When B.K.S. Iyengar first visited the United States in 1956, he was an alien presence, some strange goodwill ambassador from Planet Bliss.
He extolled the physical, mental and, above all, spiritual virtues of an eons-old Indian tradition known as yoga. This at a time when Ike was president and big-finned Cadillacs and Elvis Presley were all the rage.
Yet the diminutive man who could tie himself into slipknots was undaunted.
"I never dreamed in my life," Iyengar said back then, "that my method of yoga would spread to so many places."
Time, apparently, was on his side. According to a survey by Yoga Journal, today some 16 million Americans do yoga. There are yoga book clubs, dating services, specialty clothing lines, videos, even a trademarked workout called "YogaButt."
"He's the one who started the wave," says Nanda Bondade of Alexandria, Va., president of the Mid-Atlantic Yoga Association.
"A person who actually transformed the practice of yoga," says Bob Glickstein, an Ellicott City yoga instructor who has taken courses at the master's institute in Pune, India.
Iyengar employs props such as plastic bricks and pieces of rope to help the elderly and the terminally inflexible experience yoga. He puts a premium on precise body alignment. He emphasizes yoga's therapeutic benefits.
His first celebrity adherent from the West was violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Writer Aldous Huxley, the Queen of Belgium and actors Annette Bening and Michael Richard, among others, followed.
Iyengar started teaching in 1936. In 1966 he wrote his first book, Light on Yoga, a how-to guide that ultimately was translated into 17 languages.
His latest effort, Light on Life, (Rodale, $24.95) has biographical flashbacks to growing up impoverished in India and includes some technical discussion of asanas or yoga poses. It is, however, primarily a rumination on the metaphysics of yoga and the mystery of being alive.
The book concludes by quoting Spanish painter Francisco Jose de Goya, who declared that despite deafness and infirmity he was "still learning" at age 87.
"It is true for me, too," writes Iyengar. "I will never stop learning."
The Sun caught up with Iyengar via phone and e-mail from Colorado, where he was attending a yoga conference to kick off his Light on Life tour, which comes through Washington next week:
This is your first trip to America in 12 years. What differences have you observed in the country and in Americans themselves?
I see that people are more interested in knowing the meaning of spiritual life and existence. Because they're moving from the finite being toward the infinite being.
It is estimated that yoga is now a $3 billion-a-year business in the United States. What is your opinion of such Western variations as "Power Yoga," yoga combined with weight lifting, yoga for mothers and their babies, etc.? Do you fear the spiritual element may be lost?
I think they are advertisement stunts and nothing to do with real yoga. Such divisions do not exist really in yoga, and I think that such attractive names for yoga are nothing but twists.
Bikram Choudhury talks of copyrighting his hot yoga methods and maybe starting a franchise. There's a rumor that someone tried to copyright the word om. Have any of your methods ever been pirated? Do you worry about that?
Yoga has been given to us by sages of yore, and copyright belongs to them, not to me or to anyone. Today, yogis have absolutely no right to patent it. They are just a carbon copy of the original.
Regarding piracy, I am happy that a good subject will go to many even if some people make money pirating it. I say let the art belong to the people.
Do you have any thoughts on the future of yoga in the West? Will this boom we're witnessing decline or continue to grow?
I am confident that it will grow and glow for the betterment of humanity. Secondly, all progression depends on traditional forms, and therefore the true and real form of yoga will survive and not the tainted yoga.
You've heard the criticism that Iyengar yoga is not challenging enough for experienced yoga practitioners. How do you respond? Is it an indication of Westerners being too competitive about yoga?
I teach yoga for soccer players, tennis players, football players. You should have put this question of whether or not it is a challenging subject to my students who are practicing in the thousands. For me, hearsay has no value.
Quoting from Light on Life, "People say I have a temper because I shout in class. ... It's said I'm a severe teacher." Do you agree with that characterization?
People brand me as a tough teacher. Unfortunately, this is a wrong word. I am an "intense" teacher. A tough teacher has a quality of roughness, and an intense teacher has the qualities of keenness, softness, smoothness and rhythm.
After your many years of yoga, are there any asanas that are difficult for you? Have you had to make any concessions to age?
Being a yoga practitioner, I do not consider failures or disappointments at this ripe old age.