What is Yoga?

Yoga, the concept

The word “yoga” refers to a series of mental and physical exercises that originated in India. The concept of yoga (Sanskrit: “to yoke, bind together, harness, harness”) can also mean both “integration” and the “harnessing” and “harnessing” of the body to the soul for collection and concentration, or the union of the individual with the universal soul (i.e., with God). Since each way to the God realization can be called yoga, there are different names in India for the different yoga paths, which are adapted to the particular personal dispositions of those who strive for God realization.

Yama (ethical rules), niyama (personal discipline), asanas (postures or “poses”), pranayama (breathing technique), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), and meditation in varying degrees of refinement are the pillars of yoga. The practice of yoga is always twofold in nature: the concrete exercise pürifies the body and sharpens the mind; the detachment from the dominion of desire brings mental tranquility.

The philosophical foundations of yoga were formulated by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra. The Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, among others, also provide information about yoga.

Patanjali and the “royal” Yoga

Yoga was codified about 2000 years ago by a sage named Patanjali in his work Yoga Sutra. This work is now considered by every yoga practitioner to be the most authoritative text on yoga. Patanjali’s Yoga consists of eight limbs:

  • Yama – Universal ethical disciplines (dealing with the external world).
  • Niyama – Rules for one’s own behavior (dealing with the inner world)
  • Asana – The practice of postures
  • Pranayama – The practice of particular breathing techniques
  • Pratyahara – Control of the sense organs
  • Dharana – Control over the mind
  • Dhyana – Meditation
  • Samadhi – The rising into the infinite

Moments of experiencing the higher limbs can occur at any level and with any limb of practice, elevating the practice beyond the realm of physical/mental endeavor.

Yoga is built on a foundation of ethics (yama) and personal discipline (niyama). These are universal guidelines found in all societies. Therefore, from a practical point of view Asana can be considered the beginning of Yoga.

Each link forms a part of the whole. Moreover, tradition teaches us that even if one has achieved great things in yoga, for the sake of the health of the body, the practice of asana and pranayama should be continued

How do I recognize

Iyengar yoga is named after B.K.S. Iyengar,
a modern day master of yoga.

The importance of alignment

Iyengar yoga is most famous for its emphasis on proper alignment. Alignment of the bones and joints leads to better balance with less work of the muscles. In this way we gain more stability in the asanas with less effort. Proper alignment improves circulation, creates inner space (literally in the joints), and brings a balanced flow of energy through the whole body, which leads to health and well being. Attention to alignment in yoga is much more than making a list of points to remember while performing asanas. It is about developing a body awareness that reaches into all aspects of life.

Body awareness

Beginner students disturb other parts of the body when they make adjustments. For example, beginners will often turn the head when they want to twist the spine. Mature practitioners develop a body awareness that is expressed in two ways. First, through an understanding of how everything is connected, they are able to make any adjustment without disturbing the rest of the body. Second, they are able to maintain adjustments as “body memory”. Body awareness provides the means to open areas of the body that are blocked. This is one of the reasons why Iyengar yoga has been so successful in promoting wellness.


Through his teaching, Iyengar has shown us how to understand connections between the different parts of the body. He teaches that the spine receives the work of the legs and arms. This principle is so fundamental that it applies in all asanas. For example, in both standing and inverted poses action of the feet and legs can make the spine extend. Instead of working directly in one part of the body, which is often not effective, we instead need to understand connections. Iyengar has taught us that the yoga asanas are not just a set of postures developed long ago, but rather involve exploration, discovery, and mastery of connections attained through practice.

Actions vs. movements

When we practice Iyengar yoga, we discover the difference between action and movement. As a beginning practitioner, our attention is able to observe only the peripheral body and external movements. This is what is called physical movement. With refinement, we slowly come to understand a different way of practice. We learn how to use all the senses of perception to feel not only what is happening in our peripheral body, but also what is happening inside our body. It is then that we arrive at the point described by Iyengar “when the mind acts as a bridge between the muscular movements and the organs of perceptions, and introduces the intellect and connects it to every part of the body.” We learn to discriminate with the mind and to analyze what we feel within our bodies. This is what is called action. Action is when we create internal stretch, a movement that is imperceptible to an outside observer, but that brings intelligence and wisdom to our poses.

Personalizing the asanas

Through continuous practice and by being able to penetrate deeper and deeper within himself, Iyengar has gained much wisdom from yoga. Based on understanding of his own body, he has taught his students how to penetrate all levels of the body: the physical, the organic, and the mental. He teaches the importance of personalizing the asana practice by carefully choosing which asanas to practice, what sequence to arrange them in, and how to practice them (active or passive, unsupported or supported with props). This personalization of the asana practice allows us to meet personal needs according to changes in our physiology, psychology, and state of health.


