B.K.S. Iyengar Biography (16) 

(16) Becoming a global phenomenon

Iyengar might be making inroads into both British and European society, but his stature could not have attained the heights it did unless he had, at some point, come to the attention of the USA. Indeed, nothing symbolized the world events that facilitated the spread of his methods in yoga than what befell him there.

The spread of Indian thoughts and ideas was greatly—and negatively—affected in 1924 when the United States passed a law setting a quota to the number of Indians who could visit or immigrate. Shortly after Iyengar’s first visit to Europe at Menuhin’s invitation, in 1954, he came to the attention of one of Menuhin’s influential friends, Rebekah Harkness, an heiress of Standard Oil. She was drawn to his ability to explain how to use yoga to resolve specific health problems in a clear and easy manner. In 1956, she invited him to visit her in the USA so he could help her with some stomach problems she was having. He fell within the quota system and so was able to visit. Although he was in the USA for three weeks, the only people to benefit from his instruction were Mrs. Harkness, some members of her family, and a few of her close friends. While there, he gave demonstrations in New York and in Washington, DC. But unfortunately, he did not find this first visit to the USA particularly pleasant. He later said: “I saw Americans were interested in the three W’s, wealth, women and wine. I was taken aback to see how the way of life conflicted with my own country. I thought twice about coming back”.

In 1965, the same year Queen Elisabeth died and that Light On Yoga was at last accepted for publication, the US Congress abolished the 1924 quota system on Indian visits and immigration. It paved the way for Iyengar and other Indian savants and made possible the sudden influx of Eastern teachers and knowledge that typified the counter-culture and social revolutions of the 1960s. And as yoga, ayurveda, meditation, sitar-playing, and other such distinctively Indian 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 rich, the entitled, 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. Iyengar’s book began selling well in the USA, but nevertheless … he did not return there until, as he put it, “a student came to my hometown and tempted me to visit”.

In 1966, immediately after Light On Yoga had been published, Iyengar was back in the UK. He gave classes to 100 people in London, along with an important lecture-demonstration at the Commonwealth Institute. The next year he was back again. This time, he began training teachers for London County Council, which would not accept any yoga teachers unless he had personally authorised them. In 1968 he gave a large demonstration in Manchester which spurred his presence and penetration into a whole new and important area. Then in 1969 Peter Mackintosh, Chief Inspector of Physical Education for the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), officially introduced yoga classes for the general public into the adult education curriculum—but only as specifically taught with the methods of BKS Iyengar. He found them clear, safe, effective and beneficial. Regional and local authorities across the length and breadth of Great Britain, and also Ireland, soon followed. In 1970, the first official Iyengar teacher-training programme, taught by his devoted pupil Silva Mehta, was established, again under the auspices of the ILEA at the College of Physical Education, Paddington. The demand seemed insatiable and “Iyengar yoga” was growing throughout the United Kingdom at phenomenal speed. The penetration of his methods into the UK, and the size and enthusiasm of his student base there is still unequalled anywhere.

All over Europe word was spreading about the magic that BKS Iyengar could weave by no more than getting people to move their toes, fingers and limbs. The same techique he had used to help Queen Elisabeth stand on her head at 85, or to 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, and nor did he want them to be. They were intended for, and available to, anyone. Iyengar believed firmly that yoga was not a practice to be restricted to specialists. It could and would benefit anyone. He had taken his first real lessons in making the practices therapeutically effective from Dr. Gokhale, who had been responsible for first bringing him to Pune. “The body is known to me”, Dr. Gokhale had said to Iyengar. “You leave it to me. I will explain very accurately. And you do the poses”. Thus Iyengar performed numerous yoga demonstrations, while Dr. Gokhale explained. Meanwhile … Iyengar learned. And now knowing very clearly what effects he was trying to achieve, he incorporated the aids for which he became famous such as ropes, belts, blocks, chairs and much else into yoga routines for the benefit of those who needed them. Many flocked to his classes and his methods. Using them, they could accomplish feats they would not have previously have believed possible. Iyengar was himself also living testimony to the idea that yoga could aid in the solution of even the most serious health problems. From all corners of Europe, students flocked to him.

Meanwhile, yoga was rising steadily in popularity in the United States. In July 1961, Richard Hittleman hosted ‘Yoga for Health’, a regular week-day programme of yoga exercises, in the Los Angeles area. Shortly afterwards, he published his best-selling Richard Hittleman’s Yoga; 28 Day Exercise Plan. Then in 1969, some fifteen years after Menuhin had first invited Iyengar to London, Menuhin gave a concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of Mary Palmer. Before her own first teacher in yoga had left Michigan, she had recommended Light On Yoga to Palmer, saying "You have the finest book on the subject. Use it". Her husband, a Professor of Economics in the University of Michigan, was due to take a sabbatical in India. Noting Palmer's interest in yoga, Menuhin said to her “you must meet my yoga teacher in India. His name is BKS Iyengar”. Inspired both by Menuhin and this coincidence, she determined to meet Iyengar. Once she had reached New Delhi, she wrote to Iyengar and was able to go to Pune and study with him for three weeks. She also travelled to London to study with him at his ILEA classes.

Rama Jyoti Vernon, another notable and earnest student, also travelled to Pune to track BKS Iyengar down, and she was also eventually able to find him in his home in Pune. She invited him to California. Iyengar told her to contact Palmer to make the arrangements to extend his visit to California. In 1972, the Public Broadcasting System hosted the television program ‘Lilias! Yoga and You’, fronted by Lilias Folan … and Mary Palmer opened the very first ‘Iyengar Yoga’studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1973, Iyengar at last made a return visit to the United States to Ann Arbor, to teach Palmer and a class of about 40. Palmer’s daughter Mary Dunn was then living in Berkeley with her husband and two daughters. She went to study with him at his first West Coast classes, along with Judith Lasater and a few other US notables who formed the nucleus of his all-conquering American Iyengar missionaries in yoga. Meanwhile, back in the UK, several of his more senior teachers had decided to form a Teachers’ Association so they could better manage their common affairs. By 1977 the first BKS Iyengar Yoga Teachers’ Association had been formed. In 1984, the first International Iyengar Convention was arranged in San Francisco, drawing a crowd of 800 of Iyengar’s trained teachers along with many of their students. By this time, there were trained Iyengar yoga teachers, and at least the nucleus of burgeoning Iyengar Yoga associations, in all major cities and countries across the globe. In April 2004 TIME magazine named him—along with the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Bono and David Beckham—as one of the world’s 100 most influential people.