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Death of yoga giant Iyengar revives debate: Are yogis after inner peace or tighter glutes?

B.K.S. Iyengar, one of the worlds’ leading yoga masters (Photo by Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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The passing this week of Indian yoga giant B.K.S. Iyengar has been cause for mourning among practitioners across the West, where he is credited with bringing yoga poses to the masses.

Celebrities like actress and yogi Lisa Ray tweeted thanks to Iyengar, who died Wednesday at the age of 95, and prominent U.S. teachers including John Schumacher of the DC-area Unity Woods wrote that Iyengar’s teachings would live on. Iyengar is credited with mainstreaming yoga decades ago by teaching it to bigger groups instead of one-on-one and using props to help the less flexible reach poses. “He sort of took away the esoteric trappings to some extent,” Schumacher told The Atlantic in a piece that includes an awesome 1938 video of the Indian guru doing poses and breathing exercises on a carpet in what looks like the shrubby desert.

But what teachings are living on? Iyengar’s passing revives a debate about whether most Western practitioners are misusing yoga, misunderstanding it as primarily a way to firm their bodies when the physical practices traditionally are just a segment of what is meant to achieve a transformational world view. Complete yoga involves breathing exercises, meditation and philosophical readings — all leading to inner peace and the relief of suffering.

As yoga has exploded as a physical exercise (not to mention a major industry in which $100 yoga pants aren’t uncommon), some advocates have pushed back –including Iyengar’s son, Prashant, who was quoted as saying in 2005 that “what has spread all over the world is not yoga.  It is not even non-yoga; it is un-yoga.”

Perhaps the most vocal voice concerned about the understanding of yoga is the Hindu American Foundation, a key D.C. advocacy group that founded a campaign in 2010 called Take Back Yoga. The campaign says it sees yoga “purposefully delinked… from its roots in Hinduism.”

On Friday, a Take Back Yoga leader, Sheetal Shah, put out a release about Iyengar’s passing and sought to emphasize the late guru’s spiritual focus.

“Iyengar’s lifelong work of teaching the whole of yoga or the understanding that yoga is not just the physical endeavor of mastering postures, but a spiritual practice rooted in the Hindu concept of dharma, has deeply informed our work at the Foundation,” Shah wrote. “Where too many yoga practitioners conflate yoga with asana [or postures], he sought to educate seekers on all of yoga’s limbs and their essential spiritual aim.”

Schumacher, who studied for decades under Iyengar (and saw him last in December, in India, for the teacher’s 95th birthday), said Iyengar “was in favor of people coming to yoga however they did.” One time Schumacher saw him lecture in Washington and heard an attendee say: I’m too busy with work and family and housework to get in a really substantive practice.  “He said, ‘Why don’t you stand on one leg while you’re doing the rice?'”