Another aspect of Iyengar yoga is the use of different props, including blocks, blankets, belts, and benches. If a person would benefit from an asana — at physical, organic, or mental levels — but is unable to assume the pose because of lack of ability or strength, a prop can be used for support. With props, even a person who is disabled or very sick can benefit from the asanas. The props allow all students to remain in the poses longer. Staying in a pose only for a brief time primarily affects the physical body. By remaining in poses longer, the benefits penetrate deeper into organic and mental levels.

Yoga Wisdom

We, who have been fortunate to study continuously with Iyengar, have experienced directly not only his words but also his energy, which has guided us to penetrate deeper into our asana and our own bodies. Each of us has learned how to give our best, to experience our limits, and to touch the unknown, something that is hard to do on our own. We have learned not only how to guide students with verbal explanations and demonstrations, but also how to teach and correct students with touch, and thus enable them to experience something that it would take years to attain without our help.

A Living Master

Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar passed away in the year 2014. In his later years he lost none of his energy in continuing to practice and teach. His refinement of intelligence continued to expand. In his words: “I do not stretch the body today, which I used to do in my thirties, fifties, all these years, now I stretch my intelligence in my body, to expand it, so that it is the intelligence that stretches my body.”

© 2004 – Essay by Gabriella Gubilaro

How does Iyengar yoga work?

The 3 aspects of man

Menschen bestehen aus drei Elementen: Körper, Geist und Seele. Entsprechend haben sie drei Bedürfnisse, die für ein zufriedenes Leben gestillt werden müssen: der Körper braucht Gesundheit; der Geist braucht Wissen; die Seele braucht inneren Frieden. Wenn alle drei vorhanden sind, besteht Harmonie.


Modern society faces problems regarding these three aspects. Today’s lifestyle, with its many technological wonders, is a mixed blessing. Convenience and speed are purchased at the expense of physical health. Labor-saving devices generally reduce the use of the physical body in everyday life, bringing stiffness and muscular weakness. Lack of exercise leads to back pain, neck problems, heaviness in the limbs, and difficulty walking. Extensive use of visual media (TV, PC, smartphone) causes headaches and stress on the eyes.
The mental worries of a competitive world drain inner reserves, inviting stress-related problems such as insomnia, digestive disorders, and ailments in the nervous or respiratory systems. If this pressure is not balanced by time for rest and reflection, the quality of life will be affected.

Yoga helps

Yoga helps with all these problems above.

On the physical level, it relieves the suffering of countless diseases. Practicing the postures strengthens the body and gives it a sense of well-being.

Psychologically, yoga sharpens the intellect and improves concentration. It stabilizes the emotions and encourages a solicitous interest in the other person. Above all, it gives hope. Practicing breathing techniques creates calmness in the mind. The philosophy of yoga puts life in perspective.

From the spiritual aspect, yoga brings awareness and the ability to be still. Through meditation, inner peace can be experienced.

Thus, yoga is a practical philosophy that deals with every aspect of the human being. It teaches the evolution of the individual through the development of self-discipline and self-awareness. Anyone can practice yoga, regardless of age or health condition, life situation or religion.

Who was B.K.S. Iyengar?

Called “Michelangelo of Yoga” and “King of the Yogis,” selected by Time Magazine (USA) as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, B.K.S. Iyengar has been universally recognized as the greatest yoga teacher of our time.

Yogacharya (yoga master) Iyengar brought yoga to the West in the 1960s and 1970s, where his progressive and unique teaching has been instrumental in yoga’s success today. His masterpiece “Light on Yoga” has been the fountainhead work for generations of yoga students and is considered the main reference work to this day.

Mr. Iyengar’s invention of yoga props – which today are indispensable in yoga studios of many other traditions as well – revolutionized the art of yoga. The proper use of blocks, blankets, straps and other props enables any student – despite physical limitations – to assume the yoga postures. Staying longer in the posture is encouraged, resulting in a greater penetration of the practitioner into the posture and leading to a deep physical and spiritual experience.

Likewise, Mr. Iyengar revolutionized yoga therapy, which is now used as a treatment method for injuries and many serious illnesses. The posture sequences he developed for pregnancy, menstruation and menopause are now taught everywhere by certified teachers.

Guruji Iyengar passed away on August 20, 2014 at the age of 95. (see obituary, below). His daughter Geeta S. Iyengar, his son Prashant S. Iyengar and his granddaughter Abhijata Sridar Iyengar have followed in his footsteps and continue his life’s work at the Ramamani Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, India.


