begging bowl in hand, I would have met with less derision and won more respect.”

This period of his life was marked by financial insecurity, intense practice and experimentation. In Pune, he went his own way and followed his own svadharma, his own dharma. He eked out a living teaching classes privately and developed a modest local reputation as a yoga therapist.

In 1952, a chance meeting with Yeudhi Menuhin changed the trajectory of Iyengar’s life forever.  A yoga lesson with Iyengar left the famed violinist transformed. He brought Iyengar to Switzerland where he was introduced to other prominent westerners. The rest is history. The method he refined for eight decades is now practiced by teachers and students in 77 countries around the world. If you have ever used a yoga prop you have been influenced by Mr. Iyengar’s particular approach to yoga.

As a man, Iyengar was a bundle of contradictions. He was disciplined and demanding, strict and mercurial.  At the same time he was creative, flexible and innovative. The suffering of his early years left him sensitive to illness. He was deeply committed to using the practice of postures to end suffering. His improvisations, like the use of yoga props, made the practice of yoga safer and more accessible. For him the postures were not a set of idealized positions to be imposed on the body. Instead, the postures were to be modified to fit the individual body. For him asana was not just for the sake of the body, but a gateway to the development of an inner life and the exploration of all the other limbs of yoga.

I remember him in the medical classes at the Iyengar Institute working with patients that were quite ill. As he moved from patient to patient the idiosyncrasies of personality seemed to melt away. It was at these times that I was most touched by him. As I look back at those times, I realize I was learning from him by being in his presence. Learning in yoga is not always about what happens in the classroom or on the practice mat. Instead, it can occur quite mysteriously as a teacher enters your heart. It is about the way your life changes through contact with a teacher.

At the first anniversary of the Iyengar Institute in Pune in January of 1976, Iyengar’s closing words were, “In my end is your beginning.” It is now up to us to take up his example, to hunt and peck at the vast knowledge that is his legacy, make it our own and carry it onward.