The Relevance of a “Guru”


December 14th is the birth date of BKS Iyengar, and 2023 would have been his 105th. He was a man who started yoga practice with his guru, T. Krishnamacharya, as a sickly teen of seventeen and continued until his death at 96. He was one of three main teachers that came from Krishnamacharya’s lineage to share different aspects of the practice and develop their own followings throughout the world in yoga : his son, TKV Desikachar with Viniyoga; Pattabhi Jois with Ashtanga Yoga; and BKS Iyengar with Iyengar Yoga. In Iyengar Yoga, the specific practice we teach at The Yoga Place, we do honor BKS Iyengar as the “guru” of our lineage and some refer to him as “Guruji”.

For many Western students, this terminology and system around a “guru” can be an odd and stand-out aspect of our specific practice. Most Iyengar studios hang photos of BKS along with his daughter Geeta, son Prashant, and now granddaughter Abhijata as they all are links in the chain of teaching that has become the full method known as “Iyengar Yoga”. However, as the years pass and times change, more and more students of Iyengar Yoga have never been in a class with him. Every teacher who has gone through the intense practice, study and assessment of the certification process to become a Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher (CIYT) holds a spark of the practice that they share through their own teaching. There are writings by the Iyengars to last a lifetime of study. And, the stories told by teachers who have studied directly with him, whom we refer to as “senior teachers”, are becoming just that, stories that have created a culture and a “lore” that is verbally shared, but not personally experienced.

So what is the purpose of a “guru” in a world that now has some courage to shine light on oppressive patriarchy and abusive hierarchy? A world that has become rightly skeptical of power abuses within spiritual and educational systems? We can easily turn to many writings on yoga that tell us we all have our own light within, that we just need to uncover and rediscover. As a matter of fact, the Iyengars would and will say the same. There really is no one else who will ever know you better that you when all is said and done, but how do we get there? Yoga at its core teaches us that our mind is our biggest friend and our biggest enemy. That habit and reaction are major obstacles to our own transformation. So, don’t we still need some inspiration? Guidance? A road map on a journey that others have taken when we have yet to actually take steps ourself?

That is the role of the “guru” and the true definition – “dispeller of darkness” or “bringer of light”. This is not a negation of your own light or a usurper of your own spiritual path. The guru is one who has seen a depth within themselves that they can then open doors for students who give their own time and dedication to their practice. BKS Iyengar is one of the greatest examples of the practice of yoga that I can imagine in our lifetime and possibly a few lifetimes. Not only did he very literally transform his body and mind from a sickly, small, weak teen to a strong and stable adult through his practice of yoga, to better face all the usual trials of life; illness, injury, age, and ultimately death. But, he was then more importantly able to interpret the practice into numerous ways and means for every body to give trial and experience in their own manner and need.

So much of the legacy of BKS Iyengar lives in all of yoga today whether given credit or not. If you use a brick or a belt, or hang from a ceiling or wall, BKS Iyengar added that to the practice of yoga. If you stress any alignment of the body to align and balance the mind, BKS Iyengar honed that skill through yoga. The “staying power” of meditation combined with the physical action of asana was Iyengar’s gift. He understood the difficulty of sitting still to access the mind, so in holding poses, the action of the body opens the practitioner to the transformation of the mind. Learning to stay long enough to truly SEE and EXPERIENCE the immense reality within is why BKS Iyengar referred to asana as “meditation in action”.

This is why as Iyengar Yoga practitioners we continue to hold some relevance of a “guru” in yoga even today. To remember, connect to, acknowledge and honor the lineage of BKS Iyengar specifically honors what he honored most, shedding light on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and upholding the ancient tradition of yoga through and toward more modern times. It was his students who coined the term “Iyengar Yoga”, not the man himself, and to humble ourselves in lineage humbles and opens the mind in practice. So, happy birthday to BKS, and may we all be sparks in the light of yoga, giving thanks to ALL who have been guides and lit this path for us.

Jennie Williford CIYT

Jennie Williford (CIYT Level 3) is a transplant to LaCrosse via Montana, Illinois, and originally Texas. Throughout her life moves and 5 trips to India, Jennie has acquired a well-rounded and multi-faceted approach to Iyengar Yoga since her start in 1998. Jennie loves the experimental and explorative nature of yoga in accessing deeper knowledge of the Self on every level. The practice of yoga can be intense and introspective, however as practitioners we can be light-hearted and open-minded in our discipline. Jennie is intrigued by the philosophy of yoga and hopes to share this depth of subject while teaching the physical and mental benefits that come from the practice of posture.