Bellur Krishnamachar Sundaraj (B.K.S.) Iyengar, one of yoga’s most important and influential teachers, died on August 20, 2014 in his hometown of Pune, India after a brief illness. He was 95 years old. Sri Iyengar wrote the textbook Light on Yoga (1966), documenting his own immensely profound asana and pranayama practice. The work was to be considered a milestone in the popularization of yoga worldwide and still contributes to it today. Other works followed (“Tree of Yoga”, “Light on Pranayama”, “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”, etc.), underpinning his reputation as a yoga practitioner, a yoga educator and a spiritual master. Prominent disciples such as esotericist J. Krishnamurti and musician Yehudi Menuhin made him generally known in India and the West as early as the 1950s and 1960s. Over time, thousands have experienced his teachings first hand and together with him established them as “Iyengar Yoga” throughout the world. In recent years, B.K.S. Iyengar received universal recognition for his life’s work (“the Michelangelo of yoga”, BBC; “one of the 100 most influential people in the world”, Time Magazine, USA; and still in the year of his death, the “Padma Vibhushan”, the second highest civil order of the State of India).

The beginning

Mr. Iyengar’s path to yoga led through illness and despair. At the age of 14, very weak and stricken with various ailments, he left his impoverished family to live with his brother-in-law, Sri. T. Krishnamachar. The latter taught yoga to the princely family and ran a school in the palace in Mysore. Iyengar wouls go on to improve his health with yoga postures, which happened gradually over several years. At 18, Iyengar got an assignment to teach at a girls’ school in Pune. From that point on, he was on his own. After significant early difficulties, in time he made a name for himself. He himself spoke of more than 10,000 three-hour yoga demonstrations that he held during his career.


Mr. Iyengar married Ramamani in 1943, who died in 1973. Six children were born, five daughters and one son. The eldest daughter, Geeta, and the son, Prashant, took up the task of studying yoga at an early age and have long since become internationally recognized yoga masters in their own right. They have been leading the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute in Pune, founded in 1975, for quite some time and are now receiving support from the next generation of granddaughter Abhijata Sridhar-Iyengar, who has also already become an authority in the Iyengar yoga world.

Development in the west and worldwide

After the first visits in more exclusive circles, Mr. Iyengar later visited Europe often as a guest of his national associations. After the first “International Iyengar Yoga Convention” in San Francisco in 1984 and a few other big occasions in the USA, the first big event in Europe took place in 1993. At that time more than 1000 practitioners traveled to London to celebrate the community for 5 days and also to experience new insights from the master. In Germany, Iyengar visited Munich in 1986 on a smaller scale and then Berlin in 1996 for many hundreds of practitioners from Germany and other countries. The national association “Iyengar-Yoga-Deutschland e.V.” was founded in 1994. This association tries to focus the energies of interested individuals, to coordinate the work of the teachers and to increase awareness of Iyengar Yoga in public sphere.

Yoga is for everyone

Since the beginning, he has sought ways to make yoga possible and accessible to people in their different constitutions, in their different life situations. In Iyengar Yoga there are among others:

  • the dynamic, stabilizing practice for “normal” practitioners
  • the “Jumpings” (surya namaskar, flow) for exuberant people
  • Yoga as “a jewel for women” (menstrual practice, pregnancy yoga, yoga for menopause).
  • restorative practice (supported and prolonged, opening and grounding postures for the exhausted, the elderly, those in need of rest)
  • the supine pranayama practice as preparation for a challenging seated practice; for newcomers (after 1-2 years of asana)
  • the “Medical class” with innumerable programs (also partially documented by orthodox medicine) for the sick, the injured, the suffering. (More information is available here)


After 1960, Guruji Iyengar became increasingly involved with the spirituality of yoga. He always kept insights from the classical Indian works (Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and especially Patanjali Yoga Sutra) poised in the background when teaching, to use them as stepping stones for students to understand more deeply the experience in asana and pranayama practice. His reflections “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” represent an important contribution to the comprehensive understanding of asana as a unified body-mind-spirit experience.


B.K.S. Iyengar dedicated more than 80 years of his life to yoga and the transmission of yoga and yogic values. When he achieved modest prosperity in his later years, he generously supported the development of his home village with everything he had, which until then had long lain in ruins. He built a school and a hospital. He pushed for the restoration of a dilapidated Shiva temple and the construction of the first Patanjali temple, among other things. His only stipulation was that yoga should also be taught in the school.

After his death, Geeta Iyengar told at the cremation ceremony, “Only his body is now gone. The efforts of one person, from the inside out, changed the whole world’s view of yoga. Nothing remained hidden from the beginning of his practice until his illness and death. Even last night he admonished Abhijata, “I have shown you all these things. Now it is up to you to realize them for yourself.”

In the last phase, he was satisfied with his success. He had done his job.

Yoga Literature

The traditional four main works

  • Upanischads
  • Bhagavad Gita
  • Yoga Sutra of Patanjali
  • Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika

provide the philosophical and practical foundation for yoga practitioners. The works of B.K.S. Iyengar have been groundbreaking for the practice and are still at the forefront today. Many of his principles have also been interpreted anatomically / medically, so in addition to the practical and philosophical Iyengar Yoga books, there are also anatomical Iyengar Yoga books