Sign up Contact Support

Cynthia Bates Reflecting on the Legacy of BKS Iyengar

Happy 100th birthday to Guruji, BKS Iyengar! Come celebrate with us at Adeline Yoga tonight from 6:00 – 8:00! In the meantime, enjoy the ever-wise Cynthia Bates reflecting on Guruji’s legacy below! 


I had the honor of meeting BKS Iyengar twice on visits to study in Pune, India, but I cannot say that I really knew him. He was training his granddaughter Abhijata on both visits and would ferry or shout instructions to her from his designated space in the practice hall. I was expecting a Guru, but I found a man. An extraordinary man, but not the superhuman being my heart wanted. Looking back, I know I was seeking a spiritual “quick fix:” someone or something else that would transport me from my suffering. Even if Iyengar could have bestowed enlightenment on me in a moment’s time, I know now that wouldn’t have been in my best interest.

I have read and heard the story of BKS Iyengar’s childhood so many times: the story of his serious illness, of losing his will to live, and how yoga transformed him. It didn’t transform him in a moment, but rather through years and years of dedicated practice. It took me many years to really process this story and the message he was conveying. Unlike many other saints you hear or read about, who had special abilities from the time they were very young, Iyengar tells us that this was not the case with him. In fact, it was quite the opposite. And what this message conveys to me, is that awakening is possible for all of us willing to put in some hard work.

Cynthia practicing Utthita Trikonasana in Pune

Hard work has been mistaken for grueling physical workouts in much of the asana-based yoga community, including the Iyengar community. I, myself, sometimes feel guilty when my practice is not strenuous or intense. But, if I consider Iyengar’s legacy, I observed with my own eyes that his practice became less and less physically intense as he aged. That said, it remained ardent and regular.

A picture of Guruji from Cynthia’s first trip to Pune

The Sanskrit word tapas is often used to describe Iyengar’s practice. Tapas literally means “to heat.” It also means a practice of deep meditation in an effort to reach self-realization. It is the fire that burns within a practitioner, the necessary “burning zeal” that is required in order to reach enlightenment. There is no doubt in my mind that Iyengar had that. It was his greatest gift to us.

The part of this burning zeal that some of us may have missed though, is that it doesn’t necessarily involve outer accomplishment. We mistake the act of achieving advanced asana or being granted advanced certifications with progress on the path of yoga. Yet the primary obstacle to experiencing the state of yoga, or oneness, is avidya, ignorance of one’s own true nature. And ego is primary to this delusion. In other words, believing that we are a separate “I” and protecting that “I”. This is the part of the practice I fear we are losing in a competitive, accomplishment-based culture. It is my sincere hope that the memory of the man who gave away everything he had in the pursuit of inner knowledge won’t be lost as the memory of the physical man becomes a legend.

And so, as I age and deepen my practice, I will remember the man who never stopped practicing, who never stopped passing on his knowledge, who never gave up on the path to awakening. That is the man who will continue to live in my heart as I continue to find my own way in yoga.