Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar, who is widely credited as a main force in popularizing the practice of yoga in the West, died in Pune in his native India yesterday of kidney and heart failure at 95.
At the same time, the Wall Street Journal reports today that growth in sales of fashionable yoga apparel is outpacing the 4.5% increase in participation in the many schools of yoga in the United States by a factor of ten.
Iyengar, a sickly child, began practicing yoga at age 16 and soon became renowned locally for his postures. “A fortuitous meeting with the violin maestro Yehudi Menuhin in 1952 was instrumental in introducing the Western World to Guruji,” as his devotees called him, according to his official biography. Menuhin, in turn, introduced “several luminaries” to Iyengar, including the Queen Mother of Belgium.
He first came to the U.S. in 1956 but yoga did not really gain traction until the early Seventies when concepts of “mind-body-spirit” had entered the countercultural mainstream. He published Light on Yoga, which has been translated into 18 languages, in 1966 and has written 13 other books since then.
Abhijata Sridhar-Iyengar, Iyengar’s granddaughter, tells the New York Times that “her grandfather recognized early on that yoga, up until then viewed as a mystical pursuit, ‘had something for everybody, not just the intellectually or spiritually inclined.’
“He felt satisfied,” she said in a story reported by Ellen Barry, Nida Najar and Suhasini Raj. “Even at the end, even a few weeks before, he said, ‘I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.’ He took yoga to the world. He knew that.”
“Yoga participation grew 4.5% in 2013, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association,” Sara Germano writes in the WSJ, while “sales of yoga apparel were up 45%, according to Matt Powell, an analyst for SportsOneSource.”
It’s part of a “larger phenomenon the apparel industry calls ‘athleisure,’” Germano reports, “— a bright spot in a sluggish business thanks to Americans who are increasingly donning sneakers in the boardroom and yoga pants at brunch.”
Barclays analysts see the U.S. market increasing by nearly 50% to more than $100 billion by 2020.
"Everyone is wearing yoga pants, even people who aren't doing it," Karen Score, the owner of Yoga Mandali in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., tells Germano.
“As power yoga became a multimillion-dollar industry, he occasionally cringed at the commercialization of the practice, and wondered whether it would survive its own popularity,” writes Barry in the New York Times. “But the pleasure he took in the practice was unaffected.”
Iyengar himself was partial to nondescript briefs and no shirt.
“Students of Iyengar have ranged from novelist Aldous Huxley to Yoga Journal magazine co-founder Judith Lasater to pop star Madonna to domestic doyenne Martha Stewart, as well as myriad yoga instructors, writes ABC News’ Joanna Prisco.
"I think it's impossible to underestimate his impact on the practice and the whole modern view of yoga,” Zubin Shroff, director of Piedmont Yoga in California, tells Prisco. “He put an undeniable importance on the alignment approach and it is fundamental to any safe practice of yoga.”
William J. Broad, a New York Times correspondent who wrote The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, says in a video recollection that Iyengar “is seen by many devotees as a god.” He then explains that there are two main branches of yoga: “the static style, when you hold positions, and the movement style, like sun salutations, where you move through these postures in a fluid kind of way. Iyengar perfected the static style.”
He also “invented clever ways to make the postures fit the body,” as Broad puts it, and help to prevent injury through the use of props such as blocks, blankets and straps. They have become a lucrative niche of their own.
A 2012 survey of the market by Sports Marketing Surveys USA on behalf of Yoga Journal found that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga compared to 15.8 million in a similar 2008 study, an increase of 29%. In addition, practitioners were spending $10.3 billion a year on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations, and media, up from $5.7 billion four years before.
The USA Today obit for Iyengar contains a screen shot from the homepage of his official website — a photo of the yogi and the words, “I always tell people, ‘live happily and die majestically.’” But all accounts, including Amy Waldman’s insightful 2002 profile in the New York Times, he did just that.